On Mining for Diamonds: Understanding Reductionism
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Reductionism began roughly with the writings of the philosopher, scholar, and Catholic priest Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas would reintroduce the great Greek philosophers to the West after the long intellectual drought of the Dark Ages. A person would no longer be tried for a crime in the Dark Ages way—if he sinks in the water, he’s guilty. The reductionist trial would involve collecting various puzzle pieces of evidence to be compiled to make a case for guilt or innocence. (21. Chaos and Reductionism by Professor Robert Sapolsky, Stanford Edu., YouTube) The philosopher and father of the Scientific Method, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and the great Enlightenment philosopher Renee Descartes (1596-1650) would further the idea of Reductionism as the means of science. “Methodological reduction is often traced back to Bacon, who in the early 17th century proposed that principles derived from specific cases might be applied to made general predictions. Descartes soon afterword suggested that one should ‘divide each difficulty into as many parts as feasible as necessary to resolve it.” (How Does Reductionism Work in Psychology? by Kendra Cherry, Jan. 23, 2020, verywellmind.com) Reductionism is very important to understand and discuss because it is the dominant way the West thinks about the world and the nature of reality through philosophy and science in all disciplines from biology to psychology, and I would argue that Reductionism is so pervasive that most of our thoughts and conclusions are reductionist whether we are conscious of the fact or not.
“Reductionism is an approach that is used in many disciplines, including psychology, that is centered on the belief that we can best explain something by breaking it down into its parts.” (How Does Reductionism Work in Psychology? by Kendra Cherry, Jan 23, 2020, verywellmind.com) Modern science is, for the most part, reductionist, and one of the reasons Reductionism is so strong in our sciences is that it works. It is one of the only practical ways things can be scientifically tested. We can test the effects of vitamin C on the immune system with relatively little noise. An orange is more difficult to apply the scientific method, as it has so many compounds, it would be difficult to understand what is playing a role in the immune system and what is not. Our whole way of approaching nutrition is reductionist. We count components like calories, fat, carbs, protein, and vitamins as the important factors for human health. The recommended daily allowance is not a list of specific foods but rather a list of elements (or puzzle pieces) found in foods. We think of broccoli as being nutritious not because it has been observed that broccoli eaters are healthy, but because it has many compounds that have been isolated and tested to have positive health qualities. Many of our advances in mental health research have been dominated by reductionist science, where instead of thinking that depression is about being sad or unhappy with one’s life, we look at molecular biology and chemistry and see depression as a problem involving serotonin and other molecules.
We are even reductionists romantically. Most often, singles will list various qualities or puzzle pieces that they want in a mate versus thinking of people as complex systems that cannot be understood (or appreciated) in terms of parts. We think so much in reductionist ways that we fail to see that only a small part of reality is being seen or considered. Holism is the opposite of Reductionism, and it challenges many of the truths derived from Reductionism. Can a person be reduced to their parts like being tall, honest, or enjoying comedies over drama? Or is a person something greater than their parts? Aristotle weighed in: “The philosophical antecedents of holism can be traced back to Aristotle [385 B.C.-323 B.C.], who is said to have pithily observed that ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts.’” (Reductionistic and Holistic Science by Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall, American Society for Microbiology: Infection and Immunity, Feb. 14, 2011, ncbi.ulm.nih.gov) There are loads of problems with Reductionism, and today more than ever, a kind of backlash is happening. “Elizabeth Lloyd has argued that medical research should not be restricted simply to a molecular biological investigation because higher levels of social organization that are culturally sanctioned have unrecognized causal effects on health.” (Reductionism in Biology by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Feb. 21, 2017, plato.stanford.edu) There was a shocking and interesting finding in the data from UK health records regarding heart disease from an analysis utilizing artificial intelligence. The biggest predictor of a heart attack was not weight, blood pressure, or cholesterol levels (which were predicted based on reductionist models), instead, a person’s home address. Through A.I., the health impact of one’s socioeconomic status was revealed as being extremely powerful—something biochemistry does not take into account. (How to Profit and Protect Yourself from Artificial Intelligence by Dr. Timothy Smith) In another study revealing the limits of Reductionism, male fish kept in isolated tanks were put together one on one to battle until a dominance ranking is made. The reductionist thinking was that the fish who was ranked at the top of the one on one battles would be the dominant fish when they were put together in a single tank. However, that is not what happens. It turned out that chance interactions and randomness came into play. The truth is that while chance and randomness are a part of reality, Reductionism cannot take those elements of reality into account. (21. Chaos and Reductionism by Professor Robert Sapolsky, Stanford Edu., YouTube)
Reductionism is very important to become aware of primarily because you can catch yourself overly simplifying and seeing as reality a person, or thing, or event in reductionist ways that might not be bringing you to the truth. It is essential to learn how to think better—especially in a world that is plastered with opinions. Social media has created an environment where sloppy thinkers pour out their fragmented and misleading truths with an alarming impact on individuals, institutions, and society as a whole. You will notice that nearly everyone arrives at their conclusions through reductionist thinking. For example, a reductionist way of explaining human behavior is often broken down into three levels: the lowest level would be to explain a behavior neurochemically such as a person’s genetics or brain structure, the middle level would be to explain a person’s behavior through psychological, cognitive, or behavioral ways, and lastly, a person’s behavior might be explained at the highest level via social and cultural influences on behavior. Understand that while the scales of these three levels vary greatly, explaining a person’s behavior in any of those ways are examples of reductionist thinking. (Psychology Issues and Debates: Holism and Reductionism, tutor2u, 2017, YouTube) The problem is that countless other factors come into play that cannot be deduced or understood through Reductionism. A bad fight with a girlfriend, a new allergy medicine, or even a flat tire from a nail in the road might also be a part of a person’s behavior.
Truth is a very precious thing like a diamond, which means it is rare and vulnerable to thieves. Understanding Reductionism and the weaknesses of Reductionism can help one better mine for the truth.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.