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INSIGHTS FROM COMPLEX SYSTEMS

  1. Many (all?) interesting phenomena can usefully be described as "orderly ensemble properties" and productively understood in terms of the properties and interactions of sub-phenomena ("elements").
This may seem to some so obvious as to be not even worth mentioning. It isn't. Trying to understand things by breaking them down into smaller interacting things is a relatively modern strategy, one whose validity is by no means accepted by all people for all situations. There are at least two other strategies which are both older and in some ways more obvious. One is to take things as the irreducible wholes which they frequently appear to be, trying to make sense of them from observing their interactions with other irreducible wholes. The other obvious strategy is to regard things as themselves parts of some larger system which is what actually gives them both their properties and their significance. One's "self", for example, certainly seems to most people like an irreducible whole, best understood by observations of its interactions with other selves, or perhaps as a component of some purposeful larger creation.

In short, the validity of the "reductionist" strategy for making sense of things is by no means self-evident. More global or "holistic" strategies not only exist, but to many people seem more promising, either in general or at least in some important specific contexts. Why this is so is an interesting question, an answer to which would probably provide some quite significant insights both into cultural values and into basic principles of brain organization. That it is so means that the reductionist assertion requires some justification.

The most obvious justification for the reductionist strategy is historical and pragmatic: it works. Matter did make more sense when people started thinking of it in terms of atoms, disease more sense when people started thinking of it in terms of microbes and cells, and economics more sense when thinking of idividuals making individual choices. The more holistic or global approach is not only an in principle entertainable alternative

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