An epistemological approach to knowledge that recognises the necessity of moving between parts and wholes.

This encompasses two kinds of reduction:

  • Macro-reduction: from parts to wholes
  • Micro-reduction: from wholes to parts

Having observed some interesting phenomenon in the world there is an attempt to identify the mechanism that caused it. This is a micro-reduction. Equipped with this new understanding a model of the phenomenon can be constructed. This is a macro-reduction.

Crucially, the initial naive observation — a human experience — is not destroyed or undermined in this process. It may remain sufficient for many people, and may be enriched for those who have obtained the new knowledge. This is reminiscent of the process of defamiliarisation.

Dissatisfaction with reductionism can often lead to calls for a holistic turn that emphasises the whole. An alternative shift towards systemism avoids the superficiality and anti-intellectualism characteristic of holism.

The Basic Model#

A basic model of systemism, outlined by Mario Bunge as an alternative to reductionism and holism, will here be outlined in brief.

Imagine you have made a causal observation of some kind. This could be that:

  • A particular seasoning makes the dinner tastier
  • A function in some code makes the program crash
  • A joke makes the people around you uncomfortable

These cause-effect relations are salient and apparent in your immediate context.

This is the macro level. It is at the top of our diagram and is signified by $A_0 \to B_0$:

$$\Huge { {{{A_0 \atop \downarrow} \atop A_1} {{\to \atop \ } \atop \to} {{B_0 \atop \uparrow} \atop B_1}} } $$

At the bottom there is also a causal relation $A_1 \to B_1$ occupying the micro level. The micro is not given or immediate. To access it may require deep thought, model building or the use of instruments.

Moving between the two levels — micro and macro — is characteristic of:

  1. Analysis: determining the micro-level causes responsible for macro-level effects or outcomes
  2. Synthesis: creating macro-level effects or outcomes through manipulation of micro-level components

The diagram above depicts an analysis of the micro causes of the macro event.

It is possible to restrict an investigation to a single level, as shown in cases of

  • Micro-reduction: "there is no society, only individuals"
  • Macro-reduction: "our senses alone can guide healthy food choice"

While the former is commonly referred to as "reductionism", in contra-distinction to the "holism" of the latter, both are related as being kinds of reduction, requiring a narrowing of perspective and a denial of systematic relations.

Epistemology, Ontology and Axiology#

The "macro" does not necessarily refer to a fixed, well-defined ontology. It depends on the context of an investigation. The elevated position of the macro in a diagram is also not a value judgement. It is a focal point from which an investigation can be initiated.

What delineates levels of analysis may be determined by a specific domain of inquiry, with many levels lying either side of the given macro level.

SoftwareLow-level codeHigh-level codeUser interfaces

If there is an explanatory gap between two or more levels the ontological concept of "emergence" may be invoked. Here, events occur and seem to be related but the mechanism that relates them is not yet clear. Importantly, this does not mean that the mechanism will never be known. It is likely that the mechanism simply remains to be discovered.

In summary, there is sometimes a question of the form "what $x_1$ is the cause of $x_0$?":

$$x_1? \to x_0$$

The $x_0$ could be a scientific observation, a desirable state-of-affairs or a problem to fix at the macro level. Rather than presuming a mysterious emergence we proceed in two ways:

In analysis the causes at the micro-level are identified. For example, a specimen known to exhibit an effect of interest is scrutinised with special instruments. To explain why salt has an associated taste we might measure its chemical dissociation in saliva, which enables the transmission of signals to the brain. Salts may be observed to have different intensities of saltiness, prompting measurement of conductivity as the different salts dissolve into solution.

$$ \Huge {{Salt \atop \downarrow} \atop Na^+ } {{\to \atop \ } \atop \to} {{taste \atop \uparrow} \atop signal} $$

In synthesis the effect (or outcome) is generated under specific conditions. Inventing technology can help society make progress. Such progress is bolstered further when an invention has a concrete implementation as a product. This facilitates exposure to the market, which initiates mechanisms of feedback that can improve the implementation. Accelerating progress is not just about getting products to market, it's also about providing conditions in which people can be inventive and supporting feedback mechanisms to assist optimisation.

$$ \Huge {{Product \atop \uparrow} \atop Invent } {{\to \atop \ } \atop \to} {{Market \atop \downarrow} \atop Progress} $$

The appearance of emergent properties may highlight an inappropriate conceptual or methodological framing. For example, water can be interpreted on a strictly molecular basis as being composed of two kinds of elements existing in a certain relative proportion and structured by particular forces. This is the micro level. Yet at the macro level water has properties like viscosity and turbulence, which are difficult to predict based on strict appeals to molecular chemistry. For this reason scientific fields like rheology are oriented towards developing specific methodologies appropriate to a relatively macro level.

Kinds of Reduction#

It is often mistakenly assumed that one level is superior or "more foundational" as a form of explanation. A scientist may reject sense experience altogether as imprecise and unreliable, despite its obvious utility and importance. A "layperson" may reject scientific facts as counter to their lived experience despite their capacity to empower.

These different levels, however, exhibit a productive inter-dependence. Science is often initiated after a surprise observation is made at the macro level. Subsequent discoveries at the micro level gradually become widely known, at which point they become "common knowledge".

Feynman's artist friend

The famous anecdote from Feynman about his artist friend who appreciates the beauty of a flower, but rejects its destruction by (micro)reductionist biological sciences, encapsulates this tension.

Feynman does not deny that a flower is beautiful and that he can experience that beauty. He does not suggest that the scientific understanding displaces this image. Rather, the subjective experience of the flower can be enriched by another level of understanding: the micro, the scientific, the deep.

Scientists take this anecdote as demonstrating what science can offer to the artist (method, understanding, repeatability), while neglecting what the artist can offer science (imagination, attention, creativity). It works both ways.

Science is not confined to the micro level and it is also not restricted to analysis as an investigative mode. The study of complex systems, such as biological and technological entities, often involve sub-disciplines devoted to analysis and synthesis that may overlap in large projects.

$$\Large { \overbrace{{{A_0 \atop \downarrow} \atop A_1} {{\to \atop \ } \atop \to} {{B_0 \atop \uparrow} \atop B_1}}^{\text{analysis}} \iff \overbrace{{{A_0 \atop \uparrow} \atop A_1} {{\to \atop \ } \atop \to} {{B_0 \atop \downarrow} \atop B_1}}^{\text{synthesis}} } $$

Food Example#

With some varieties of green tea it is possible to generate a bright pink colour if it is brewed with baking soda and milk. Recipes typically report that baking soda is needed to generate the colour, without specifying why.

At the micro level, baking soda is just an alkalising agent. It elevates pH resulting in chemical reactions involving tea polyphenols that cause a change in colour.

$$ \Huge {{NaHCO_3 \atop \downarrow} \atop OH^-} {{\to \atop \ } \atop \to} {{pink \atop \uparrow} \atop rxn} $$

The original macro observation is still valid and may be sufficient in many contexts. Once we have a micro explanation we do not discard the macro one. Both levels can function together in an explanatory system.

Benefits of Systemism#

There are several advantages to developing explanations across multiple levels.


Someone may want to drink pink tea but is concerned about their sodium intake. We have learned that the recipe does not require baking soda, however, only something from the general class of alkalising agents.

To increase pH we need something that releases $OH^-$ ions. It is therefore possible to substitute baking soda for a sodium-free alternative as long as it releases $OH^-$, like potassium hydroxide ($KOH$).


A significant market for pink tea has emerged and there is a demand to manufacture it at industrial scale. There is huge inter-batch variation in colour, however, and a need to better control the process.

We have learned that a change in pH is critical for determining the final colour of the tea. Installing a pH measuring device to ensure that the correct pH is consistently reached would seem prudent.


Changes in colour induced by chemical reactions involving polyphenols are unlikely to be restricted to tea alone.

Knowledge of the link between pH, polyphenols and colour does not just help you understand the peculiar case of pink tea but innumerable additional systems.


Bunge, M. (2014/2003). Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bunge, M. (1979). Treatise on Basic Philosophy Volume 4, Ontology II: A World of Systems. Dordrecht: D. Reidel publishing Company.


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