What is Reductionism?

Daniel Liden

Reductionism is a method of understanding in science and philosophy that involves breaking down complex systems into their simpler parts and observing and understanding the interactions of those parts. This style of thinking and understanding can be applied to many different things, from physical objects to theories to definitions and meanings. Though the idea of reductionism has existed since the ancient Greeks, René Descartes, a 17th century French philosopher and scientist, was the first to formally state the concept. He stated that the world was like a machine composed of many smaller parts, and that it could be understood by taking apart and studying the parts before learning how they all fit into the whole.

Reductionism involves breaking down complex systems into their simpler parts and observing and understanding the interactions of those parts.
Reductionism involves breaking down complex systems into their simpler parts and observing and understanding the interactions of those parts.

Theoretical reductionism is one several different forms of Descartes's methods of thought. It states that all theories in a field are part of a larger theory with a broader scope. In theory, this supports the idea of the existence of a "grand unified theory" of physics that combines quantum physics with other observed phenomena.

Another form is methodological reductionism, which states that the best way to solve a problem or understand an explanation is to break it down to the smallest possible understandable parts. By this explanation, it is better to view a phenomenon such as melting or sublimation from the view of atomic interactions than from the view of the simple chemical explanations involving heat and pressure. simply speaking, by this view it is preferable to view anything from its lowest, simplest form than to look at higher level, more complex systems and explanations.

The final type is ontological reductionism, which, because of its metaphysical nature, is more useful in philosophy than in science. This theory states that reality itself is made up of a finite number of different kinds of entities, objects, or substances. Some even go so far as to say that everything that exists can be broken down to different combinations of the same single kind of substance.

Contrary to reductionism, systems thinking is a style of thought and reasoning that seeks to understand a whole system by examining the system as a whole instead of by disassembling and studying the parts. While some people prefer to use one of the two styles of thinking to the exclusion of the other, it is more common to use whichever style fits a given situation. Quite simply, some situations call for systems thinking, while others require a closer look at the parts of the system are are better suited for reductionism.

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Discussion Comments


@David09: Hold on, hold on, no. It doesn't matter what your opinion is, you are objectively wrong in two ways.

1) "Scientists" who believe in the multiple universes believe in an infinite number of them to start with, and not without reason. They receive clues and evidence from a number of quantum experiments, and did not just come up with it because it sounds cool.

2) Nobody that seriously believes in this (and can be taken seriously) would profess this as the unquestionable truth. Instead, it is but a theory, as the name implies.

Please refrain from qualifying anyone you are not qualified to qualify.


@everetra - I don’t believe that scientists always operate from a standpoint of pure science. They have their share of idealism too, floating concepts that are not firmly rooted in reality.

The multiple universes theory is one such example. This states that there are thousands of different universes, and ours is just a small part.

How can you prove that? It’s not just theory, in my opinion, it’s flat out speculation. So I would weigh some of the things they say with a grain of salt.


@NathanG - I can’t speak to metaphysical concepts like the meaning of consciousness. But I can tell you that the reductionist approach is the only way to use the scientific method, as it is called.

Frankly, I can’t see how you would use systems thinking in that domain. How can you look at the whole without understanding its parts? Scientists have to take things apart to understand how they work, in my opinion.


@allenJo - If you are talking about a watch, I can see where reductionism makes sense. If you are talking about other things, like living life forms, I don’t see that it can.

I work in the field of computer science. We address concepts like artificial intelligence. We ask the question, can computers think? How do humans think?

In psychology cognitive processes are considered embedded in the brain. However, when you start taking apart the human brain so to speak, to study synapses and things like that, you find something different.

When you look at the meaning of “consciousness,” you find that you can’t exactly piece it together by looking at individual cells. In other words, it’s like there is this proverbial ghost in the machine. I wouldn’t subscribe to reductionism for studies in human consciousness personally.


I remember hearing that Einstein spent his whole life looking to find the answer to the “grand unified field theory” that the article talks about.

He was not successful, one of the few things he did not succeed at. I think the reason he did not succeed was that, as scientists discovered later, the universe operated differently on the macro scale and the micro scale.

On the macro scale it function as Einstein envisioned, with processes and functions obeying the laws of gravity and relativity. On the micro scale there was this thing called quantum mechanics and string theory.

I am by no means an expert on the subject, but I’ve been told that objects in that micro world behave just the opposite as we would expect them to! In other words, there’s another set of laws that govern the micro world. In essence then the whole of the universe is greater than the sum of its parts.

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