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Inicio Boletín Médico del Hospital Infantil de México (English Edition) Scientific reductionism and social control of mind. Part I
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Vol. 71. Issue 4.
Pages 252-257 (July 2014)
Vol. 71. Issue 4.
Pages 252-257 (July 2014)
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Scientific reductionism and social control of mind. Part I
El reduccionismo científico y el control de las conciencias. Parte I
Leonardo Viniegra Velázqueza
a Unidad de Investigaci??n en Medicina Basada en Evidencias, Edificio de Hemato-Oncolog??a e Investigaci??n, Hospital Infantil de M??xico Federico G??mez, Mexico City, Mexico
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En esta primera entrega acerca del reduccionismo científico (RC) se parte de una definición convencional: «el todo no es más que la suma de las partes». El RC en las ciencias de la vida sostiene que el conocimiento de lo complejo debe ser, obligadamente, a través de sus componentes más simples, o que un sistema complejo solamente puede explicarse por medio de la reducción hasta sus partes fundamentales. Se distinguen tres tipos de reduccionismo: ontológico, teórico y metodológico. Los orígenes del RC se remontan a los primeros humanos en sus intentos de entender los sucesos naturales más influyentes y perturbadores para la supervivencia. La permanencia del RC como el modo de ser de la ciencia hasta nuestros días, de acuerdo con E. Morin, deriva del predominio del paradigma de disyunción, reducción, simplificación y exclusión. El holismo, que ha preservado la idea de la complejidad como enfoque de los fenómenos vitales, ha sido el rival del RC a lo largo del tiempo.

Desde esta perspectiva, el discurso científico reduccionista, no solo tiene escasa relevancia en la solución de los grandes problemas de la humanidad (la degradación omnímoda de todo lo existente, las desigualdades, la exclusión progresiva de sectores mayoritarios de la población y la devastación de ecosistemas), sino que hace contribuciones decisivas (casi siempre involuntarias) al mantenimiento del statu quo.

Palabras clave:
Reduccionismo científico; Holismo; Ciencias de la vida y la salud; Crítica; Progreso social

The first part of this essay starts from the conventional premise of reductionism, which states ‘the whole is nothing more than the sum of its parts’. According to scientific reductionism (SR), knowledge of the complex can only be achieved through simpler components, which means complex systems are explained by reduction to its most basic parts. Three kinds of SR are defined: ontological, theoretical and methodological. SR origins dwell within the efforts made by early humans to understand natural phenomena and its importance to survival. According to E. Morin, the reason behind SR being the favorite approach in science comes from the dysjunction, reduction, simplification and exclusion paradigm. The holistic approach as opposed to SR studies vital phenomena from the idea of complexity.

From this perspective, not only does SR have almost no relevance in the solution of humanity’s greatest problems like society inequality, human dignity and environmental degradation, it also contributes to maintain the statu quo.

Scientific reductionism; Holism; Life and health sciences; Criticism; Social progress
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“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing”

Malcom X

1. Background

I have previously addressed, to some extent, the role of ideas in knowledge discussing how they have permeated into our daily lives and shaped our experiences through the ages.1 I will now discuss scientific reductionism (SR), perhaps the most remarkable manifestation of the influence of ideas in the work of researchers, especially in life sciences. This essay starts by specifying reductionism characteristics in order to consider its origins, trace its development, and analyze its impact on our understanding of scientific knowledge and research practice. Afterwards, I evaluate some social consequences of its prevalence in all scientific areas and propose alternatives aimed at overcoming SR as the one and only formula used in life sciences to open possibilities for a deep understanding of our human and social worlds, providing scientific discourse with freedom and criticism (which have been diluted and biased among a myriad of facts). These are essential in the endless pursuit of deliberative, pluralistic, inclusive, egalitarian, fair and collaborative societies where human dignity and respect for global ecosystems prevail.

2. What is reductionism?

Reductionism nowadays can be summarized as “the whole is nothing more than the sum of its parts.” For starters, reductionism is an epistemological position, which proposes that knowledge of the complex must be obtained through understanding of the simplest components or that a complex system can only be explained by reducing it to its fundamental parts. In other words, reductionism becomes necessary and sufficient to solve knowledge problems; for instance, biology processes are reducible to chemistry and laws of chemistry can be explained by atomic physics.2

Three types of reductionism are usually recognized: ontological, where reality is composed of a minimum number of entities or substances; for example, organisms are merely aggregates of chemicals and these are just atoms and particles. Theoretical reductionism claims that concepts from a research field can and should be reduced to concepts from another research field with a lower complexity level; for example, the concept of vital process involving perpetual change has been reduced to a mechanistic understanding, equating organic complexity (still to be explained in full) with a machine. Methodological reductionism holds the best scientific strategy, which is to try to reduce objects with explanations of the smallest possible entities. For instance, the explanation of life phenomena has been reduced to mechanistic causality based on statistical mechanics (linear mathematics) and probability theory, attempting to explain life processes based on associations between small fragments regarded as part of a larger process.3

These three types of reductionism are present both explicitly and implicitly in physiology and nosology where “the truth of the living machine” lies in the infinitely small; progressively, living beings are regarded as mere aggregates of tiny components. The dominant discourse utterly asserts that the foundations of all truth (reality) about living things are the knowledge of “hard” sciences such as physics and chemistry; reductionist thinking considers molecular biology (biological knowledge reduced to a descriptive discourse of its molecular composition) as the true science of life. This explains its prevalence when explaining knowledge progress in this field.4

We must make a fundamental distinction between reductionism (in its different variants) and reduction, defined as a necessary methodological procedure of empirical research during observation and experimentation phases, which must be restricted to events of interest, abstracting them from a broader and more complex context and avoiding biasing by selectively highlighting certain manifestations while ignoring others. Such observation scenarios are not per se a form or reductionism because observations interpretation is not required under a reductionist approach (of any kind), although this is generally the case. In other words, conducting factual investigations can be done only through reductive reductions without being necessarily reductionist. Therefore, the underlying theoretical approach on observations could be holistic, which means empirical reduction and reductionism are not necessarily two sides of the same coin.

3. Origins of reductionism

We must keep in mind what we understand by reductionism nowadays is an expression of a primary cognitive attitude inherent to our human condition since the dawn of culture. Early humans, eager to understand and explain natural phenomena, were forced to devote their intellectual efforts to the most influential events in their lifetime at the expense of other events, which were less obvious and more silent or discreet. They generated ideas to explain and understand the contingencies of their existence and act accordingly. In this regard, polytheism is a clear example of primitive reductionism—which does not mean monotheism stands for the opposite—and includes fragmentary and disjointed views of relevant events in the natural world that were explained separately, attributing them to divine powers of various deities. Although reductionism was at first a simplified and unavoidable way to understand the natural world, it has remained as a gold standard of science despite the numerous questions and arguments that show its limitations while dealing with life phenomena. In other words, reductionist thinking has accompanied the pursuit of knowledge in several sciences that were recognized as such at a later time. Physics, the mother of all sciences, has evolved from classical mechanics to explain the behavior of elementary subatomic particles that currently rule the interpretation of macro-and microcosm phenomena. Chemistry is currently closer to atomic physics in its theoretical interpretation basis. Biology, whose origin can be associated with Darwinian thinking, created a self-explanatory base (phylogeny) and has detached from physics and chemistry, thereby escaping from reductionism. In contrast, this science presented no ontogenic foundational theory, full of diverse discourses that allowed the creation of the first descriptive sciences: anatomy, physiology and embryology together with nosological ideas about organic changes that deviated from a normal pattern and from medicine in their efforts to understand the nature of differences found and in order to act accordingly. This theoretical vacuum conditioned these descriptive sciences and their subsequent ramifications to lack sufficient force to overcome reductionism and eventually allow molecular biology to explain the validity, strength and the scientific nature of their observations and research and used mechanism to understand their objects of knowledge (living beings).

It is necessary to distinguish between spontaneous and naive reductionism and reductionism itself: deliberate, assumed, arrogant and argumentative. Both can be illustrated using two contrasting historical situations: on the one hand, the long period between the dawn of time until the appearance of the first sciences where naive reductionism as a cognitive restriction limited the approach used to explain natural phenomena. There were no contrasting elements from other sciences that showed the relationship between very different events and, therefore, reductionism remained “invisible.” On the other hand, the period that begins with the emergence of life sciences (the emergence of biological thinking) until today where reductionism–inspired by developments in physics–gains general acceptance and acquires the character of conviction (dogmatic) about what is genuine scientific knowledge, how it happens, how it is validated and excludes holistic conceptions of life phenomena, avoiding or rejecting complexity as a way of approaching the intelligibility of living organisms.

Militant reductionism that prevails in life sciences is a distant relative of naïve reductionism. However, to explain its growing prevalence in Science we require other arguments. Edgar Morin traces the history of reductionism back to René Descartes who proposed a method to understand objects based on two complementar y premises: analysis, which requires fragmenting and thorough dissection (dysjunction) to characterize their basic components, and synthesis, which allows the integration of its components and to rebuild an object to understand it in its entirety.5 With time, the idea of analysis gained acceptance and resulted in a systematic approach: analytical knowledge tradition based on dysjunction became the only scientific tradition excluding synthetic ones. Thus, empirical problems (analytical), the only visible, theoretical problems (synthetic), were ignored, unrecognizable, and alien. Dysjunction gave rise to a logic of thinking and action that severed the worlds of scientific culture and humanism, configuring them as two separate universes: one pragmatic, utilitarian, predictable, technical, objective, aseptic and empirical; the other being poetry, art, philosophy, values, private life, feelings, love, passion.

To capture this transmutation of ideas that won general acceptance in logical thinking and action, E. Morin proposed the concept of paradigm that goes beyond its common definitions (dominant ideas in a certain study field). This refers to the background of each discourse and its related practices, which escape from consciousness and remain subjacent, latent, and unrecognized. A paradigm can be specified through several attributes related with how it operates in the minds of those who have internalized it as well as the implied cognitive limitations. A paradigm: a) is subconscious because, being incorporated into thoughts and actions, it is experienced as “reality”; b) has an axiomatic authority, which grants full legitimacy (by definition, it is “the obvious”); c) is invulnerable to criticism. Because it is based on experience, it cannot be questioned and is beyond the scope of any empirical invalidation or verification; d) has an exclusion principle for all problems and ideas in disagreement with the paradigm: “blind to anything it excludes, as if it were non-existent”.

Once dysjunction paradigm (D) was established as the intelligibility reference, further complementary and syntonic logics were added: reduction (R) and simplification (S),6 strengthening the exclusion principle (E). Since then, the DRSE paradigm has operated as a hidden, subconscious and alien assumption to knowledge. These are the most important effects of this paradigm in science and especially in life sciences:

Isolate the object of study from the observer and its environment

Disintegrate global entities and complex organizations in favor of basic units

Reduce understanding and explanation of objects by applying the idea that “the whole is nothing more than the sum of its parts”

Simplify the object of study by excluding complex and integrative thinking

It should be noted that the DRSE paradigm components are interdependent and their manifestations and effects are intertwined. This means SR was strengthened by the ruling paradigm and became the most influential feature of the scientific work on life sciences based on dysjunction and continuing to simplification. In fact, SR is an expression of the DRSE paradigm and focuses on type of problems to be solved and how life phenomena are explained and interpreted.

4. Reductionism vs. holism

Reductionism as part of the DRSE paradigm was introduced as the predominant explanatory and intellectual logic in science and has faced resistance and challenges from holistic thinking approaches that claim that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Arguably, the holistic view contributed with ideas as well as evidence that were divergent and contrasting with reductionism, making it “visible” together with the DRSE paradigm in several areas of collective experience through thinking logics and as hidden knowledge premises. This means that holistic principles exposed reductionism, dysjunction, and simplification to be recognized and named, brought them out of the darkness and forced them to abandon their subjacent, subconscious and imperceptible characteristics, allowing for questioning and criticism (this work is largely owed to E. Morin without recognizing that he established a frontier between complex thinking and holistic thinking).

Holism dates back to classical Greek thinking, specifically Aristotle’s “Metaphysics.” Since then, it has accompanied thinkers throughout the ages; however, it was not until 1926 when Jan Christiaan Smuts coined this term in his book “Holism and Evolution.” From that time, followers have diversified into many holisms: ontological, epistemological, methodological, logical, semantic or human sciences. For example, according to epistemological holism, a living organism must be studied not as the sum of its parts but as an organized whole, so the whole allows distinguishing and understanding its parts and not the other way around. Those parts have no meaning or entity outside the whole; therefore, it is unacceptable to bear the whole as the sum of its parts. Methodological holism in science is an approach to research that emphasizes the study of complex systems. Two key aspects are highlighted: the first, how science is made, sometimes called “all to parts”, focuses on specimen observation within its ecosystem before dissecting to study any part of it. Second is the idea that a scientist is not a passive observer in a world outside the process, that there is no objective truth but the individual has a reciprocal and participatory relationship with nature, and that the observer’s contribution to the process is valuable.6

The holistic view has preserved the complex and integrative thinking in the assessment of vital phenomena, vindicating the biological order as an organization of matter and energy, qualitatively different from the physical-chemical approach.7 In life sciences, the most forward holistic thinking is the ecological, which has modified our view of nature and of ourselves, alerts us on the planetary devastation we cause and gains more followers ready to defend and care for the planetary ecosystem everywhere. Outside of ecology, the holistic view has limited influence. Reductionism as an exclusionary logic of thinking prevails in the biological sciences, in medicine and in several of the human sciences.

5. Reductionism and scientific discourse

Scientific discourse is widely accepted and has social recognition and legitimacy. The statement “scientifically proven” has become the most effective marketing slogan on the unobjectionable quality of a given product, an indisputable proof of the truth. It also bears a real and unequivocal existence of some events or the need to have certain things. Scientific work is considered essential for the development and prosperity of nations, for economic competitiveness, for understanding of the world we live in, eradicating obscurantism and prejudice, reporting cheating, lying or manipulation, expanding the possibilities of individual development, facilitation our way of life, giving certainty and meaning to life, and caring for and improving our health or to overcome major problems faced by humanity such as inequality, exclusion, violence or global warming. From the above, we can reconstruct the role of contemporary societies, especially economically developed and technologically advanced countries, assign to scientific knowledge: as a critical measure of progress and as a safe and unambiguous guide for individual improvement.

Even though scientific knowledge is most credible and considered the highest component of progress, if its achievement is performed by legions of researchers who have reached an amazing and vast development, if its influence on our way of living is evident and progressive, if its relentless advances should result—by definition—in greater benefits and opportunities for all, in better ways of life and an improved world, there are still some questions to address: Why do inequality, poverty and exclusion of growing sectors of the population advance? Why is “supreme value” that rules human life profitable at all costs? Why do subjection, abuse and dispossession of the weak persists? Why, more than ever, “man is wolf to man”? Why human dignity is only a trade value? Why freedom tends to be restricted and constrained increasingly? Why conditions and circumstances of the majority tend to be increasingly adverse and against dignified ways of life, offering satisfaction, joy, stimulation and serenity? Why does ecosystem devastation not stop as our attempts continue to go against all forms of life including human? These “why” questions reveal that something is wrong with the scientific knowledge of our time that, despite its profusion and increasing availability, seems to ignore the great expectations of wellbeing that many countries and social groups have in regard to this knowledge in the social imaginary, some kind of redemptive gospel. This seemingly discordant and undesirable historical situation calls for clarification.

To this end we must first recognize that, under the prevailing scientific reductionism, the difference between scientific knowledge and technology becomes progressively diluted. For the informed population, the power of science is equated with technology. This brings devaluation and trivialization of the role of ideas in knowledge; therefore, in the vast cognitive universe built on the alleged certainty of objective, real and compelling facts, which can be reproduced in controlled situations, independent from any ideology and the good intentions of researchers (the analytic tradition of science), the proposition of theories and concepts that enlighten, include or integrate a wide range of vital phenomena within a research field are perceived as subjective deviations by investigators and as interference as reasons for distrust and alert them about the possible misrepresentation of “the self-evident facts” (synthetic knowledge tradition, excluded by DRSE paradigm).

Under these historical circumstances of scientific work, only descriptive ideas that can be tested directly according to hypotheses are able to thrive and influence the mechanistic understanding of life processes and their interactions. Instead, explanatory ideas are part of the cognitive concerns of scientists only by exception. In general, such ideas are rejected and have no place in the field of science. At best, they are considered contributions typical of philosophy, “a different story.” Increasingly, scientific discourse is impoverished and undermined by the lack of explanatory, integrative thinking.

This discourse also has a very high prestige based on a myriad of “proven facts,” which are widely imposed as a new religion that progressively discredits and abandons ancestral knowledge, practical skills and common sense, disqualifying cultures and traditions that seek to preserve their identity, customs, and ways of life and resist dilution in the vortex of technical modernity that devastates everything. This, together with the empire of individualism and “competitiveness” implies a weakening of the social fabric of many “backward” populations. Another consequence of the reductionism dominance in “hard sciences” is observed in the rating of knowledge considered a priority. The presence, particularly in the academic environment, of subjects that encourage students to reflect on human condition, has been progressively blurred and less significant. For instance, philosophy and humanities are branded as speculative, idealistic, impractical or outdated and, therefore, increasingly dispensable in students’ curriculum.8

Conflict of interest

The author declares no conflict of interest of any nature.

Received 21 April 2014;

accepted 22 May 2014


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