[This is an excerpt from my book Borderline with a special introduction for Trigger Warning.]
Let’s talk about reality. In order to grasp it, you have to see all of it. To get a grip on reality you have to see wholes; the Big Picture. Conversely, you can’t reduce every complex system and think that you’ve explained reality. In science, you may need some operational reduction but that doesn’t mean that metaphysical reduction is a way to understand reality.
Once upon a time science pundits knew this. There were books letting metaphysics inside the scientific debate like Paul Davies’ God and the New Physics (1987), David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980) and James Gleick’s Chaos – Building a New Science (1987). Today, however, these kinds of books aren’t at the forefront anymore. All we hear in MSM is some reductionist orthodoxy about the world being exactly as we see it and that the anomalies encountered are merely odd disturbances.
However, it isn’t all bad. I’ve personally written a study in some way trying to take up the mantle from the above figures, the role of allowing metaphysics into physics. The book is entitled Borderline – A Traditionalist Outlook for Modern Man (Numen Books, 2015). On its 234 pages we first find a look into the ancient metaphysics of Plotinus, the man who refined Plato’s and Aristotle’s concept of invisible ideas as the basis of reality, as patterns for the tangible objects, life and everything. Then the book gives some latter-day applications of this worldview (Goethe, Jünger), there’s a look at holistic art and ethics and the metaphysics of physics is highlighted – and, as part of this, there’s a critique of reductionism.
Reductionism is the above intimated trait of reducing complex phenomena into more easily understood ones. It can’t be avoided as such but it mustn’t go too far. Man isn’t a robot and the cosmos isn’t a machine; however, this is the end result when reductionism has run its course. The following is a short excerpt from chapter five of Borderline, giving the outline of the book’s critique of reductionism.
One of the peculiarities of modern science is to reduce complex phenomena into more simple ones. Sometimes this reductionism leads to oversimplicfication. On this ground, reductionism has to be criticized since it’s one of the guiding principles of today’s science.
I’m not the first one castigating reductionism. Others have gone before me in this task. For instance, on the net I’ve found the essay The Error of Reductionism where Timothy Wilken gives us some clues to the subject in question. He begins by relating the anecdote on how a physicist, an engineer, and a psychologist would handle the problem of helping a farm whose production has gone down. The engineer says that the stalls for the cattle should be reduced so that the cows can be more closely packed; then efficiency could be improved.
The psychologist, for his part, gives another piece of advice. Like painting the inside of the barn in green to create a more friendly environment, and planting more trees in the field to give the cows a more diverse environment to grace in. Wilken: “Finally, the physicist is called upon. He asks for a blackboard and then draws a circle. He begins: Assume the cow is a sphere…”
Apart from the hyperbole, this gives you a clue to the reductionist mindset. Reality is reduced into models. The complicated is simplified. Complex systems of nature are disassembled into smaller parts that are easier to handle. Details deemed irrelevant are abstracted out.
Reductionism reduces wholes into parts (particles, atoms, molecules). These parts are observed under controlled and exact circumstances. Reductionist science has given Western Man the command of nature, and with technology he has created prosperity (if not peace). This includes metallurgy, chemistry, the science of engineering, electricity and medical science; along with cybernetics, astronomy, and bio engineering. These disciplines, symbols of Western Ascendence, are dependent on science reducing wholes into parts. Yet the opposite of reductionism; the holistic, big picture aspect, at the same time isn’t irrelevant. Why? Because the big picture implies a process and a system. The more complex a system becomes (”large molecules, plants, animals, and humans” [ibid]) reductionism becomes less useful.
The more complex a process becomes, the more risky it is to exclude details. Some of these details may be crucial for understanding the process. Complex systems like ”ant colonies, immune systems, brains, economies, and human cultures” [ibid] can’t easily be reduced. They have a way of interacting with their parts, not serially as in a machine but holistically. These systems adapt and change in a way unpredictable to the reductionist attitude.
A keyword to holistic behaviour is synergy. Wilken: ”Synergy is the associated behaviour of ’wholes’, not predicted by examination of the ’parts’.”
In a general sense, reductionism has given us an affluent, high-tech society. But reductionism per se has never contributed to the progress of science. No discovery is merely made by reducing everything. The whole is always implied. The grasping of the whole comes first, then you may reduce it – and, like Descartes, coin a phrase like, ”cogito, ergo sum” – and from this ”deduce” God, i.e., the whole. But this is reverse engineering. Conceiving the whole comes first. This is also true for other wholes than God. Like inventing a new machine.
To invent, you need to have a vision, a holistic image, and a concept of the whole you are aiming at. Unfortunately, this holistic attitude isn’t taught in the Academy. Wilken: ”Our reductionist science teaches us that the discoverer simply assembles the ’parts’ he finds in Universe into ’wholes’ – whether these parts be postulates of a theory or pieces of a new invention.”
To teach us how inventors really think Wilken gives us the poignant quote of Arthur Young, the inventor of the Bell helicopter. In 1976 Young said:
”There are no helicopter ”parts,” until after you first create the concept of the ”whole” helicopter, then you make the ”parts” to make the ”whole.” The ”whole” is invented first. The ”whole” comes before the ”parts.” The something extra in the ”whole” contains the purpose and function. This cannot be determined by examining the parts alone.” [from The Reflexive Universe, quoted after Wilken, ibid]
The whole can’t function when divided. The whole isn’t in a chaotic multitude of parts; parts able to be measured ever so exactly. The parts are derived from the whole, and not the whole from the parts, as Young concluded.
Reductionist science has made some progress in explaining the natural environment. Western man has ”conquered the world” in his learning of energy, chemistry, and metallurgy etc. etc. by having a reductionist attitude and focusing on the parts while excluding the whole. Yet now this approach has come to an end.
Holistic science is coming to the fore.
Organism vs Mechanism
Is the world organic or mechanic in nature?
Holistic minds see the world as an organism, a living thing. Reductionist minds see it as a mechanism, a dead object. A holistic person sees plants, animals and men as organisms; as systems affecting themselves and the environment synergetically. A reductionist sees everything as machines, working serially: first you turn the key, then the starting engine affects the sparkplugs, then the fuel in the cylinders is brought to explode, then the pistons go down, then the crankshaft moves, and eventually the wheels turn. Meanwhile, an organism works holistically with the parts supporting each other in a more simultaneous and synergetic fashion.
Lennart Svensson holds a BA in Indology and he has written biographies of Ernst Jünger and Richard Wagner. Apart from Borderline, he is the author of the essay Science Fiction Seen From the Right (2016). He lives in Sweden and is currently planning more writing projects.