The Limits of Reductionism
The process of reductionism, of analyzing the cosmos into component parts, has provided us with a very detailed description of the material world; the chemicals in a cell, the bases on a gene, the sub atomic particles in an atom. It has given us immense knowledge of our environment and allowed us to conquer diseases, modify the genomes of other organisms and produce incredible new materials and technologies. It is a way of processing and interacting, a systematic approach to understanding the world that can be tested, proven false and can be shared and developed with others. It appears there is no limit to the depths of detail we can discover.
Searching for truth via reductionism alone is a misleading and unidirectional approach to understanding however, and when pursued to an extreme fails to recognise emergent properties of phenomena—the properties that arise through interactions of parts.
If we observe the behavior of a single ant in minute detail, does this lead us to understanding the anthill? Does the ability to account for every atom in a brain explain the power of cognition? It seems that as well as reducing, we must also expand our approach if we want to have any chance of understanding organisms and other complex systems like the climate and biosphere. These systems are characterised less by their parts and more by the interactions between the parts. The young sciences of ecology and chaos theory demonstrate the complexity of system interactions and highlight the utter failure of reductionism to comprehend higher properties.
It appears the universe is not some mechanical clock, it is a flowing and dynamic responsive force of unimaginable scale, fractalising into infinite folds and loops, with all aspects connected to and affecting all others simultaneously, searching for its cogs alone won’t yield all the answers.
The apparent objectivity of the scientist as an unbiased and dispassionate scribe of the cosmos is an outdated hangover from the philosophy of the enlightenment period, when it was believed we could record truths by purely objective means. Humans are not disembodied minds, we have a biological and cultural history, a context that forms how and what we can observe. We are a recent twig on the tree of life, and every species and individual perceives the universe in its own unique way. We are confined to a thin slice of time, bound to perceiving a narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum, and for all of our complex tools we are imprisoned by the capacities of our mammalian brain. We are a fragment of this infinite mystery gazing in awe upon itself, and to think we can ever understand it from anything but a distinctly subjective angle is wishful thinking.
We are thinking minds and feeling bodies, processing our experience in symbols, images and emotions that are generated by our animal senses. All you can ever conceive of is a product of something sensed by your organs; this is an inescapable fact.
Science is a powerful tool in comprehending our world. It provides a way towards consensus agreement on material reality. But it is only one tool in our kit of understanding. We have an immense subjective depth that reductionism fails to penetrate. As individuals we perceive our world in concepts, emotions and impressions, while reductionism only sees a neocortex, a serotonin molecule and a firing network of synapses. These are both realities; the subjective and the objective. It seems that every part is also a whole and that behind every exterior surface lies an interior depth.
If we wish to progress on our path of understanding, reductionist rationality needs to be transcended and evolve. It is an important lens on the world that will always have a place in our mental landscape, but to come closer to ultimate truth we must learn more about our place and context in this wonderful, mysterious puzzle—we must dive to the very core of our being and soar to the ultimate heights of our perception and synthesize a new, more complete understanding of truth as we flow forward together on this endless journey of discovery.