Reduction is a tool used in research and day-to-day problem-solving. Reduction is a type of abstraction where you try to understand the whole problem through a single level or lens. Physics is a good example of the usefulness of reduction as a tool for problem-solving. Trying to understand all the things in the universe as arising out of a small number of forces and particles shows the value of abstract reduction.
Over the last 200 years or so, reduction as a tool has become reductionism as an article of faith. The disagreements among us about the causes of problems like, for example, mental illness become “reduced” to fights about which level of reduction is the “correct” one (say biology or interpersonal relations or social justice). These disagreements about the right level of reduction to solve the problem of mental illness translate into irreconcilable differences over the correct intervention (say medication or therapy or social change).
We all get that a one level view of something like mental illness isn’t adequate, but with the template of reductionism firmly cemented into our thinking, all we can do is fumble through the interventions crafted from the various beliefs in different levels until we find an assortment of various tools from those different levels that we use to tinker, modify, or shift our symptoms.
There are other ways than single-level models to view complex problems like mental illness, but it is astoundingly difficult to give up reduction as an article of faith. Like any other bad habit, we will have to practice with a new way of thinking until it replaces reductionism. Perhaps the most obvious example of our addiction to reductionism shows itself when we are convinced by our fear that there is some simple cause for a complex problem that is threatening us or interfering with our life:
- A particular political ideology becomes the one true answer to our social, economic, religious, scientific, etc. problems and only those who believe in that ideology without waiver can make that one true answer real (this is very similar to the old model of magic, in which our thoughts were manifested in the real world through incantations, spells, number diagrams, herbs, poisons, wands, summoning angels or demons, and so on. I suppose political platforms have taken the place of incantations).
- Mental illness has a single (take your pick) medical, biological, dietary, environmental, psychiatric, social, political, religious, alien, or cosmic cause and only an intervention based on the correct choice of cause will always and reliably produce a “cure” (in fact, the entire belief in cure of anything is based on a reductionist approach to real problems in the real world).
- Any model of progress or success (both forms of the idea of reaching perfection) as being due to some single personality characteristic, simple and repeatable technique, single skill, uniform and errorless belief system (think cult), a specific piece of literature, a specific moral stance, and so on.
- Overall, we argue over whether competing theories of the solution to some problem are correct with the same vitriol accorded religious arguments. Sometimes the vitriol produces a particularly intractable form of violence that religion has visited upon the human race for eons.
A reductionist view of problem-solving sees problems at defective machines. The goal of problem-solving is to identify the broken part and fix or replace it.
Machines can be very complicated (say, a 787 plane or a space shuttle), but the approach to problem-solving is the same regardless of the complication. Identify the failure and replace it or repair it. The reason why this works with machines is because the parts of the system don’t change as the parts interact with one another.They age or break but don’t change their behavior permanently because of those interactions, no matter how complicated the system is.
But there are other kinds of systems besides complicated ones. Today, they are called complex systems, and their parts do change through interaction all the time. There is no more obvious example of a complex system than the one we carry around in our heads: Our brain.
The brain has been the subject of reductionist attempts at understanding for much of human history. Since the advent of experimental exploration, the various levels of brain function have competed with one another for the ultimate explanation of how brain complexity works and how it might be managed. Part of this reductionism was and still is due to the difficulty of doing research on the whole brain (all its levels at once). Also, the common assumption of reductionism makes us focus on the level that we think has the most to do with the problem in which we are interested.
The Connectome Project is building and integrating a complex set of technologies to enable imaging the whole brain while it is doing its thing to support whole brain study. But each part of this initiative is very complex and I have to believe that our habits of reductionism will continue to pose barriers to the necessity of multi-level understanding. So waiting for the end result of what I think is the right direction for science to pursue doesn’t help us right now.
When we say that the brain is doing stuff as a whole, we mean that it is using all those levels for everything it does every instant of our lives. And while it is difficult to imagine being able to understand how the many layers of function work if we view the brain as a machine or computer, there are ways to interact with complex systems of any kind to create real change and increasing understanding. Needless to say, these ways are not reducible to local repair or replacement of some part. They are the ways of interacting that evolution has produced in our brains for ordinary sociality with other people, animals, plants, and things as we do all the time every day.
And it is about time that we began to reflect on the wisdom of our brains and those tools of interacting with complex systems that we all have, and stop depending on useless metaphors and fruitless appeals to nonexistent truth outside the dynamic interaction that is our existence.
Time to grow up…..
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