The Error of Reductionism

by Timothy Wilken

The strategy of physics called reductionism has been one of the most powerful tools in the history of science. What is reductionism? How does it work? Lawrence Krauss writing in Fear of Physics published in 1993explains:

ìA physicist, an engineer, and a psychologist are called in as consultants to a dairy farm whose production has been below par. Each is given time to inspect the details of the operation before making a report.

ìThe first to be called is the engineer, who states: ìThe size of the stalls for the cattle should be decreased. Efficiency could be improved if the cows were more closely packed, with a net allotment of 275 cubic feet per cow. Also, the diameter of the milking tubes should be increased by 4 percent to allow for a greater average flow rate during the milking periods”.

ìThe next to report is the psychologist, who proposes: ìThe inside of the barn should be painted green. This is a more mellow color than brown and should help induce greater milk flow. Also, more trees should be planted in the fields to add diversity to the scenery for the cattle during grazing, to reduce boredom”.

ìFinally, the physicist is called upon. He asks for a blackboard and then draws a circle. He begins: ìAssume the cow is a sphere….”.

ìThis old joke, if not very funny, does illustrate how–at least metaphorically–physicists picture the world. The set of tools physicists have to describe nature is limited. Most of the modern theories you read about began life as simple models by physicists who didn´t know how else to start to solve a problem. These simple little models are usually based on even simpler little models, and so on, because the class of things that we do know how to solve exactly can be counted on the fingers of one, maybe two, hands.

ìI like the cow joke because it provides an allegory for thinking simply about the world, and it allows me to jump right in to an idea that doesn´t get written about too much, but that is essential for the everyday workings of science: Before doing anything else, abstract out all irrelevant details!”

Reductionism means to reduce the problem being studied down to its component‘parts´. Then by understanding the behavior of the ‘parts´, you can assemble an understanding of the behavior of the ‘whole´. Historically science has divided Natureinto ‘parts´ in order to study natural phenomena. Some of these ‘parts´–light, particles, atoms, molecules, plants, animals, and humans–form the focus for the classical sciences–optics, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology.

But, Universe is processrather than structure as will be explained more fully in a later essay. What classical science has called ‘parts´ of the structure are in fact ‘wholes´ or stagesof process. We humans will need to revise all our sciences to bring them up to date with Universe2001–our most current model of Nature.

In Universe 2001, some of these stagesof process are simpler–light, particles, atoms, small molecules, and some of these stagesof process are more complex–large molecules, plants, animals, and humans. Those scientists who focused on the simpler stages of process have most benefited from the reductionist strategy. Those scientists studying the evermore complex stages of process have found reductionism less useful.

As the focus of science has shifted from the simpler to the more complex processes, reductionist strategy begins to exclude relevant details. M. Mitchell Waldrop writing in Complexity published in 1997 explains:

ìComplexity theory attempts to provide a general scientific understanding of ìcomplex” systems, both in nature and in the human world. Examples of complex systems include ant colonies, immune systems, brains, economies, and human cultures. Even though these examples may seem very different on the surface, they do share a number of properties that make them alike at a deeper level.

ìFirst of all, complex systems typically contain very many interacting parts. Thus, a brain consists of billions of interacting neurons, and an economy consists of millions of people and thousands of firms. Many other complicated objects, such as computers, also have multiple parts, but in a complex system there is nothing like a computer´s central processing unit. Moreover, the components often are not only leaderless but also ìactive,” in the sense that they constantly adapt their behavior in response to what is going on around them. Thus, animals in an ecosystem will change their foraging behavior when their customary food grows scarce, and consumers in an economy will change their purchasing plans in the face of a recession.

ìEven with no one in charge, complex systems can often spontaneously shape themselves into highly organized patterns and structures. When weather conditions are right, for example, randomly moving molecules of air and water vapor above the Gulf of Mexico will organize themselves into a hurricane. When technological conditions were right for the personal computer industry to emerge, hundreds of new start-up firms organized themselves into a few locations.

ìFinally, such spontaneously formed patterns are constantly changing. Complex systems never seem to settle down to a state of equilibrium. Upheaval and change are the norm.

ìThe above properties make complex systems very difficult to understand by the conventional methods of science. Physics and chemistry, in particular, have achieved enormous success over the centuries by a strategy known asìreductionism”–dividing up the world into comparatively simple pieces to study with mathematical precision. With complex systems this strategy rarely works. The interactions are as important as the individual pieces, and all of them have to be taken into account at once.”

Synergy is the associated behavior of ‘wholes´, not predicted by examination of the ‘parts´.

So as Universe becomes more complex, reductionism fails to be as effective a strategy for understanding. In the past scientists have referred to the sciences of Physics and Chemistry as the hardsciences and those of Biology, Psychology and Sociology as the softsciences. By this they implied that the scientists in the soft sciences were not as precise and rigorous as those in the hard sciences. The physicist with his hard science is not necessarily more precise and rigorous than the psychologist with his soft science, the physicist has been focusing on the so called simpler ‘parts´ of Universe, while the psychologist has been focusing on the more complex ‘parts´ of process.

But somethingdeeperis going on here. Science is making an even more fundamental error. The labeling of stages of process as ‘parts´ of Universe represents an even larger error. The stages of process are not ‘parts´ they are ‘wholes´. And the study of ‘wholes´ requires aninclusiveapproach. This approach is diametrically opposed to reductionism.

Innovation and invention occurs when the scientist sees the ‘whole´ first. This fact is almost unknown. Our reductionist science teaches us that the discoverer simply assembles the ‘parts´ he finds in Universe into ‘wholes´–whether these parts be postulates of a theory or pieces of a new invention. But this belief is wrong as Arthur Youngthe inventor the Bell helicopter writing in The Reflexive Universe written in 1976 explains:

ìThere are no helicopter ìparts”, until after you first create the concept of the ìwhole” helicopter, then you make the ìparts” to make the ìwhole”. The ìwhole” is invented first. The ìwhole”comes before the ìparts”. The something extra in the ìwhole” contains the ìpurpose” and ìfunction”. This cannot be determined by examining the parts alone.

ìSince purpose is in the ìwhole” and not in the ìparts”, the ìwhole” must be greater than the ìparts”. How can we account for this? Because the ìwhole”cannot function when divided. It follows that function is that aspect or ìcause” which is not in the ìparts” and which reductionist science cannot deal with, because science deals with mass, length, and time, which are all ìparts”. This leads to a basic cosmological postulate: The ìpartsare derived from the ìwhole, and not the ìwholefrom the ìparts.” ”

Buckminster Fullerwriting in SYNERGETICS published in 1975 comments on this as well,

ìIt is manifest that Universe is the maximum synergy-of-synergies, being utterly unpredicted by any of its parts. It is readily understandable why humans, born utterly helpless, utterly ignorant, have been prone to cope in an elementary way with successive experiences or ìparts”. They are so overwhelmed by the synergetic mystery of the whole as to have eschewed educational strategies commencing with Universe and the identification of the separate experiences within the cosmic totality. Universe apparently is omnisynergetic. No single part of experience will ever be able to explain the behavior of the whole.”

Remember, the main strategy of classical science has been to use reductionism–the breaking of phenomena into ‘parts´ for examination and experimentation. Reductionism is the method that produced most of the discoveries of the physical sciences including that of energy. Reductionism focuses on the part to the exclusion of the whole. Because reductionism reduces the data being examined, it must by definition be incomplete. Reductionism is blind to the ‘whole´. Reductionism cannot see synergy. This is not to say that all reductionistic science is wrong or that the tool of reductionism has no value. But rather that we must use it cautiously.