Reductionism to Oblivion

December 21st, 2013

During the past few centuries we have turned science into a reductive analysis of complex natural systems, and to such an extent that we’re left with a chaotic distribution of small parts, of substructures of the whole. In reassembling the whole, we now resemble children on a play-mat strewn with Lego bricks, but with little appreciation of what we’re aiming for. The diagram for reconstruction got lost. Why?

Descartes, according to historians, paved the way for reducing complexes to a multitude of simplexes. The process of reduction makes it easier to analyze smaller individual units than endeavoring to give meaning to the sum total of the whole. Holism, on the other hand,  views concepts from the opposite side, looking at the large entirety, with integration of all components, but generally not analyzing every individual component to the molecular level. The interaction of smaller parts, and influence of individual parts on the whole, is viewed as integrated, for a full understanding of the complex structure. In holism the function of the whole cannot be understood in terms of the sum total of the fundamental parts. The whole is always more than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, in reductionism the interaction of individual parts is not accounted for, and the contribution of fundamental influences of substructures on each other is not integrated into a full picture. And we are dedicated to reduction. We dedicate our minds, our time and funding to the reductive approach. We study the gears of a machine without putting it in motion, we describe the wings of a bird without watching it fly, we analyze the contents of a brook without letting it flow. We break apart the physics and chemistry of the smallest fundamental components but lose the perspective to recompile them all into one functioning structure, organism or concept.

The process to reassemble a multitude of subunits into a meaningful whole, is complex. And since we are hooked on reduction, we analyze the reconstruction process, the steps of reassembly, and break it into smaller units, tasks, or project steps, each well defined and eventually fitting into a cost structure, in paid-for services, in milestones, stage-gates and project aims. Since the process to put the parts together into an integrated entirety has now also become compartmentalized, and ultimately reduced to itemized projects, we have lost the natural flow in the assembly of the greater. The holistic approach has once again been put back even further through our stubborn persistence with reductionism. First we took things apart to analyze them, and now we take the reconstruction process apart to find out how to put things back together. We’re reassembling a complex structure from reduced entities, and through further reduced steps of assembly. This sound very similar to Tinkertoy, Meccano, Lego, Lasy… all the great construction toys on the market. The main difference is that without a proper diagram for assembly, every player may end with a slightly altered product, even when rebuilt from the same sub-units. We reconstruct entities that we understand to the minutest detail – but the original composition is hard to find, altered or misinterpreted. And since the reassembly is now done in a time-constrained regimen with financial targets, the paradigm for scientific reassembly and reasoning has changed.We have broken down the reconstruction into project stages, charge monetary value to every action, and in a business-like scientific world, where budget constraints throttle every minute, every action is monitored, logged and paid for. Every scientific process is a race against money, a challenge in time, and no longer a challenge in understanding. Oftentimes the final conclusion seems like a reminder of something we have known all along, and then we wonder, how could we NOT have realized that right from the start.

The face of science is altered, once again. The quest for its true soul is intensified.