Sunday, August 29, 2004

Adams and Reductionism

I am currently reading "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency," by Douglas Adams (of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame). Once again, he weaves an interesting story with wonderful characters, amusing perspectives and thought-provoking passages. I came across this one and though 17 years old, it is still quite relevant today.

"The things by which our emotions can be moved - the shape of a flower or a Grecian urn, the way a baby grows, the way the wind brushes across your face, the way clouds move, their shapes, the way light dances on the water, or daffodils flutter in the breeze, the way in which the person you love moves their head, the way their hair follows that movement, the curve described by the dying fall of the last chord of a piece of music - all these things can be described by the complex flow of numbers.
That's not a reduction of it, that's the beauty of it."

It would seem that a great number of people have a seemingly visceral disdain for those who would 'reduce' various phenomena to their constituent parts.I think their feelings must be based on some degree of confusion of what is trying to be achieved by understanding how things are or how they work. A rainbow is beautiful. A rainbow is not less beautiful because one learns that it is the reflection, refraction and absorption of photons of light of molecules in the air that causes the effect. To think that there are a mind-boggingly large number of molecules that interact in ways that most can barely imagine, which then creates the glorious phenomena of a rainbow just because that is what naturally happens. I think that is amazing!
For those that use reductionism in a pejorative way, please explain what you actually mean and why this is so. I can only think it might be fear of losing something sacred, but I believe that most people ‘reduce’ things all the time. Maybe a couple examples will help illustrate my thought processes.

Example 1: “My car is in the shop,” I said. My friend replies, “Oh, what’s wrong with it?” To which I said, “Hey, lets not ‘reduce’ the car to parts, of which they are actually made. The car just is, and thinking about what it is made of just ruins some magic”
Example 2: I asked my friend, “Do you like green apples?” He said, “Yes, they’re great!” I then asked, “Oh, why’s that?” He then answered, “I don’t know. I just like them, there really isn’t any reason or anything.”

Of course a car has parts and of course there are reasons for liking green apples. We are all made or organs, tissues, cells, molecules and atoms. (For those that deny this claim, you must still concede great dependence on the physical body. Think of being injected with cocaine.) Seeing a different perspective does not ruin things, it enables one to take more of the world inside.

If you carry the reduction of things far enough, you wind up with the answer to every question being: that is the way of our universe. I’ve nothing wrong with that, there’s still a heck of gap and a lot of edumancation to be experienced.
Try to see all the levels.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a comment on your examples,as I feel they are not really related to the topic. A car is an inanimate object as is a green apple and a rainbow is a wonder of nature! Perhaps the reasoning behind some people not wishing to know what it is would be that sometimes the mystery of something makes it much more beautiful. Though you may choose to know what it is, some people do not wish to take away the mystery or the emotion in things. Perhaps in your quest to have people see all levels you are not seeing that level. Though on some level people know there is a scientific reason for most things, some feel natural wonders and beauty, emotion you feel from a beautiful piece of music becomes colder and clinical when it is reduced to atoms,molecules and numbers. In your search for education you seem to be missing the human emotional factor. We wish to see something as bigger and more magical then ourselves sometimes as it just helps to make the mundane and traumatic experiences in life more livable. Just my opinion.

10:40 AM  

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