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Reductionism and Reintegration
The dangers of reductionism and how to simplify without losing the essence of the thing itself.
A group of blind men approached an unknown object. One touches the trunk and proclaims it to be a thick snake. Another fingers its ear and muses it must be a type of fan. The third man places his hand on its leg and reasons it is akin to a tree trunk and thus is a pillar. The fourth blind man says it must be a rope upon holding the tail. Another blind man, as he runs his hand over the tusk, says it is none of those but in fact a spear.1 Each blind man’s experience naturally produces a different representation. All have access to but a piece of the whole, yet believe they see the totality of the thing itself.2
Reductionism states that intangible and tangible things can be broken down into parts. If we know the building blocks of a thing, by breaking it down we can know about the thing itself. It’s simplifying something complex into the basic constituents. As such, adding up the dissected parts in theory should form the same whole.
“At the core of the contemporary world is the reductionist view that we are – nature is – the earth is – ‘nothing but’ a bundle of senseless particles, pointlessly, helplessly, mindlessly, colliding in a predictable fashion, whose existence is purely material, and whose only value is utility. - Iain McGilchrist, “The Matter With Things”
Examples of reductionism can range from personality tests like Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram to maps, mental models, stock market multiples, and certain religious interpretations.
Consider the reductive properties of maps - in the words of mathematician Alfred Korzybski, “A map is not the territory”. An Englishman by the name of Lewis Richardson in the 1950s found the quoted lengths of borders varied significantly. The smaller the map scale, the longer the length. So too the more jagged the coastline, the greater the length. As such, Norway’s coastline has an accelerated increase versus Britain’s. The name for this is the coastline paradox, which states that the length of a coastline is variable. It depends on the measurement method and degree of cartographic generalization. This is the result of a coastline’s fractal, curve-like properties.
Most lengths of other items can be measured with a relative degree of certainty. In other words, more accurate measurement devices result in a value closer to the objective reality. However, with a coastline, the closer the measurement, the greater the length – “The concept of ‘length’ is usually meaningless for geographical curves”. This became known as fractal dimension and was expanded on by Benoit Mandelbrot:
“Geographical curves are so involved in their detail that their lengths are often infinite or more accurately, undefinable. However, many are statistically ‘‘self-similar,’’ meaning that each portion can be considered a reduced-scale image of the whole. In that case, the degree of complication can be described by a quantity D that has many properties of a ‘‘dimension,’’ though it is fractional. In particular, it exceeds the value unity associated with ordinary curves.”
We implicitly know that generally the whole is more than the sum-of-the-parts (SOTP). Another term for this is Gestalt. Iain McGilchrist uses the term to mean “the form of a whole that cannot be reduced to parts without the loss of something essential to its nature”.
A marriage is more than the sum of two people; a family exceeds its collective members. Would anyone look at a Monet painting and say it was the mere accumulation of brushstrokes?
Is our consciousness the sum of our cellular processes? Of course not. To put it another way, a “disease is more than the sum of disordered enzymatic and cellular interactions”. One can see why the common use of reductionism and reductive is derogatory.3
“The idea that a person is a functioning assembly of brain cells and associated molecules is not something neuroscience has discovered. It is, rather, something it takes for granted” - Alva Noë, Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley
Reductionism is dangerous in that it can present itself as the only true view. Something is seen but in the act of breaking it down the whole is lost. Indeed, the whole oftentimes cannot be expressed as it exceeds the capabilities of language.
“Reductionists and determinists unerringly fail to take account of the fact that their own arguments apply to themselves. If my beliefs are ‘nothing but’ the mechanical products of a blind system, so are all views, including those of the reductionist. If everything is already determined, the determinist’s tendency to embrace determinism is also merely determined, and we have no reason to take it seriously (since we are all determined either to believe it or not already).” - Iain McGilchrist, “The Matter With Things”
This sort of thinking assumes context independence. In reality, context specificity is crucial. Different circumstances cause varying outputs, so one cannot paint everything with a broad brush stroke. Every cell in your body contains the same set of roughly twenty thousand genes. It’s the gene expression (turning on) or gene repression (turning off) that dictates a cell’s shape and function.
Another word for this is epigenetics, where certain genes are turned on or off depending on the cues inside and outside the cell; along with the interplay between these forces. Epigenetics literally means “above the genes” - the underlying DNA sequences aren’t changed but rather it’s how your body reads your genes. In this one to many phenomena, the same building blocks lead to drastically different outcomes. The opposite is also true, in that many molecular processes can correspond to one single, higher-level kind.4
Reductive thinking falls under the purview of the brain’s left hemisphere (LH). The left hemisphere does well with predictable patterns, but tends to reach hasty conclusions based on what seems most likely based on prior experiences. Events and things are treated with excessive certainty. Indeed, in the presence of new information that runs contrary to prior experience(s), the LH is biased to reject true, even appallingly obvious data to maintain the status quo. On the other hand, the RH better adjusts its supposition based on new data.
Reductionism gone wrong:
In philosophy, materialism is highly reductionist. This theory can also be referred to as physicalism or, in ancient times, atomism. Materialism states that everything can be reduced down to physical processes. It often, though not always, goes hand in hand with determinism, which states that all events are completely determined by pre-existing causes. The exact opposite of determinism is randomness (indeterminism or nondeterminism). Determinism brings up for debate to what extent, if any, that free will exists. Further, materialism/determinism does not adequately speak to ethics or the soul.
One could argue that winnowing capitalism down to the Friedman doctrine is reductionist. He said that the sole goal of a business firm is to increase profits and maximize shareholder returns:
“There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” - Milton Friedman
The irony is that those who have the gold make the rules to benefit themselves foremost. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to a “tragedy of the commons” situation, where benefits accrue disproportionately.5 This means that a common, shared finite resource does not see the costs and benefits shared equally among parties. Picture a manufacturing plant along a river that indiscriminately dumps waste into the water with no repercussions to itself. Those that depend on the river for clean water and fishing suffer…not the firm.
“The structure of a commons system makes selfish behavior much more convenient and profitable than behavior that is responsible to the whole community and to the future.” - Donella Meadows, “Thinking in Systems”
On the religious side, Christians taking the Genesis scripture of dominating the earth to justify actions is similarly reductive:
Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1:28
It’s no matter that the Hebrew Bible term “dominion,” is ambiguous and infers Kingship or authoritarian rule. Looking at what the Bible means by kingship typifies a servant-king in the vein of David or Jesus Himself. Rather than exploitation, a better term would be stewardship. In turn, we will be called to give an account in this area.
Mental models are another case of reductionism. It’s implied that, if one followed all the distinct mental models, the resulting combination equals human behavior. Or if each mental model is a brick, the collection of them would constitute an unimpeachable wall. As the biggest modern proponent of mental models (Farnam Street) itself states, they are “simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks”. A major issue with mental models comes from the separate pieces not being reintegrated into the whole of reality.
Occam’s razor of the simplest solution being the most likely is true until it isn’t. Or what about Hanlon’s razor, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect?” Neglect and malice can often go hand-in-hand (look no further than child abuse). These models quickly break down with black swan behaviors/events.
Mental models are components of systems. Systems, in turn, are more than the sum of their parts. Reductionism misses emergent system properties as it posits that emergent properties are simply the sum of properties. By definition, emergent properties are new and unexpected.6
Further, these mental models could lead to the wrong assumption that knowledge itself will lead to changed behavior. “Because in this situation I remember this mental model, I will act on it.” This is like saying, “Because I know it is healthy to eat well, exercise, and sleep, I will do so.”7 Mental models should be seen more along the lines of heuristics (i.e. rules of thumb) rather than golden keys that can unlock any door.
There is tension involved between breaking something down to understand while retaining the whole. Complex things have to be broken down on some level. One cannot learn differential equations without undertaking calculus. We cannot learn how to run before we walk, and walk before we crawl. We wouldn’t know much about organisms, physics, or chemistry unless scientists undertook granularity.
The question is how to simplify without losing the essence of the thing itself. How far down can reductionism go without losing the bigger picture? Instead of introducing a mental model, the reality is that it depends. In some areas, the mere act of speaking to something reduces its essence. It is a sort of irreducible complexity. Further, because granularity works for the hard sciences doesn’t mean it is necessarily applicable to the softer sciences of psychology, economics, or sociology.
The best example of losing the essence of the thing itself by breaking it down is the sacred. Take for example YHWH (Yahweh): the holiest name of God as written in the ancient Hebrew language. Religious Jews do not it say out loud and instead substitute in a different term like Adonai, Elohim, or HaShem. This divine name was held to be too sacred to be spoken by human lips. In other words, the utterance of YHWH reduces its sacredness. It is ineffable – beyond what can be expressed or described in words: “Language at times places a barrier between us and understanding, substitutes a crabbed expression for a living reality, and pretends to ‘explain’ it – away.”
If you’ve ever had a spiritual experience, you know how hard it is to explain the unexplainable to others. Merely by attempting you know you will fail to convey the experience accurately. The only way to have anything resembling an understanding is by undergoing the experience yourself.
“The very first pulsation of the spiritual life, when we rightly apprehend its significance, is the indication that the division between the Spirit and its object has vanished, that the ideal has become real, that the finite has reached its goal and become suffused with the presence and life of the Infinite.” - William James, “The Varieties of Religious Experience”
For those not so religiously inclined, we can make the same argument that breaking something down into language is not always possible as we automatically fall short of what it is in its wholeness:
“How does one say the Mona Lisa, or Leonardo’s Last Supper? The assumption that everything of significant that can be experienced, or known, or communicated, is capable of being uttered in words would be too preposterous to merit a moment’s entertainment were it not for the fact that it has underlain so much philosophy in the twentieth century…” - Philosopher Bryan Magee
Reductionism’s errability don’t necessarily come from simplification in and of itself. On the contrary, it comes from the failure to reapply the (now) better understood parts into the whole; rather than the reductionist view of looking at the simplified parts as some sort of separate other.
In other words, by implicitly vaulting the separate parts above the whole, by making it into an ideology, we corrupt the totality of the thing. The opposite term for this in philosophy is holism; of which a crucial assumption is there are emergent properties as progression occurs from lower to higher hierarchical levels, so that things cannot be explained only by examining the individual parts8.
Let’s look at reductionism and reintegration through stock market multiples. Stock market multiples have a lot of assumptions baked in. The simplicity is alluring but also a two-edged sword. The implied assumptions not only consist of years upon years of discounted cash flows, but those items which drive cash flow generation like capital expenditures, margin trends, and the trajectory of sales.
To view a stock market multiple as part of a greater whole would be to see approximately what it is implying. Not simply via a comparison with itself or others - if something market-wide has changed, these comparisons become less relevant (for example, if tax rates change). One could calculate what growth, margins, and free cash flow levels would be needed to justify the trading multiple. Or one could look at other measures, like dividends or free cash flow yields. Ideally, a combination is used. As with the important aspects of life, a mechanistic, isolated approach is limiting and only encompasses a part of the picture. Sometimes the piece you’re viewing is enough to recognize the whole and other times it is not.
Other times the analysis can be as simple as the smell test - does a company trading at 30x sales make sense? An unprofitable SAAS company trading at a 30x multiple is assuming massive, continuing growth and a large, normalized margin. As we would say in equity research, it’s priced for perfection. Now perhaps it could see some justification if it’s going to be the winner in a large, relatively nascent winner takes all industry and in an interest rate regime where money is essentially free (notice how many things have to go right and how few things can go wrong).
Stepping away from the finance world, consider weightlifting. A few months ago I was doing low bar pause squats and noticed once I was below parallel one knee inexplicably drooped below the other. As I reracked the weight, I felt a deep groin soreness. It turns out my pectineus was strained.9 This strain is the strand taken from the yarn…the thing in isolation. Had I only taken time off until it healed would represent a failure to update my workouts for new information. Without remedial actions to strengthen my weaknesses (i.e. adduction and abduction) and certain workout modifications (e.g. not taking such a wide squat stance as it can irritate this small muscle; be careful stretching it excessively as it’s prone to overstretching; focus on single leg exercises), the problem would appear again. The failure to reintegrate into the larger thing would yield future problems.
Reductionism is not an “only”; it is a “yes and”. The division inherent in reductionism can be used to our advantage when we view it as part of the broader picture. Without simplification we could not function effectively or efficiently. Yet, by the same token, the disparate pieces cannot be taken as absolutes. Sticking to only one lower level inhibits understanding on a higher level. The proper course of action is to break down and then reintegrate. In these instances where reduction de facto leads to degradation of the whole, limitations should be kept in mind (this includes known unknowns and unknown unknowns).
In addition to reintegration, one’s attention must be on the proper plane. Commonalities are not proof of insubstantial variations. Improper planular focus would be arguing a human and a cat perceive the world in the same way because the mechanisms in our eyeballs underlying our sight are the same.
“The world is not just a set of separately existing localized objects, externally related only by space and time. Something deeper, and more mysterious, knits together the fabric of the world.” - Tim Mauldin, Professor of Philosophy and Physics at NYU
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Adapted from the blind men and an elephant parable
Another way of looking at this would be to ask: what is the “real” West Texas? Is it a part of the Permian Basin - where ~40% of the United States’ oil is produced? Does it represent a place where Native Americans roamed for thousands of years? Is it merely a Republican stronghold? Or where the famous Friday Night Lights film takes place? As with the blind men and the elephant, no one factor in and of itself can explain the whole of West Texas, for each is but a partial look.
To be fair, economically, the divisions of a business in principle should equal the sum-of-the-parts. This is not always the case, and the delta is to the downside – in that there is a discount to SOTP. A ready example is the conglomerate discount – where a company with multiple, diversified, varied divisions trades for less as one company than if the standalones were added together.
A molecular pathway may have differing effects depending on the context, or the same pathway can be involved in varied functions in different species or even different parts of an individual.
Which then becomes a power law
Emergence refers to collective phenomena/behaviors in complex adaptive systems that are not present in the singular parts. Like Gestalt, the whole is greater than the summation of individual items.
Wisdom involves the application of knowledge. In separation, knowledge and action are relatively impotent.
Biology has used the term pluralism to describe the idea that science “needs a diversity of methods, models and modes of theoretical reasoning”. It seems as though talk has shifted towards the integration of varied explanations, models, and concept. One model “argues that integration proceeds by two fields coming to be linked by so-called ‘interfield theories’.
The pectineus is part of the hip adductor muscles. It itself is a small muscle attached to the pubic bone. Getting treatment on the site is at best an awkward, uncomfortable experience.