Reductionism: Breaking it Down in the Name of Beauty

Over the last few months, we at Plebian have been (as DP would say) drinking the Kool-Aid of science. In the process of discovering what science has to say about religious experience, we’ve found ourselves awash in the beauty of the physical universe as seen through science. You might say we are born-again scientists. It continues to be a trip.

Thinking explicitly about exactly where in the process this sense of beauty arises from, we realized that it is often in the aftermath of reduction; the piecing back together of parts to arrive back at the current complexity of things. It is the sheer magnitude of this scientific synthesis—in time, space, and multiplicity—that induces religious feelings. In our minds, we play out these kind of Yoko Ono like scientific instruction paintings and bask in their invisible canvases.

Reductionism has a bad rap and is in need of a public relations makeover. It has a reputation among non-scientifically oriented people as frigid, cold, and emotionless. As one of the primary tools of the scientific method, it has become synonymous with science itself. What people forget, however, is that without reductionism, science cannot synthesize, and synthesis is the ultimate goal of science.

It would be like thinking of a chef’s job as ending at the cutting board. It is here that, through slicing and dicing, the ingredients are reduced, but the story does not end here. These broken-down ingredients are then mixed, heated, transformed, and reformed, put back together to form the meal. Through this process, new flavors, smells, and colors emerge.

Reduction is the easier half of science; that is why scientists do it so much. The synthesis part is much harder. E.O. Wilson says it best in Consilience.

“While it is true that science advances by reducing phenomena to their working elements - by dissecting brains into neurons, for example, and neurons into molecules - it does not aim to diminish the integrity of the whole. On the contrary, synthesis of the elements to re-create their original assembly is the other half of scientific procedure. In fact, it is the ultimate goal of science…

The cutting edge of science is reductionism, the breaking apart of nature into its natural constituents. The very word, it is true, has a sterile and invasive ring, like scalpel or catheter. Critics of science sometimes portray reductionism as an obsessional disorder, declining toward a terminal stage on writer recently dubbed “reductive megalomania” That characterization is an actionable misdiagnosis. Practicing scientists, whose business is to make verificable discoveries, view reductionism in an entirely different way: It is the search strategy employed to find points into otherwise impenetrable complex systems. Complexity is what interests scientists in the end, not simplicity. Reductionism is the way to understand it.”

So in the broadest sense of the word creation, all scientists are creationists. There is an infinite number of creation stories to be told and told again and beheld with amazement. There are creation stories for every piece of complexity in the universe. Scientists are creationists, constantly seeking out new creation stories to tell. How did the universe and all of its moving parts come to be? There’s only one way to find out: take it apart and do the best we can to try to put it back together.

There is limitless beauty to be found in this process. It is not simply in the reduction, but in the rebuilding of things, the synthesis that we play out in our minds, and the unexpected surprises that emerge. We can derive a deep sense of wonder at how the most complex systems—especially our species—were synthesized over billions of years.

I’ll close with another E.O. gem. “The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science.” This gets at the common emotions potentially elicited by art, religion, and science. However, it might be too nuanced for our rebranding campaign. How about: Reductionism: Breaking it down to build it up. Or maybe Get loose, reduce.

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One Response to “Reductionism: Breaking it Down in the Name of Beauty”

  1. Pretty interesting post. Couldn’t be written any better. Browsing this post reminds me of my old chum. He always kept talking about this. I will send this post to him. Am sure he will have a good chuckle. Thanks for sharing! :)

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