As a student of the liberal arts at Concordia College, I have been challenged to reflect on the nature of reality and my relationship with my environment.Through my participation in “Search For Mind,” a course team taught by Dr. Mark Krejci and Susan Larson, I began to formulate a worldview of how to think about the essence and nature of my mind.This paper is a reaction to the modern reductionistic tendencies of examining an object by dividing it into parts and assuming the essence of that object lies in those parts.Through analyzing and scrutinizing this model of thinking, I hope, this essay begins to lay the foundation for new models of the mind and viewing the universe.


Reductionism 

and the Search for the Mind

Kent Narum

In his 1637 essay, Discourse on the Method for Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences, Rene Descartes advocated the utilization of one’s “mind,” as he eloquently stated, “For it is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well” (1). Confronting perhaps the essential enigma that all human beings struggle with in one way or another, Descartes toiled to use his mind well and live his life appropriately.From this inner struggle, he derived four rules by which he could live in his pursuit to use his mind well.While the first rule was a basic skepticism for what he considered to be “true,” his second rule was “to divide each of the difficulties . . . into as many parts as possible and as is required to solve them best” (11).Whether or not Descartes was the first advocate of such a process of reductionism is irrelevant.However, it is important that Descartes’ way of thinking has been a catalyst for modern society in the way it approaches investigating anything that is deemed worthy of understanding.Notions of the scientific method are deeply connected and rooted in these ideas of comprehending a particular object in terms of its parts.This method of thinking has too long been emphasized and asserted.While it is necessary to keep this manner of thinking of the mind and perhaps employ it for specific purposes, the new millennium must be ushered in with a new way of thinking that is more applicable to modern society. 

The first place to create an idea of how to use the mind well is with an understanding of the mind itself.This is perhaps where Descartes’ reductionistic ideas are most influential.Parallel to the world of physics, psychology has in the last century attempted to divide the self into the body and mind and then reduce the mind to the brain, anatomical regions, and eventually simple electronic pulses connecting neurons.While the fascination as well as practical medical application of many of these scientific experiments can not be contested, one must strive for higher objectives in the search for a fundamental understanding of the mind and utilization of the mind for valuable purposes.In this sense, a reductionistic approach to the mind is restricting and limiting as it fails to take into account five aspects: synergism, internalizationism, isolationism, comparativism, and individualizationism.In each of these five conditions, reductionism either overemphasizes or insufficiently focuses upon their basic characteristics.An extrapolation on each of these concepts can shape a new awareness of what the mind is as well as how to utilize that mind for valuable purposes.

I. Synergism

The first and most basic argument against reductionism is its lack of attention to the concept of synergism.The essential tenet of synergism is that the sum of an object’s parts are not equal to the object as a whole.A simple example is that the human body is seemingly made up of obvious parts—hands, arms, legs, feet, chest, head, etc.However these parts alone cannot perform what they do when they work together in what is known as the human body.Different aspects of these parts can be understood when they are analyzed alone.However the total ability of the human body cannot be grasped unless it is ultimately regarded as a whole.While valuable information can be gathered about the body, brain, and mind by examining its parts, a comprehensive understanding of the mind can never be realized unless the whole object is respected.

The idea of synergy is particularly crucial in understanding the structure of life.An important distinction can be made between the material composition of cells which make up all physical parts of the human body and the concept of a living cell.As June Goodfield suggests:

In terms of its material composition a cell is no more than the sum of its parts.But a living cell is different from its homogenate because in the degrading process from cell to nonliving constituents the cell is deprived of the interrelations that had existed between the formerly united parts, and the hierarchical organisation of the living state is destroyed. (78)

A cell apart from other cells under a microscope seems like a logical, rationally behaving object.However, it cannot be understood alone since it is working in the human body with millions upon millions of other cells to generate behavior.The relationships among each of these cells are essential in what we understand to be “life.”While scientists can identify and make statements about the “material composition” of cells, a living cell is involved in relationships that generate other relationships, which work interconnectedly to provide the human being with complex thought and behavior.When these relationships are ignored, the concept of synergy is likewise missed and the understanding of the mind that is derived is restricted.

Antonio Damasio chooses to define the brain not in terms of individual neurons, but as a “supersystem of systems” emphasizing the interconnected relationships between each component (30).He hesitates to identify even specific anatomic locations as having a particular function but instead suggests that a system as a whole influences or creates behavior by its relationship within its own system and its relationship with other systems in the mind. Thus the inter-relationships are again emphasized as key ingredients in a complete understanding of the mind.When an object is reduced to its parts, the relationships are left out of the explanation even though they may be considered more important than the parts themselves.Damasio even goes so far as to identify the relationship between body and mind as being essential in understanding the self completely.He suggests that it is an error that Descartes made, his misconception being, “the abyssal separation between the body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizable, undimensioned, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff” (250).When reductionism is performed on anything, the relationships within the system are neglected, resulting in an inherently narrow concept of the whole.Synergy is a concept of relationships which constitute not only an argument against reductionism but also a richer understanding of life and all of its wonder and mystery.

II. Internalizationism

Another difficulty that all concepts of the mind face is the paradox inherent in internalizationism.In the pursuit of understanding how to use one’s mind well, it is important to recognize that one can never divorce oneself from the very thing that is internal to what is being examined.In other words, the mind is inside what is trying to understand the mind creating a paradox of perception.In recognizing this, it can be observed that the natural tendencies of bias and predisposition cannot be ignored as they are involved in the very object which is being investigated.To offer a metaphor, it would be similar to asking someone to give a description of a description.The thought process leads to an infinite regression into the depths of bewilderment.

Perhaps a better example of this concept is given by K. R. Popper. He proposes the pursuit of understanding the mind is similar to a person drawing a map of a room.If the person attempts to draw the map accurately with a map in the room, each time a map is drawn within a map another map is needed to be drawn but has not yet been drawn.This leads Popper to the assertion that the story, “shows how the fallibility which affects objective human knowledge . . . [and indicates] why all explanatory science is incompletable; for to be complete it would have to give an explanatory account of itself” (280).Reductionism falls into this trap in its explanatory declarations by trying to explain an object in terms of its parts.Each reduction of the mind into parts yields a new explanation that the mind is nothing but or just these parts.However, these parts can be reduced to another group of parts similar in infiniteness to the person’s endeavor to keep drawing smaller and smaller maps.

These problems in psychology’s search to define the mind parallel the difficulties observed in the field of physics.In an analysis of the mind in terms of its neurons, Richard M. Restak observes: 

This course [of reducing the brain to the molecular level] is not unlike that which occurred in theoretical physics.After years of searching, physicists no longer believe that the answers they seek about the universe will be found in an “ultimate particle.” Instead, they emphasize trying to understand the interrelationships that hold across all levels of physical reality, from the very small to the infinitely large. (216)

Reductionism does not hold the answers to the questions that should be asked about the mind as it leads to an infinite reducibility.Instead, as Restak suggests, endeavors should be made to find characteristics which are universal to all levels of what is being explored.The infinite reducibility comes in part because of the internal nature of the mind as each time a new map of the mind is drawn it is necessary to draw yet another within it.As Popper indicates, “Not only is philosophical reductionism a mistake, but the belief that the method of reduction can achieve complete reductions is, it seems, mistaken too. . . . [Humans live] in a world of emergent evolution; of problems whose solutions, if they are solved, beget new and deeper problems” (281).Therefore, as Restak suggests, to avoid the errors of reductionism, relationships that hold across all levels of the reality of the mind must be sought after instead of a continuous reduction of constituents.

III. Isolationism

A third argument against reductionism in the pursuit of understanding the mind is its emphasis on isolating both the parts of the mind and the mind itself.Where the concept of synergism stressed the importance of relationships between parts of the mind, isolationism accentuates the environment in perceiving the mind.First, it is necessary to understand that it is difficult to distinguish between the physical body and the environment.Air molecules, which can be considered part of the environment, are assimilated into the bloodstream through the lungs and hence become part of the body.Likewise, a person passing a finger on an object such as sandpaper loses skin cells while gaining molecules from the sandpaper.This constant exchange of physical matter between the environment and the human being makes it difficult for reductionism to define strictly the physical body without beginning to determine the essence of the mind.

Not only is the physical interaction of the body with the environment important to note, but other more subtle connections exist between the mind and the environment.The environment is constantly giving stimulus to the human being and the mind is constantly reacting through responses or behavior, which, in turn, influences the environment again.As W. H. Thorpe suggests, “The argument against reductionism from the biological point of view is perhaps best set out by stating that one can never hope to observe the whole repertoire of an organism if it is kept in isolation and observed solely in an artificially simplified environment” (114).A famous research project, in which the question of what a frog’s eye tells a frog’s brain was asked, highlights this point.Instead of subjecting the eye of the frog to a variety of things such as light, electrical stimulus, or analyzing chemical changes, the environment was carefully considered in terms of the frog.The frog was shown bug-like objects, and the researchers began to appreciate how much the environment plays a role in the function of the mind’s dynamic behavior and anatomy (Goodfield 82).

The environment is important in terms of the interior of the mind as well as in terms of experiences.Experiences can be defined as how the mind has been shaped by the environment through stimulus.Karl Schmitz-Moormann warns against reductionism and that the mind is not thought of as simply a “helpful structure for the continuing life of humankind,” but that “[it is] also the stored experiences of the human mind: the possibilities opened up by the emergence of the human mind and the new human experiences” (256).Experiences play an essential role in the continuous development of the human mind, but reductionism would isolate the mind and its parts thereby making experiences an unnecessary element in understanding the mind.A concept of the mind that works across all levels of the human condition should be sought after and a reductionistic approach that isolates the human being from its environment be guarded against.

IV. Comparativism

Another snare which can trip up a reductionistic theory of the mind is comparativism.This deals chiefly with the use of metaphors to compare the actual mind to something else such as a computer or other machine.In this sense, there are actually two reductions which take place: the first being the reduction of the mind to a less complex, simple machine and the second reduction being in the comparison of the parts of the machine to the parts of the mind such as a comparison of microchips within a computer to neurons within a brain.If metaphors are used, they should be articulated in such a way that is not reductionistic.For example, if one were to say that the mind is nothing more than a complex machine it would imply that everything that is applicable to a machine is applicable to the mind and the mind would have nothing that could not be explained in terms of a description of the machine.However, metaphors by their fundamental nature are only finite comparisons which can not extend to all characteristics being compared.Likewise, the environment plays an important role in the mind, and, therefore, one cannot comprehensively view the mind from a reductionistic perspective using metaphors.

Erwin Chargaff echoes these beliefs that “Life is never ‘nothing but.’”He continues to suggest that “Excessive reductionism is . . . an expedient through which researchers can . . . claim to be studying the problem of life . . . [though] they are only scraping around the outworks.” A distinction, therefore, must be made between explaining and understanding.While explaining draws from such sources as metaphors and other reductionistic techniques, understanding comes from the depths of the mind that some may call the heart.Chargaff draws a razor-sharp edge between the two as he says, “Explanation concerns only human reason, understanding involves the heart . . . [hence, one can] understand things that [one] cannot explain” (797).True understanding is not something that comes from reducing an object to its parts and comparing the object metaphorically to another simpler object.Even though the metaphor can be a powerful tool, understanding is something that one gains by appreciating an whole entity in union and cooperation with its environment. Reductionism only seeks to explain things without understanding them.

Lewis Petrinovich suggests that “molecular reductionism” poses the question “how” something works.In other words, it investigates the parts and what actions they perform; however, he continues to identify other questions such as “why” or “how come” an organism functions the way it does (24).If science is to be a pursuit of understanding and not simply explanation, then it must ask all of these questions, not just the “how” of life.However, when metaphors and comparisons are utilized by reductionism, the latter questions of “why” or “how come” become irrelevant just as the environment is ignored in the issue of isolationism and interior relationships are disregarded as far as synergistic concepts are concerned.While metaphors can allude to a plethora of characteristics of the mind, they only present a constricted perspective of the true form of the mind by reducing it to simpler objects.

V. Individualizationism

The final concept that can be added to the case against reductionism is the question of individualizationism.By generalizing characteristics of the mind, reductionism overlooks the inherent uniqueness of the individual, which is an essential quality to life.Petrinovich addresses some key differences that reflect these ideas between the physical sciences (often characterized by reductionistic approaches) and biology and psychology where the question of mind is significant.He maintains two distinctions: “(1) individual variability is the essence of organic life; [and] (2) vicariousness of action is a basic organizing principle of all organic systems which are involved in information exchange with their environment” (18).In other words, the uniqueness of the human being in terms of physical difference and behavioral variability is not just a characteristic but the “essence” of what it means to be alive.

Of course, reductionistic approaches try to dispense with differences in order to identify parts of the mind that are consistent with most of the general population.Unfortunately, this leads to the assumption that those without specific parts of the mind (i.e. mentally disabled individuals who lack logical thinking skills) can be dismissed as having less of a mind or perhaps even no mind at all if the discrepancy is large enough.This also insinuates that there is an ideal mind against which all real minds can be measured in a similar fashion as previously mentioned.However, by affirming “individual variability” and “vicariousness of action” as the “essence of organic life” one can begin to dispel these notions.In an alternative concept, individual differences are intimately connected with the basic nature of what it means to be wholly alive and essentially mortal rather than being measured and compared to the ideal mind created by reductionistic scientists.

Perhaps one of the gravest misconceptions that the method of reductionism has advocated is the desensitization to individual characteristics and behaviors.By so doing, science has become a practice of searching only for similarities among human beings and regarding the differences as extraneous.However, this creates an ideal mind that it is easy to fall short of.In a society and generation where many human beings feel they have no place or meaning in this world, a new concept of the mind where individual differences are celebrated is a necessity.Only when the human mind’s potential is affirmed and the ideal mind is put away in the history annals can Descartes’ hope to use the mind well be realized.

Statements such as, “discovering relational properties through reduction can provide holistic knowledge” will never be disputed (Barone 814).Reductionism will continue to be a driving force in the practical scientific method and the way that the world is perceived. It will remain a realistic element of the way that things are explained and defined in logical and rational manners.However, if some cautions are not taken and some advice is not heeded, understanding of the mind will continue likewise to be narrow, confined, and restricted.This new approach is now beginning to take shape.As Christopher Lucas says, “a more practical consequence of recent studies of mind and consciousness is the insistence that the human person must be viewed as an integrative whole. . . . Ramifications of this holistic view are apt to prove far-reaching indeed.”One way that Lucas sees this holistic perspective having unquestionable benefits is in the medical field.By regarding illness as “a form of mechanical malfunction,” the human body is reduced to something simpler than it actually is (170).Complex relationships are ignored and individual differences are discredited.

A few paragraphs after Descartes identifies his goal to not only have a good mind but more so to use it well, he offers the following disclaimer:

All the same, it could be that I am mistaken; and what I have taken for gold and diamonds may perhaps be nothing but copper and glass . . . we are prone to be mistaken in those things that deeply affect us. . . . Thus, my purpose here is not to teach the method that everyone ought to follow . . . but merely to show how I have tried to conduct mine. (2)

Descartes’ reductionistic methods have persisted long enough. It is time to complement these concepts with others that take into account relationships within and without the system examined, the possibility of infinite reductionism, the restrictions of metaphors, and most importantly that meaning in life is intimately tangled in individual variability.Only with these concepts in “mind” can we continue to strive for the elusive gold and diamonds.

Works Cited

Barone, Nancy C. “How Foregone Conclusions About the Mind-Body Relation Inhibit Research.” Psychological Reports Dec. 1981: 812-14.

Chargaff, Erwin. “In Dispraise of Reductionism.” BioScience Dec. 1997: 795-797.

Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes’ Error—Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books, 1994.

Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy.Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.

Goodfield, June. “Changing Strategies: A Comparison of Reductionist Attitudes in Biological and Medical Research in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Studies in the Philosophy of Biology. Ed. Francisco Jose Ayala and Theodosius Dobzhansky. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974. 65-86.

Lucas, Christopher. “Out at the Edge: Notes on a Paradigm Shift.” Journal of Counseling and Development Nov. 1985: 165-72.

Petrinovich, Lewis. “Molar Reductionism.” Knowing, Thinking, and Believing. Ed. Lewis Petrinovich and James L. McGaugh. New York: Plenum Press, 1976.22-27.

Popper, K. R. “Scientific Reductionism and the Essential Incompleteness of All Science.” StudiesinthePhilosophyofBiology.Ed. Francisco Jose Ayala and Theodosius Dobzhansky. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974. 259-84.

Restak, Richard M. Receptors. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

Schmitz-Moormann, Karl. “Philosophical and Theological Reflections on Recent Neurobiological Discoveries.” Zygon June 1986: 249-57.

Thorpe, W. H. “Reductionism in Biology.” Studies in the Philosophy of Biology. Ed. Francisco Jose Ayala and Theodosius Dobzhansky. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974. 109-138.

Works Consulted

Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Fricker, Elizabeth. “Telling and Trusting: Reductionism and Anti-Reductionism in the Epistemology of Testimony.” Mind. Apr. 1995: 393-411.

Garfinkel, Alan. Forms of Explanation—Rethinking the Questions in Social Theory.New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Goldsmith, Timothy H. The Biological Roots of Human Nature—Forging Links Between Evolution and Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Rogers, Carl R. On Becoming a Person—A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy.Boston:Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961.

Rorty, Richard M. “The Limits of Reductionism.” Experience, Existence, and The Good. Ed. Irwin C. Lieb. Tennessee: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961. 100-16.

Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue & Roger Lewin. Kanzi—The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1971.