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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Reductionism and Development


This is an analysis of the article entitled “On Reductionism” (1994) by Gerald L. Smith. This literature tries to give an account of how reductionism as a concept was revolutionizing our traditional view of science putting emphasis on the scientific method thereby giving some positive as well as negative implications on our modern way of thought.

Rene Descartes
In the first part of the article, Smith cites some statements from Descartes’ “Rules for the Direction of the Mind”. he specifies that Rules V, VII, IX are Descartes’ effort to uphold scientific inquiry through a system we now call scientific method. This now becomes the foothold of our modern science, that nature should be studied through empirical observation. Smith further added that Descartes’ statements on Rule II and III demanded non-acceptance of claims that are not proven within the methods that he proposes (V, VII, and IX).

Smith, I believe is right about this claims. The rules when studied carefully reveal the kind of philosophical and ideological battle during that time between scientists and its critics (the Church). We may cite how Galileo was disgraced because he was presenting his findings on the nature of position of the sun and the planets based on empirical observations, a method we may now call scientific. Galileo’s findings were rejected not because there was something wrong with his methodology or because of discrepancies with his data but because his findings does not coincide with the church’s view.

Galileo tried before the Inquisition
Probably this was the concern of the scientist’s during those times. They were trying to prove something in order to free the mind of civilization on things they believed that are apparently false as proven by a rational inquiry. Descartes’ “Rules” were geared towards this motivation. Embedded in the “Rules” are philosophical statements that could spark a revolutionary view of fact finding. Descartes and Galileo motivated future scientists to pursue knowledge with a more valid explanation on natural phenomena. These explanations should not be based on mere speculations or philosophical debate but rather by data observed with nature. This furthermore, should be quantified and arranged in mathematical equations which we could plainly understand. This paved the way for scientific laws which have become unchallenged through the ages (Newton’s Laws, Einstein’s theories, the Gas laws).


Reductionism can either mean a) an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things or b) a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to account of individual constituents.  This could refer to objects, phenomena, and theories. Smith described it based on what Descartes stated in the “Rules” as “an attempt to understand an object of inquiry by a precise and exhaustive detailing of the particulars, the constituent which compose the object”. An example of this is considering an ecosystem to be composed of organisms and its non-living components, or those organisms to be composed of molecules, or these molecules to be composed of atoms.

Smith wrote that the “Rules” fit into such reductionist perspective. However, he noted that reductionists have no consensus on the idea of Descartes being a reductionist. Those who do think that Descartes was one without him knowing it. Those who don’t, submit to the idea that reductionism was undreamed of. It just came out of the process.

It is also important to note that reductionism regards the whole system being studied as equal to the sum of its subsystems, disregarding the relationships that put them together. I go with Smith’s stand that it is truly untrue. If the whole is equal to its parts, then the whole is not a whole, those are only parts. I firmly believe that the whole is called a whole not because of its parts but by how these parts were relatively strung up together by natural laws. These interactions got lost along the way because of a reductionist approach.

In studying nature for example, we should strive to study its parts so that we could understand nature more not understand it as mere arrangements of organisms, elements, or compounds. The study of these parts should enhance more our understanding and appreciation of how nature is a fragile interdependence among different meaningful parts which in turn are also composed of interdependent parts. The reductionist approach is just like thinking of a table only as wood and nails, and in the process we forget the purpose of the table because we have concluded that it is just equivalent to a wooden coffin which we can also reduce into wood and nails.


Part of smith’s article is an excerpt from an essay by Victor Frankl entitled “Reductionism and Nihilism” which tries to equate reductionism to nihilism. This dealt further with the idea of reductionism disregarding relationship among the elements of the system thus in the process, the system being studied becomes meaningless. An example here is the human value of love which was then chopped down into sexual activity by the famous Masters and Johnson experiments.

I definitely stand up for this proposition because it is so evidential. Everyday, we see how traditional human values become useless pieces of physical artifacts. We seem to these all instantly because it employs the method we have always known as science. One of this examples is how Christianity as a religion becomes nothing more than a political movement motivated an influential man coming from an ordinary working class family at least based on historical studies. The field of psychology trimmed it down as a result of man’s need to be sedated of a divine thinking in order to overcome the trials and sufferings in life.

The notion that the whole is equal to its parts creates a negative effect on our civilized mind. It destroys the higher meaning of the whole by equating it with the lower meaning of its parts. Management becomes nothing but strategies; political campaigns becomes marketing and customer service becomes a constant smile and memorized greetings. During the Cold War, political agenda were realized through a seemingly reductionist approach of military intelligence science by dirty tricks and sabotage. All of these were equated as part of a democratic process.

Reductionism is indeed nihilism, values become nonsense. In the future we may realize all the things we have upheld as values for our children now becomes meaningless pieces of dry psycho-socio-cultural elements much like the idea that a table is nonsense because its just wood and nails.


Symbols as Frankl pointed out, has two parts: something that signifies (the parts; lower meaning) and something that is signified (the whole; higher meaning). Reductionism equates the two. Man for example, as a symbol, now becomes fragmented parts of non-life substances studied by varied disciplines of humanity. We forgot about what man signifies because we think it is equal to what signifies it (its parts).

I wish to include development as an example of how symbols are reduced here. As a whole development is a process of advancement towards a better condition. It is a complex symbol which represents man’s higher aspiration of living and trying to overtake necessity and hardships. It complexity is so vast that expertise on this field needs a generalist approach. It has a wider meaning as a whole yet we study its bits in order to understand it better. However, this somewhat reductionist approach alienates its different dimensions from each other, creating low level meaning for each dimensions as we equate it with the whole.

One dimension is economic development which is geared towards additional income. Another is physical development which concerns technology and the convenience it offers. Social development on the other hand deals with the improvement of people’s welfare and needs in terms of interaction among societal organizations. These components of development are all important aspects of development. Each one defines what development should be thus harmonizing all of these is a tough job for a development manager. In order to better understand it we practically studied each component individually and in the process, we created different perspectives on development depending on where we stand in the picture. To the economist it means income; to the engineer it means buildings or infrastructure projects; to the sociologist it means a more modern type of organization or flow of information. We forgot the whole meaning of development. What we know are only the meaning of its parts which are a lot different from the whole.

Another victim of this reductionist approach in development administration is how we have neglected the real purpose of nature and the environment as our source of resources for development to take place. Economics equates environment as factors of production which should be utilized to a maximum in order to achieve the maximum production. In the process we have depleted nature and reduced it into something that unconditionally gives us everything we need all the time. While processing raw materials from nature into goods and services we also create large amount of waste, something we don’t need. This time we throw it back to the environment. Therefore, we have reduced the environment into something that receives everything we don’t need all the time. Reductionism comes unnoticed because it disguises itself as science and it is thus appropriate that we must be careful in identifying how we generate knowledge and how we use it for our decisions and policies.


It is thus an alarming situation in these so called “scientifically charged” civilization that reductionism is a threat to its viability to explain and predict phenomenon. It clouds our view of reality which is our only hope of explaining better the natural events that would help us make decisions and policies for our future survival. This clouded view permits us to make the wrong decisions. Employing analyses from a reductionist approach may create worse courses of action for development thus creating more problems.

Reductionism however, has been of great help in the natural and pure sciences especially in the fields of neurology, genetics, physiology, etc. However, when employed in the social sciences especially with implications on development administration, these create a twisted interpretation on the type of knowledge that we try to pursue. If these will then be used as basis for our development policies, great setbacks might occur adding impact to the problems we are trying to solve.

Science has come a long way for the betterment of mankind. It has enlightened our minds on the reality of things we formerly cannot explain. These explanations lead us to create plans of actions that were beneficial to us. However the impending threat of reductionism trying to stain our view of reality is a threat that needs constant vigilance. Reality should never be pursued through reductionism especially in the development sector. It may be helpful in the natural sciences when we talk about mass or volume as an example. In this case reductionism may be true. However, development is a more complex issue and reductionism only degrades our view of it thus lessening its original meaning.


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