Andrew Sullivan, quoting the great science blogger Jonah Lehrer, who argues that “breaking things down into particles blinds scientists to the big picture.” Excerpt:

Time and time again, an experimental gadget gets introduced — it doesn’t matter if it’s a supercollider or a gene chip or an fMRI machine — and we’re told it will allow us to glimpse the underlying logic of everything. But the tool always disappoints, doesn’t it? We soon realize that those pretty pictures are incomplete and that we can’t reduce our complex subject to a few colorful spots. So here’s a pitch: Scientists should learn to expect this cycle — to anticipate that the universe is always more networked and complicated than reductionist approaches can reveal.

…Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, once divided the world into two categories: clocks and clouds. Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be solved through reduction; clouds are an epistemic mess, “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.” The mistake of modern science is to pretend that everything is a clock, which is why we get seduced again and again by the false promises of brain scanners and gene sequencers. We want to believe we will understand nature if we find the exact right tool to cut its joints. But that approach is doomed to failure. We live in a universe not of clocks but of clouds.

What a great and challenging observation. Last summer, when I was reading about Traditional Chinese Medicine, I discovered that TCM sees the body as a grand system, a system of systems, in which no part can be understood in isolation from the others. By contrast, Western medicine operates by logically isolating body parts to treat the illness. It’s not that one is always better than the other; the point to be drawn is simply that each approach does different things, and can provide complementary pictures. In this post about medicine and epistemology, I quoted Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, who is both a Western physician and a TCM practitioner:

To Western medicine, understanding an illness means uncovering a distinct entity that is separate from the patient’s being; to Chinese medicine, understanding means perceiving the relationships among all the patient’s signs and symptoms in the context of his or her life.

Kaptchuk doesn’t argue that one way is better than the other, only that both yield insights that are helpful in the healing of the patient. And both approaches arose out of different ways of knowing. In Chinese culture — which has been shaped by Confucianism and Taoism — things can only really be known in context of their relationship to other things. This is why Chinese thought is so centered on achieving harmony. Anyway, I hope it is not too simplistic to say that Western medicine focuses on treating the clock, Chinese medicine on treating the cloud.
The Lehrer reading about the limits of reductionism and the Cartesian mechanistic approach also tangentially brought to mind Krista Tippett’s interview with the Hindu theoretical physicist V.V. Raman, which is collected in her excellent recent paperback “Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit”. Excerpt:

RAMAN: One often talks about cognitive dissonance, for example. Now, I rather call it an experiential consonance. And what I mean by that is that it is possible to distinguish between what we understand and explain in the logical and analysitcal framework, which is what science provides. And to distinguish that from another level of experience in the world, which comes from what may be called deep involvement. It is not unlike enjoying music on the one hand and then proving a geometrical theorem. You can do both.

These are two kinds of experience, and the human spirit, if I may use the word, and the human dimensions is so complex, that we have all kinds of possibilities. One of the unfortunate consequences of the successes of the sciences is this addiction, as it were, to rationality.
TIPPETT: An addiction to rationality.
RAMAN: By which I mean that every single aspect of human experience must be subjected to rigid rationality. Now, I have the greatest respect for reason and rationality. But I also think of the Ecclesiastics, who may say, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven,” which has been articulated by thinkers through the ages in all the cultures, I would say. When Pascal wrote his famous statement “Le coeur a ses raisons que le raison ne connait point” — the heart has its reasons which reason doesn’t understand — those are the ways by which the enlightened thinkers and visionaries understood that the world is far too complex for us to really rigidly put everything under the straitjacket of reason.

Shorter V.V. Raman: “We murder to dissect.”

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