To say that the organism is nothing but its atomic constituents – taking “atom” in its original Democritean sense, as the most basic and indisintegrable component of all corporeal objects – is to say that in itself it is nothing. It is to say that there is in fact no organism at all, but rather only atoms.
For anyone trying to understand anything more complex than atoms, this is obviously an unsatisfactory result. It eliminates all such complexities ontologically. If everything is nothing but atoms, then there are no such things as organisms, or societies, or ecologies, or watersheds, or even vortices, winds, currents, crystals – or, indeed, atoms in the modern, Rutherfordian sense, or for that matter protons on the one hand, or molecules on the other. What’s worse, there are then no such things as the minds and thoughts of organisms such as we. In that case, there is no such thing as the system of thoughts that constitutes materialist reduction. Having devoured all science, the doctrine devours itself.
Like all evil ideas, materialist reduction reduces in the end, and logically, to the ultimate absurdity: nothingness.
This is why materialists so often resort to the dodge of emergence in order to keep thinking. Emergence seems to suggest a way that complex entities can arise from the agglomeration of their atomic constituents. It seems to save the appearances, and so allow materialists to continue to believe in their own existence – as they cannot but do – without violating their principles. But really it cannot save the appearances, because it cannot provide a way that complex entities can emerge from the agglomeration of their constituent atoms; all it really shows is that nothing emerges from the agglomeration of atoms, because what seems to emerge is really nothing but atoms.
Emergence can’t save materialist reduction from its implicit corollary that there are no such things as complex entities.
The absurd failure of materialist reduction should tell us that in trying to explain things from the bottom up we are on the wrong track. It should tell us that the only hope we have of explaining anything lies in starting at the top, and then working our way down to the atomic constituents. It should tell us that wholes are ontological reals, and that their constituents are their parts in virtue of their participation of the wholes of which they are parts. It should tell us that wholes are prior to their parts, and explain their participation.
More on that priority in a subsequent post, for it is one of the Philosophical Skeleton Keys.
In the meantime, it should be noted that when we give up on explaining wholes in terms of their parts, and instead turn to explaining parts in terms of their wholes, we don’t end up in any ontological eliminations either of wholes or parts. Holism does not insist that there are no such things as parts. It does not, e.g., insist that the constituent parts of an organism are nothing but aspects of that organism – i.e., that they do not really exist. On the contrary.
Holism does not impoverish our intellectual tool kit. It does not force us to reject the reality of important aspects of our experience, as materialism does. And this should be our clue that in taking wholes as ontological reals, we are on the right track.