November 18, 2009
Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato fired the first shot across the bow in the debate that – to this very day – structures how we view our world. He was arguing against the earliest known thinkers of the classical Greek world called the Presocratic philosophers, some of whom had come up with notions that we would regard as quite modern even today: for example, that the whole cosmos can be broken down to tiny particles of atoms, colliding mechanically with each other.
Plato hated this so much that he proposed five years of solitary confinement for people who held these opinions, followed by death if they hadn’t reformed. What got Plato so riled up? It was, in his own words, the notion that:
By nature and by chance, they say, fire and water and earth and air all exist – none of them exist by art – and … the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars were generated by these totally soulless means… not by intelligence, they say, nor by a god, nor by art, but … by nature and by chance.
Plato was railing against the mindset that’s currently known as “reductionism” – the notion that everything in the universe, no matter how complex, mysterious or spiritual it might seem – can be theoretically reduced into a series of “nothing but” descriptions: nothing but atoms, nothing but neurons, nothing but genes. And Plato’s response to this was, again, something very familiar to us: he posited another dimension, a dimension of the soul, a dimension of eternal ideals, which existed apart from the material, everyday world, and somehow infused it with meaning and spirit. This is the Platonic dualism which underlies our Western tradition of thought (discussed in another post).
Many people still accept the prevailing dualism and lock into the construct of an external God and an immortal soul within us which will join Him in heaven some day. But this belief structure is under ever increasing empirical pressure from a scientific methodology that scans the brain and finds no place for the immortal soul, that scans the universe and finds no place for God.
Consequently, many others in today’s world have switched to the reductionism of science, summarized so clearly by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule:
You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.
But this approach delivers a world devoid of meaning, as described by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.”
No wonder that so many of us would empathize with the deeply felt existential longing of biologist Ursula Goodenough, as she confides her inner fears:
… all of us, and scientists are no exception, are vulnerable to the existential shudder that leaves us wishing that the foundations of life were something other than just so much biochemistry and biophysics… My body is some 10 trillion cells. Period. My thoughts are a lot of electricity flowing along a lot of membrane. My emotions are the result of neurotransmitters squirting on my brain cells. I look in the mirror and see the mortality and I find myself fearful, yearning for less knowledge, yearning to believe that I have a soul that will go to heaven and soar with the angels.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I believe that the choice between reductionism and dualism is a false choice. I propose that it’s perfectly possible to embrace both science and spirituality. The premise underlying this proposal is that the coldly mechanical universe offered by reductionist science is plain wrong: it’s a simplifying metaphor that’s proven very powerful as a way to analyze and predict elements of the natural world. But it’s no more than a metaphor and its simplifying assumptions are beginning to limit what science can offer us in the 21st century and beyond.
In order to understand reductionism a little better, I’m going to look at the three leading versions of it in today’s world, which I call genetic reductionism, neurological reductionism, and spiritual reductionism.
The great popularizer of genetic reductionism is biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the best-seller The Selfish Gene. As Dawkins describes it, genes are the irreducible unit of biological replication. Genes are virtually immortal, and they use our bodies as the vehicle for their “selfish” purpose of replication:
… they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world… manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.
For Dawkins and his followers, all evolution can be explained by the underlying power of the “selfish gene.” But a growing number of biologists are showing that the selfish gene is, in fact, nothing more than a simplifying assumption, and an increasingly erroneous one, at that. “We have taken,” says biologist Richard Strohman, “a successful and extremely useful theory and paradigm of the gene and have illegitimately extended it as a paradigm of life.” “The mistaken idea,” he explains, is “that complex behavior may be traced solely to genetic agents and their surrogate proteins without recourse to the properties originating from the complex and nonlinear interactions of these agents.”
Ultimately, as philosopher Evan Thompson points out, the obsessive focus on the selfish gene is such bad science, it doesn’t even deserve the name:
This notion of information as something that preexists its own expression in the cell, and that is not affected by the developmental matrix of the organism and environment, is a reification that has no explanatory value. It is informational idolatry and superstition, not science.
What about neurological reductionism, the view summarized so well by Francis Crick, that “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”? The problem with this approach is that it ignores the most salient aspect of our consciousness: its dynamic, ongoing self-organization. Even if you could map out every neuron in the brain and analyze each one, molecule by molecule, you wouldn’t even come close to explaining consciousness, because it’s the complex, dynamic patterns formed by their interactions that cause us to be who we are. “In cognitive neuroscience,” writes neurobiologist A.K. Engel, “we are witnessing a fundamental paradigm shift.” Classical views of the mind as a passively programmed computer are inconsistent with modern findings. “Current approaches emphasize the intimate relationship between cognition and action that is apparent in the real-world interactions of the brain and the rich dynamics of neuronal networks.”
Mind is not the “pack of neurons” described by Crick and others. It’s only when we try to understand it for what it is, “a spatiotemporal pattern that molds the … dynamic patterns of the brain,” that we can make real progress. As neuroscientist Scott Kelso puts it: “Instead of trying to reduce biology and psychology to chemistry and physics, the task now is to extend our physical understanding of the organization of living things.”
Which takes us to spiritual reductionism, the dead-end view described by Nobel Prize-winner Roger Sperry that “man is nothing but a material object, having none but physical properties” and therefore “Science can give a complete account of man in purely physicochemical terms.” What this view misses is the same principle that the other two forms of reductionism also miss: that we can only begin to understand the nature of complex systems – cells, organisms, even consciousness – when we focus on the ongoing, dynamic patterns of interactivity formed by these systems, rather than just the molecules, neurons and genes of which these systems are composed.
And when you begin looking at these interactions, something transformative happens: the emergent patterns caused by these complex systems affect the very system itself, causing an even greater spiraling of complexity. This is known as “circular causality” or “downward causation.” Biologist Brian Goodwin summarizes this dynamic as follows:
The important properties of these complex systems are found less in what they are made of than in the way the parts are related to one another and the dynamic organization of the whole – their relational order… To understand these complex nonlinear dynamic systems it is necessary to study both the whole and its parts, and to be prepared for surprises due to the emergence of unexpected behavior… In this sense the study of complex systems goes beyond reductionism, which focuses on the analysis of the components out of which a system is made.
There are still many scientists, grounded in reductionist thinking, who like to dismiss these approaches as somehow unscientific or even “mystical”. That’s getting to be an increasingly difficult position to hold, as more and more scientific fields embrace the approaches of dynamical complexity theory to make inroads into their thorniest problems. Solé & Goodwin describe the current situation:
The concept of emergence, once regarded by many biologists as a vague and mystical concept with dangerous vitalist connotations, is now the central focus of the sciences of complexity. Here the question is, How can systems made up of components whose properties we understand well give rise to phenomena that are quite unexpected? Life is the most dramatic manifestation of this process, the domain of emergence par excellence. But the new sciences unite biology with physics in a manner that allows us to see the creative fabric of natural process as a single dynamic unfolding.
-Solé, R., and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, New York: Basic Books.
Reductionism, in its falsely compelling rigor, tells us “we’re all just nothing but… and that’s all there is.” Dualism, in contrast, posits an entirely different dimension of divinity and soul, and gives us the choice of taking it on faith, or falling back to the hard, cold ground of reductionism. However, when the full implications of the dynamics of complexity and emergence are understood, then, in the words of Roger Sperry, “the very nature of science itself is changed.” Science no longer needs to be the voice of spiritual despair. When science embraces dynamic complexity, as Sperry elaborates:
In the eyes of science… man’s creator becomes the vast interwoven fabric of all evolving nature, a tremendously complex concept that includes all the immutable and emergent forces of cosmic causation that control everything from high-energy subnuclear particles to galaxies, not forgetting the causal properties that govern brain function and behavior at individual and social levels.
“Thus we have,” says complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman, “the first glimmerings of a new scientific worldview, beyond reductionism. In our universe emergence is real, and there is ceaseless, stunning creativity that has given rise to our biosphere, our humanity, and our history. We are partial co-creators of this emergent creativity.”
I’m going to explore this theme, which I think will be central to the search for authentic meaning in the 21st century, in the sister blog to this one, called Finding the Li. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a thought from Heraclitus, perhaps the first Western complexity theorist and ironically one of those Presocratic philosophers that Plato wanted to throw in jail:
For wisdom consists in one thing, to know the principle by which all things are steered through all things.
 Cited in Vlastos, G. (1975/2005). Plato’s Universe, Canada: Parmenides Publishing, pp. 23-4
 Crick, F., (1995), Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. Scribner.
 Quoted by Kauffman, S., (2008). Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. New York: Basic Books.
 Ironically, the original form of reductionism from physics, “we’re all nothing but atoms”, has dissolved in the quagmire of “spooky” quantum mechanics and string theory, only to re-emerge in the biological sciences. For a history of this shift, see Woese, C. R. (2004). “A New Biology for a New Century”. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, pp. 173-186.
 Dawkins, R. (1976/2006). The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Strohman, R. C. (1997). “The coming Kuhnian revolution in biology.” Nature Biotechnology, 15(March 1997), 194-200.
 Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
 Crick, F., (1995) op. cit.
 Engel, A. K., Fries, P., and Singer, W. (2001). “Dynamic Predictions: Oscillations and Synchrony in Top-Down Processing.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 2(October 2001), 704-716.
 Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.
 Kelso, op. cit.
 Sperry, R. W. (1980). “Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No.” Neuroscience, 5(1980), 195-206.
 Goodwin, B. (2001). How the Leopard changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
 Sperry, R. W. (1981). “Changing Priorities.” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 1981(4), 1-15.
 Kauffman, S. (2007). “Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred.” Zygon, 903-14.
 Cited by Marlow, A. N. (1954). “Hinduism and Buddhism in Greek Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, 4(1:April 1954), 35-45.