Uncommon Sense

December 5, 2021

You Have Heard About It, Yes?

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:55 am
Tags: , ,

Scientific reductionism, you have heard about this, yes? Mostly comments about it tend to be sneering disapprovals of this practice. Often comments talk about children unwisely breaking toys, trying to figure out how they work.

Yet, this process is wildly successful even so. And, somehow the critics always leave out the “rest of the story.” Take the effort chemists made to identify chemical substances, first reducing them to elements and compounds. Then elements were reduced to being collections of atoms. Then atoms were reduced to being collections of subatomic particles. Now we know that subatomic particles are also often collections of even smaller particles.

Critics say this approach causes us to lose sight of the majesty and beauty of nature. This is silly, of course. As a chemist I not only appreciate “the fall colors,” as deciduous trees leaves change color, from green to reds, yellows, and rust colors, but I find them even more beautiful because I know why they change color. Understanding the underpinnings of nature just deepens one’s appreciation of it.

But, the critics often lose sight of the entire process of reductionism: to break something down into smaller parts which can be understood, and then reassembled back into the whole which can then be understood. Just breaking things into parts may be interesting but it doesn’t solve real world problems.

The best analogy to this process I found is the process by which a professional musician learns a new piece of music. I will use the piano as an example, because that is the only instrument with which I am familiar.

When a professional pianist sets out to learn a new piece of music, the process begins with simple things, like fingering. Each note played is associated with a key on the keyboard and deciding which finger to use to press that key is called fingering. There are people who perform this service for busy professionals and some do it for them selves. Once the fingering is decided (although it may change with experience) the pianist breaks down the piece into small bits, typically phrases and measures. They start by playing a single bit, sometimes with just one hand and then the other, then both hands together. The goal is to get the notes “right,” which means the right note is played in the right sequence. Then the next bit is processed, and then the two bits are played together as once piece.

Now, this is an idealized process and I am sure every pianist differs from it as well as uses large parts of it. Once the notes have been learned, the reductionism phase is over and the assembly of the whole begins in earnest. The playing of smaller bits together isn’t so much reassembly, basically just stitching learned bits together, but can be looked at as part of the assembly process.

But then the real work begins. At some point a metronome is employed to be able to play the notes at speed. Once that is done, then more subtle effects need to be addressed, voicing and phasing. More time will be spent reassembling the piece than was spent disassembling it to learn the notes.

Now many professional pianists could sit down and sight read the piece from a score and to most people’s ears, it would sound adequate. Most of us would express amazement that such a feat were possible. But to trained musicians, that is not performance ready preparation. Just playing it over and over won’t make the playing any better. It needs to be broken down and reassembled to deepen the understanding of the music, and make the playing of it a creation of beauty.

Scientists do break things down into smaller bits. Ordinary objects are tremendously complicated. But they are not wayward children breaking their toys to find out how they work. They are performing part of a process where the understood smaller bits get reassembled into the whole, hopeful with deeper understanding then before.

The scientific process currently underway that exemplifies this is the search for the mechanism of abiogenesis, how life begins from inanimate matter. Life could have been imported here by aliens, we do not know this one way or the other. But if it happened through natural process, we may just be able to sleuth out that process. We know the basic facts. That life began early on this planet as monocellular life forms (like amoebae and such). Then close to a billion years of time elapsed before multi-cellular life forms happened, and then the theory of evolution accounts for everything after that point. So, the key questions are: how did the first monocellular life forms happen and how did these forms turn into multicellular life forms?

The first question has been broken down into parts: how did proteins form, how did cell walls form, how did the self-replicating aspect of the formed cells begin. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is working on the whole process because we understand so little about the smaller bits. And we are making progress. We are learning how proteins could form spontaneously. We are learning how cell walls can form spontaneously. We are starting to learn how self-replication began.

So, the anti-science people are still screaming “If God didn’t create us, then how did life begin? Science can’t answer that question, can it?” Well, science has not answered it yet, but whether or not it can is based upon trying to do it. How many people are trying? How much is being learned? We really just got started on this problem, a very difficult problem, but we are approaching it like many other complex problems, by scientific reductionism. Because if we can figure out how the parts happened, we might be able to figure out how the whole thing happened.


  1. What is the reverse of reductionism? Honestly, I don’t know, but maybe you would know the right term.

    Anyway, understanding really requires that we can go both ways. We can break down big things and then we can understand how a whole emerges from the parts. The pianist learns phrases, but until the phrases get put back together, the composition can’t be appreciated.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by James Cross — December 5, 2021 @ 9:54 am | Reply

  2. “Often comments talk about children unwisely breaking toys, trying to figure out how they work.” Now that’s an interesting statement. Except for the “unwisely” part. I had absolutely no problem at all with my kids taking apart their toys to figure out how they worked. In fact I helped them do it. I wanted them to be curious, to want to know how things worked. It’s all part of basic problem solving. One of them is now a scientist running a lab at a paper company and the other works as a networking specialist at one of the largest healthcare companies in the state and has various side gigs custom building rare replacement parts for obsolete computers that collectors restore.

    Reductionism is absolutely essential in the quest to figure out how things work.

    Unfortunately these days we seem to want to insist that all research has to have some monetary value. If the goal of whatever research project you’re working on doesn’t promise to make someone, somewhere, money, it isn’t worth doing the research.


    Comment by grouchyfarmer — December 5, 2021 @ 5:04 pm | Reply

    • “Unwisely breaking toys” refers to children who destroy their toys by taking them apart unwisely (like with a hammer), not just taking them apart.

      It was just a reference to comments I had heard.

      Well, our entire culture is invested in a “pay as you go” mentality, so why should science be exempt. How come these billionaires who got rich off of technology aren’t giving out grants for basic research? They are kind of pissing on the hand that fed them.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — December 6, 2021 @ 11:08 am | Reply

  3. When I was a kid, probably not yet 10, I took an alarm clock apart to see how it worked. I could not get it put back together, I had yet to learn how to lay pieces out in the order you take them apart, and did not have a cell phone to take pics. I thought I was in a world of trouble.

    My mom just laughed, and figured I took after her dad, who was a local legend mechanic. To this day I still take things apart and fix them. I guess I do have a bit of grandpa in me.

    Anyway, to your point, I can’t think of a better way to understand how something works, by taking it apart, fixing what needs fixing, and putting it back together again. Mechanically speaking.

    Scientifically, we have to better understand the smallest of the small, to better understand the biggest of the big. So, no way around it, we need reductionism to become better informed of our reality. Let the sneers sneer. They always have, always will.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by shelldigger — December 7, 2021 @ 6:46 am | Reply

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