Beyond Reductionism

Actualities seem to float in a wide sea of possibilities from out of which they were chosen; and somewhere, indeterminism says such possibilities exist and form part of the truth.

William James

As you will have deduced from my blog essays, I am an avid reader and enjoy a wide range of genres including history, science, spirituality, psychology, and sociology among others. But looking back on my readings from a multitude of sources, one thing seems clear to me – that there are distinct, and often competing mechanisms, for understanding the universe.

One very successful mechanism is reductionism. Reductionism is based on hard-core materialism. It assumes we live in a mechanical universe and the way to better understand it is to keep breaking it down into smaller and smaller pieces to study. This was the method that brought so much success to classical Newtonian physics that rapidly advanced knowledge in 18th and 19th centuries.

The success of reductionism was so pronounced in Physics that the “softer” sciences such as biology and psychology tried to emulate it. Those active in those fields of enquiry felt at a disadvantage because they could not quantify their outcomes in the way the physicist could.

Before the 19th century the mind/body duality had tended to place the human mind outside the domain of biology. This was further complicated by the notion of “vitalism”. But following the success of reductionism in classical physics, biologists, who had once postulated a privileged role for the human mind in nature’s hierarchy, began to believe that the phenomenon of mind was but a chemical and physical outcome of the complex interplay between neurons and brain chemicals.

Carl Sagan, for example wrote in his book, The Dragons of Eden:

My fundamental premise about the brain is that its workings – what we sometimes call ‘mind’ – are a consequence of its anatomy and physiology and nothing more.

In a lecture titled Beyond Reductionism given in 1969 by Viktor Frankl, the great Austrian Psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, in his critique of reductionism, quoted a contemporary college textbook in which Man is defined as:

….nothing but a complex biochemical mechanism, powered by a combustion system which energises computers with prodigious storage facilities for retaining encoded information.

In responding to this description, the British philosopher and writer Arthur Koestler wrote:

Now the reductionist fallacy lies not in comparing man to ‘a mechanism powered by a combustion system’ but in declaring that he is ‘nothing but’ such a mechanism and that his activities consist of ‘nothing but’ a chain of conditioned responses which are also found in rats.  For it is perfectly legitimate, and in fact indispensable to try to analyse complex phenomena into their constituent elements – provided he remains conscious of the fact that that in the course of the analysis something essential is always lost, because the whole is always more than the sum of its parts.

If we for example dissemble a watch to its component parts, we may learn more about how it functions mechanically but we are left with something that no longer tells us the time. If we take a single cell organism and reduce it to atoms to understand its chemical constituency, we might enhance our understanding of organic chemistry, but we no longer have life. Or as has been frequently related, if we break water down into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen there is no longer any sign of wetness!

Koestler countered determinism with his notion of holism.

Many authorities credit Koestler with initiating the concept of holism. Yet Koestler, himself, conceded he had been influenced by the prominent South African statesman, military leader and philosopher Jan Smuts. Smuts had written a book titled Holism and Evolution. Influential at the time (1926) Smuts concept soon fell out of favour because as Koestler wrote:

……it represented more of a philosophical than an empirical approach and did not lend itself to laboratory tests.

But for a time holism was quite influential and Smuts showed how it might have very broad implications. He suggested that holism might be applied to:

  1. Material structures
  2. Functional structures in the human body
  3. Animal behaviour
  4. Human personality
  5. Social organisations involving many people from tribes to nation-states
  6. Ideas and values

Holism seems consistent with the beliefs of earlier philosophers such as Spinoza and Hegel.

Despite this, Smuts revolutionary idea fell out of favour until it was revived by Koestler in the 1960’s.

Basic to the notion of holism is the concept of a holon. A holon is a discrete entity in its own right but will often be a constituent of a higher order holon. For example in the physical sciences an atom is a discrete entity but it will often be a constituent part of a higher order holon, a molecule.

A fundamental tenet of holism is that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. In the examples given above we can see that the division into component parts always leaves out some of the essence of the holon.

Holism was again brought to public attention by transpersonal psychologist and writer, Ken Wilber in his modestly titled 1996 book, A Brief History of Everything.  Wilber attempted to explain evolution, both material and spiritual, with a four quadrant model that examined how higher order holons were built up from lower order holons in four fields, viz:

  1. Interior individual
  2. Exterior individual
  3. Interior collective (cultural)
  4. Exterior collective (social)

Wilber wrote:

As used in modern psychology, evolutionary theory, and systems theory, a hierarchy is simply a ranking of of event according to their holistic capacity. In any development sequence, what is whole at one stage becomes part of a larger whole at the next stage. A letter is part of a whole word, which is part of a whole sentence, which is part of a whole paragraph and so on.

Wilber asserts that each successively higher order holon not only incudes lower level holons but transcends them, which I suppose is just another way of saying that the holon is more than the sum of its constituent parts. This presents a great challenge to reductionism. It is not as though reductionism doesn’t provide us with useful knowledge, it is just that it can say little about those transcendant properties of the holon.

With respect to biology, the American psychologist Howard Gardner explained:

Any change in an organism will affect all the parts; no aspect of a structure can be altered without affecting the entire structure; each whole contains parts and is itself part of a larger whole.

Whilst reductionism was challenged by the concept of holism, its effects have remained pervasive.

Francis Crick was an eminent British molecular biologist and co-discoverer with James Watson of the structure of DNA. In his book Of Molecules and Men he wrote:

The ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is in fact to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry.

He goes on to say that by physics and chemistry he refers to the atomic level where our knowledge is secure. He thus expresses the position of radical reductionism that has been the dominant viewpoint among an entire generation of biochemists and molecular biologists.

By the end of the nineteenth century, physics presented a very ordered picture of the world. Under Newtonian physics, mechanics was depicted as predictable and determined. Even the relatively new phenomena surrounding electricity seemed to have succumbed to order as well via Maxwell’s equations. But then along came Einstein and everything changed.

In his Theory of Relativity, Einstein postulated that observers in different systems moving with respect to each other would perceive the world differently. Immediately the role of the scientist changed from being a passive observer of reality to being an active participant.

A decade or two later, with the advent of quantum mechanics the role of the observer assumed an even more important role in how reality was apparently constructed. It became apparent that the mind of the observer was a crucial element in understanding the universe.

In quantum theory, at the level of the quanta, nothing exists discretely, but as a probability function. It is the action of the observer that causes the probability wave to collapse to a discrete outcome.

The dilemma faced by quantum theorists is often demonstrated by the famous paradox of Schrodinger’s cat. In this illustration it is imagined that a cat is put into an enclosed box. Also in the box is a counter that records radioactive decay. The counter is connected to a trip hammer which is set up to smash a vial of poison once the counter reaches a predetermined level. Once the vial is smashed the cat will die. Radioactive decay is random and can also only be described in terms of probability. The experiment is allowed to continue until there is a 50% probability that the vial is smashed. At this stage there is a 50% probability that the cat is alive and a 50% probability that it is dead. The question is, is it the act of observing the mechanism that kills or saves the cat?

Just as with the other phenomena, no discrete outcome becomes apparent until the phenomenon is measured (i.e. observed).

The American Biophysicist, Harold Morowitz wrote:

However the only simple and consistent description physicists were able to assign to a measurement involved an observer’s becoming aware of the result. Thus the physical event and the content of the human mind were inseparable.

The founders of quantum mechanics began to appreciate that their discoveries had given rise to deep philosophical and spiritual issues.

Werner Heisenberg, an early pioneer of quantum mechanics wrote a book titled Philosophical Problems of Quantum Physics. Heisenberg stressed that the laws of nature no longer dealt exclusively with physical issues such as the nature of elementary particles but with the contents of our minds.

Erwin Schrodinger, who derived the fundamental equations of quantum physics, wrote an extraordinary little book, Mind and Matter. In this book he tried to relate what he had learnt about quantum physics to the Eastern wisdom traditions quoting the “perennial philosophy” of Aldous Huxley and the Upanishads, the ancient Sanskrit texts of the Vedas.

It is a natural instinct to want to observe and understand the world. But we have learnt to be careful about the techniques we use to do so.

Reductionism proved quite effective in extending our understanding. More than anything it provided a useful basis for augmenting our physical and particularly, chemical, knowledge. But then we began to realise its limitations.

To begin with, the notion of holism showed us that mere reductionism would always leave something out. We know now that holons are more than the sum of their parts. And it seems that what reductionism cannot uncover might often be important.

Then to learn that the mere act of observing has an effect on the phenomenon being observed, indicates that Mind is somehow implicit in creating the universe. We can no longer perceive ourselves as being mere passive observers.

Reductionism has been a useful tool, but as you can see it has real limitations when it comes to unravelling the secrets of the universe.