Nov 02 2011

Reductionism and Complexity

Published by at 6:08 pm
Under Complexity | Reductionism

The class I currently teach in generative medicine uses a content system called Blackboard. Blackboard allows me to upload material and pose questions to a forum-like discussion area. One of my students, upon reading the assignment in the textbook made the following comments:

You talk about the division between classical science and naturopathic science, which you equate, respectively, with reductionism and emergence (p. 30). Do they necessarily have to oppose one another and can they not coexist. And does not naturopathic medicine incorporate some degree of reductionism and classical science some degree of emergence?

I guess this goes back to the old question of: can’t we all just get along but, further, isn’t it sort of imperative that we not categorize conventional versus naturopathic medicine in such black and white terms? Or maybe it is a more useful distinction than I’m discerning?

If, indeed, scientific reductionism is dead (p. 20) and the biomedical community is unaware, how do you best suggest we, as NDs (or future NDs), start to make inroads into that community to convince them that the idea of emergence/holism/a generative approach is worth substantively incorporating into the larger paradigm of “modern” medicine?

I would argue that there is a global groundswell of desire among consumers of healthcare for this generative approach, but it might be up to us as practitioners of naturopathic medicine to bring it mainstream. But the path to that end is not clear. At the end of the day, not only do we have to all get along, but we need to understand what the other is saying.


If we define ‘dead’ as having lived a life with purpose, and perhaps even being so lucky as to exhaust that purpose, then reductionism is quite dead in the sense of being ‘not alive’. [Which leads to the question: if an idea has no purpose, hence no life, does it even get to die?]

The web of life is indeed a network.


There will always be a reason to think in reductionist terms when the facts do indeed fit the scenario. IMHO there will always be opportunities for non-complex thinking (and indeed one should seize them whenever one can).

My position is that, as a profession, we are perhaps running the risk of being overly seduced by the simplicity of fitting our oeuvre to the existing allopathic framework. In essence we will be moving into a neighborhood in which the prior occupants have already sucked out the life and are themselves moving on to new areas.

Moreover in doing so we may well be creating a nascent culture of new dogmatists, apparatchiks who insist on only dealing with issues on these terms. If that was not bad enough, this then runs the risk of creating its own response element, its own duality, such that a second subculture results that does the exact opposite, accepting facts a priori.

So, what about this generative medicine idea? As you so astutely point out, the goal is to blend both the complex-systems approach with the mechanistic-reductionist approach, point being that we, as naturopaths, should have a pretty good feel for where the work needs to be done and how to go about doing it. Perhaps this duality is itself a power law: we may be using an 80% reductionist formula to discern 20% of our total causalities. Certainly systems-complexity-network (SCN) medicine comprises only a small fraction of current biomedical information analysis. Generative Medicine, as I see it, should resolve that duality.

No matter what, the informational chasm does indeed lay which complexity, as well as any future potential for understanding and treating the life process itself.

Like they say, if you really want to learn something, teach it.

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