Notes on reductionism (#32)
I once believed knowledge can be built from the group up, thinking that if we grasp the basics, we could easily understand more complex concepts.
This is a mistake of reductionism. Some things only emerge when looking at the higher level and can’t be predicted just by analyzing the parts. For example, to understand the future of the solar system, we need to take the emergence of life into consideration.
Events often have emergent qualities that are not directly traceable to past causes. Another issue with reductionism is its attempt to explain outcomes solely based on their earlier causes. For example, some attribute the dominance of European civilization to only geographical causes.
The problem is that, besides the practical inability to know all details of historical events, or to calculate all interactions of constituents of a system, these lower-level facts aren’t always explanatory. For example, even if we can explain why a certain atom ended up on the screen of my laptop, it can’t tell us why this MacBook was created.
Explaining events by their causes is only backward-looking. Explanation of this kind may very well be right. Geographical advantages did contribute greatly to the dominance of European civilization. Our behavior was the result of neuron excitements, hormones, childhood experiences, fetal environments, genes, culture, and so on. But depending on the problem you’re trying to solve, such a way of explaining can be bad.
It cannot explain the future. Simply saying “the future will be determined by its past” explains little. It can lead to a neglect of agency and change if we’re not careful in applying the explanation to an unconditional, open environment.
Accepting this way of thinking does have some merits. I find it well aligned with the Stoics’ attitude of being fatalist about the past. Accepting past events leaves no room for hatred towards ourselves or others. But this does not justify future behavior, by believing that one can’t help but do something, writing off moral responsibility.
On this Week
I revisited the updated version of Working Identity and found the following ideas worth reminding, especially if you're on a similar journey of discovery, connections, and finding life’s work:
1/ We have no “true self”, but many selves; do parallel experiments to test which of those works.
2/ Don’t just focus on the work; Find people who are what we want to be and who can provide support for the transition.
3/ Actively interpret past experiences and retell our stories; over time this leads to clarity.
Question I’m wondering
Are there any non-traditional learning spaces that emphasize curiosity-driven exploration and discussion, without being tied to overly structured curriculums, dogmatic assessments, or future returns?
Until next week,