The Other I

July 24, 2010

Psychology’s problem with reductionism

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 4:26 pm

As I said in an earlier post, there were and there are theories of psychology which espouse reductionism.  But not all.

Psychologists from a German school of thought called Gestalt Psychology rejected reductionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because, they argued, it did not adequately describe the way the human mind worked or the way the physical world is actually constructed.

The Gestalt psychologists focused initially on the nature of perception.  What they demonstrated in a large and varied series of experiments is that human perception is not built up from the parts to the whole.  Rather it is the other way around.

Look at the following image, for instance:

What is your first impression of what you see?  a dog or black dots and yellow circles?  Most people see a dog.

The image below illustrates the same principle:

Unless you are extraordinarily unusual, you see five figures including 3 rectangles across the bottom.

In other words, the Gestalt psychologists argued, we see the whole before we see the parts.

What’s more, the whole is different from the sum of the parts.

The 36 dots in the middle square, for instance, would be perceived differently if they were arranged in a circle instead of a square.  And the whole would be recognized as similar if the square were composed of small X’s instead of small dots, even though all of the individual parts were completely different.

On a more complex level, a shelf containing jars of chemicals out of which a person is made is quite a different thing from those same chemicals when they are arranged as me.  Furthermore the me that I am stays the same despite the fact that the chemicals out of which I am made have changed completely every seven years.

Gestalt psychologists argued that the way something is organized actually changes what it is.   The reductionist agenda of trying to understand the world as if it were a result only of the parts out of which it is composed is an incomplete way of trying to understand the physical world.   The analysis pursued by the reductionist is valid.  But it isn’t enough.

Whether a person sees a vase in this image or two faces depends on how the image is organized.  An analysis of the individual parts alone cannot predict which it will be.

And this is why I have never been a reductionist.  It seems to me it does not account sufficiently for the world that I know.

Many scientists think that the only reason for rejecting the reductionist agenda in science is because ultimately it eliminates the need for God.  Actually, it is quite possible to be a scientific reductionist and to believe in God.  One simply accepts that scientific pursuit of knowledge is necessarily limited to only that which can be learned through an analysis of an object’s component parts.  Belief in God lies outside that realm.  We have always known that belief in God is beyond proof.  That is what faith means.

One of the things Gestalt psychology did do by rejecting reductionism was to high-light the mind-body problem, one of the most fascinating questions in the history of philosophy and of science.

About which more in the next post on this subject.



  1. Is (or was) reductionism in science necessarily as crude as that – ie ignoring organisation and structure?

    For example would a ‘reductionist’ chemist claim that two molecules of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) were identical to two molecules of water (H2O) plus one molecule of oxygen (O2)?

    Surely organisation and structure would be part of the reductionist’s description of reality?



    Comment by Chris Lawrence — July 25, 2010 @ 10:18 am | Reply

    • Chris – You are right. Thank you for putting the question in such obvious terms. Reductionist scientists are not as crude as to ignore organization or structure, and I doubt you would believe me if I said they were. For starters, the achievements of science within the reductionist perspective have been too great, too complex to substantiate something that simple-minded.

      What I should have made clearer is that within the strong reductionist perspective, organization arises out of the nature of the particles, never the other way around. One can predict that if 2 hydrogen and 1 oxygen combine, the result will always be water. And that is how science would say water came to be present wherever it is in the universe: as a result of the combining of 2 hydrogen & 1 oxygen atoms. It is never made out of anything else. Organization, therefore, is subordinate to, is determined, indeed can be predicted by, the laws which govern the particles. Everything is determined by the nature of the component parts, from bottom up as it were, never top down.

      As I said in my post, the thing that convinced me that reductionism was scientifically incomplete is the fact that perception does not follow reductionist laws. As I point out in relation to the image that can be seen as either two faces or one vase, it is the nature of the organization that determines and explains what we “see,” not the nature of the individual parts. In some instances, as the other simple image illustrates, one can change all the parts but if the organization remains the same, the overall perception remains the same. The classic example, of course, are the grey dots that make up a grainy photograph.

      Since I have been revisiting the question of reductionism, I have learned that pure reductionism is now breaking down even within physics. But more about that later. I’ve got to strain my brain a little harder to understand the experiments that have led some scientists to start thinking that there may be life beyond reductionism.

      Thank you again for making me explain a little better what I meant to say. Have I succeeded in making the reductionist perspective a little more comprehensible?


      Comment by theotheri — July 25, 2010 @ 1:09 pm | Reply

      • Thanks , yes you have.

        I guess a ‘reductionist’ would therefore have to demonstrate how Gestalt-type holistic ‘seeing-as’ can be explained in terms of the underlying physics & chemistry etc of the brain & sense organs?

        By a similar token would an ‘anti-reductionist’ have to demonstrate why Gestalt-type holistic ‘seeing-as’ will never be explained in terms of the underlying physics & chemistry etc of the brain & sense organs?

        Thanks again,


        Comment by Chris Lawrence — July 25, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

      • Chris – Thank you for the feedback. It’s helpful to know I’m comprehensible – at least on the second or third tries.

        Yes, I think the task of the reductionist would be to demonstrate how Gestalt-type holistic perception can be not only explained by predicted by the laws of physics. This ability to predict, as I understand it, is an essential test of a reductionist position, because any outcome should be totally determined by the laws inherent in the parts. As you probably know, the original Newtonians thought that in theory it would be possible to predict where every particle in the universe had ever been or would ever be in the future.

        The task of the Gestalt position I don’t think is to demonstrate in an absolute sense why the parts cannot explain and predict the whole, because in science only the null hypothesis can be dismissed. It is impossible to present evidence that something cannot or does not exist. What the Gestalt position does do, however, is present instances where the change of the parts does not change the whole, which as it stands, reflects a rejection of the hypothesis that the parts always determine the nature of the whole. As I see it, that puts the ball back into the reductionists’ court.

        Thank you. Again.


        Comment by theotheri — July 25, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

  2. Thanx for the latest post. NOW I can happily say that the reason I could not agree with reductionism is that I am basically a gestaltian (is this a word?) and could not wrap my alleged mind around the other. It did not work for mechanics at all.


    Comment by budavar — July 25, 2010 @ 12:17 pm | Reply

    • Oh *please *give us some examples of reductionism breaking down for mechanics! It’s the last place I would have thought to look.


      Comment by theotheri — July 25, 2010 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

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