Thoughts on Holistic Problem Solving

Very few problems are isolated from other issues. Almost any problem you can think of is related to lots of issues. Overweight? Is it your calorie intake, or lack of exercise, or your body type? Some people solve weight problems with this newfangled indigestible oil that won't collect in your body, as if adding non-food substances to your food will help you be more active so that your body will naturally burn more calories. Instead solving a weight problem could well involve a whole slew of changes from taking a walk every day, to watching less TV (or less computer time) to make more time for physical activity, to riding a bicycle to work rather than driving, to diet changes, etc. In other words since problems are often so interconnected with other issues, it's best to look at the whole picture.

Holism is the idea that all the properties of a given system (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave. Hence Holistic Medicine looks at lots of health factors to come up with a complete treatment. Unfortunately our society is in love with Reductionism, which is sometimes seen as the opposite of holism. Reductionism in science says that a complex system can be explained by reduction to its fundamental parts. For example, the processes of biology are reducible to chemistry and the laws of chemistry are explained by physics.

A reductionist view of ones problems, like being overweight, would have you focus on specific diet issues, like calories, or fat intake, or sugar intake, or too many carbs, basically whatever diet fad you're following. There is of course truth to each of these specific issues that reductionist processes lead you to. Obviously eating more food than your body requires will cause weight gain, but there is much more to the weight story.

In other words taking the reductionist path of problem solving leads to incomplete solutions.

The consequences can be major. Leaving an attribute of a problem unaddressed means eventually more problems down the road. The unaddressed attribute will continue festering, possibly it will remain a minor side issue that "isn't worth bothering with" or maybe it will grow and itself become a major problem.