03 November 2007

People didn't always think "reductively"? (Or, The Enlightenment)

Hi -

Some person or people explicitly proposed the notion that phenomena can be best understood by breaking them down into parts. Who? When?

I'm so self-conscious about whether anyone reads these notes, and what you might be thinking on the other end of the Tubes, that I'm tempted to label everything "note to self" as to avert any "Wow, Gregg is either naive, or full of himself, or both..." head-scratching over there. Truth is, I've always struggled understanding subjects outside of engineering, science, music, and the visual arts, meaning, well, history, literature, philosophy, and everything else in the department store listing of topics in the college Course Catalog that frightened me. Finally, in my 30s, I'm trying again to understand what people thought about Long Ago. Lately I've been "tricked" into thinking about this stuff -- I pick up a book by a scientist, and lo!, he's talking about mysterious figures during the Enlightenment and the notion that hey, look, this is when people started thinking about problems in the scientific and political worlds and breaking them down to their essences... (it wasn't obvious?) and, well, I just get sucked in to this interesting historic stuff that I couldn't comprehend in high school.

E.g., my memory of four years of grade-school history can be summarized thus:

So, really, I wanted to jot down some notes here in the hopes that I'll actually remember some of this. And fortunately most of you are historians and English-studiers who can correct me if I'm interpreting these things wrong.

I'm still reading Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (E. O. Wilson); I've mentioned this a few times here. Although I think his writing is brilliant and shows strong evidence of his having traversed many diverse fields, I... well... I still don't get the thesis. The kind editors at Amazon explain:

[It's] a wonderfully broad study that encourages scholars to bridge the many gaps that yawn between and within the cultures of science and the arts. No such gaps should exist, Wilson maintains, for the sciences, humanities, and arts have a common goal: to give understanding a purpose, to lend to us all "a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws."

Wilson (8-9) explains:

Consilience is the key to unification. I prefer this word over "coherence" because its rarity has preserved its precision, whereas coherence has several possible meanings, only one of which is consilience. William Whewell, in his 1840 synthesis The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, was the first to speak of consilience, literally a "jumping together" of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. He said, "The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction, obtained from another different class. This Consilience is a test of the truth of the Theory in which it occurs."

Anyhow, this is what Wilson's book is about, but actually I want to make sense of how and when reductionist thinking appeared on the scene. This occupies a chapter or two. It goes like this:

  • "The dream of intellectual unity first came to full flower in the original Enlightenment, an Icarian flight of the mind that spanned the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A vision of secular knowledge in the service of human rights and human progress, it was the West's greatest contribution to civilization. It launched the modern era for the whole world; we are all its legatees. Then it failed." (15)
  • The end of the Enlightenment is the death in 1794 of the Marquis de Condorcet.
  • In 1793, Robespierre royally sucked, man. He took Rousseau really literally, with his suggestion to treat as deviants those people who didn't conform to the "general will," the rule of justice that would try to achieve "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."
  • I can imagine most of you are cringing reading this, as I'd cringe watching someone work out Ohm's Law...
  • Anyway, Condorcet (b: 1743, France) was trained as a mathematician. Evidently he was the first guy to apply mathematical reasoning to the social sciences. So did Laplace, who I had thought was just the guy who came up with a way for engineers do to differential equations easier, but never mind that. Also, "Condorcet was a polymath with a near-photographic memory, for whom knowledge was a treasure to be acquired relentlessly and shared freely." He knew a LOT about, you know, EVERYTHING.
  • At one point, Condorcet fled to a boardinghouse in Paris, and relied on his memory to write a historical tract: Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In it, he wrote, "The sole foundation for belief in the natural sciences, is the idea that the general laws directing the phenomena of the universe, known or unknown, are necessary and constant. Why should this principle be any less true for the development of the intellectual and moral faculties of man than for other operations of nature?"
  • (Remember, the Enlightenment is a river of thought by a lot of people, like "Bacon, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, and Newton in England; Descartes and the eighteenth-century philosophes around Voltaire in France; Kant and Leibniz in Germany; Grotius in Holland; Galileo in Italy.")
  • Ah, okay, so here's what I was looking for -
  • Regarding reductionism: Francis Bacon -
Science was the engine of the Enlightenment. The more scientifically disposed of the Enlightenment authors agreed that the cosmos is an orderly material existence governed by exact laws. It can be broken down into entities that can be measured an arranged in hierarchies, such as societies, which are made up of persons, whose brains consist of nerves, which in turn are composed of atoms. In principle at least, the atoms can be reassembled into nerves, the nerves into brains, and the persons into societies, with the whole understood as a system of mechanisms and forces. If you still insist on a divine intervention, continued the Enlightenment philosophers, think of the world as God's machine. The conceptual constraints that cloud our vision of the physical world can be eased for the betterment of humanity in every sphere. Thus Condorcet, in an era still unburdened by complicating fact, called for the illumination of the moral and political sciences by the "torch of analysis." (24)

  • "The grand architect of this dream was not Condorcet, or any of the other philosophes who expressed it so well, but Francis Bacon. Among the Enlightenment founders, his spirit is the one that most endures." (Bacon was born in 1561.)
  • "By reflecting on all possible methods of investigation available to his imagination, he concluded that the best among them is induction, which is the gathering of large numbers of facts and the detection of patterns. In order to obtain maximum objectivity, we must entertain only a minimum of preconceptions." (25)
  • "Bacon elaborated on but did not invent the method of induction as a counterpoint to classical and medieval deduction. Still, he deserves the title Father of Induction, on which much of his fame rested in later centuries."
  • "Descartes showed how to do science with the aid of precise deduction, cutting to the quick of each phenomenon and skeletonizing it. The world is three-dimensional, he explained, so let our perception of it be framed in three coordinates..." (30) He felt that mathematics could describe all of knowledge, a vision that came to him in a dream in 1619... "he perceived that the universe is both rational and united throughout by cause and effect. He believed that this conception could be applied from physics to medicine - hence biology - and even to moral reasoning. In this respect, he laid the groundwork for the belief in the unity of learning that was to influence Enlightenment thought profoundly in the eighteenth century."
  • Newton (1684: mass and distance laws of gravity; 1687 the three laws of motion; and, really, the ability to predict just about anything. Co-invent calculus, why don't you! Oh...)
These two final paragraphs really blew me away:

Reductionism, given its unbroken string of successes during the next three centuries, may seem today the obvious best way to have constructed knowledge of the physical world, but it was not so easy to grasp at the dawn of science. Chinese scholars never achieved it. They possessed the same intellectual ability as Western scientists, as evidenced by the fact that, even though far more isolated, they acquired scientific information as rapidly as did the Arabs, who had all of Greek knowledge as a launching ramp. Between the first and thirteenth centuries they led Europe by a wide margin. But according to Joseph Needham, the principal Western chronicler of Chinese scientific endeavors, their focus stayed on holistic properties and on the harmonious, hierarchical relationships of entities, from stars down to mountains and flowers and sand. In this world view the entities of Nature are inseparable and perpetually changing, not discrete and constant as perceived by the Enlightenment thinkers. As a result the Chinese never hit upon the entry point of abstraction and break-apart analytic research attained by European science in the seventeenth century.
Why no Descartes of Newton under the Heavenly Mandate? The reasons were historical and religious. The Chinese had a distaste for abstract codified law, stemming from their unhappy experience with the Legalists, rigid quantifiers of the law who rules during the transition from feudalism to buueaucracy in the Ch'in dynasty (221-206 B.C.). Legalism was based on the belief that people are fundamentally antisocial and must be bent to laws that place the security of the state above their personal desires. Of probably even greater importance, Chinese scholars abandoned the idea of a supreme being with persona and creative properties. No rational Author of Nature existed in their universe; consequently the objects they meticulously described did not follow universal principles, but instead operated within particular rules followed by those entities in the cosmic order. In the absence of a compelling need for the notion of general laws - thoughts in the mind of God, so to speak - little or no search was made for them. (33-34)

I jot this all down because was naively surprised that someone actively came up with the process of understanding a phenomenon by breaking it into parts. (Later chapters show how you can take the parts and hope to predict what happens when they are built back up again.)

But who was it, then? Bacon, Descartes? Or since "...Bacon did not invent the method of induction...", who did? Some bronze-age proto-engineer? If we're not sure, why all this focus on Condorcet and Bacon and Descartes? Because they made the first strong deductive tools?

Wait, now I'm screwing up my terms. (Keeping in mind that inductive reasoning is arguing "down" to the general from observation, and deductive reasoning is arguing "up" from basic laws. This "down" and "up" mnemonic stems from how engineers think. The bits and atoms are at the bottom of our food pyramid; the product is at the top.)

The source of my astonishment is in what I thought the above discussion concerned: when did people decide to break things into elements? I thought that stuff went back tot he ancient Greeks.

I'm not sure I'm clearer on these things.

Or is that just how history works?


ps There's an engineering concept called "thinking in domains," such as the time-and-frequency domains, that is very useful and, frankly, a Big Deal. It makes difficult problems quite tractable, and I doubt there's been reason to apply that thought-model to non-mathy fields because, well, I don't see how you could. I am considering whether to write a brief post that explains this because it might be interesting to those of you who didn't major in engineering. Plus, it would keep me off the rough streets of Arlington.


GEB said...

Yes, please do educate us non-engineers to think in other domains...

Who invented inductive reasoning? Cultural and intellectual historians often will refrain from trying to pin such large-scale concepts on any one person at any one moment. They may point to a constellation of people who were starting to talk and think in similar ways or to even more widespread evidence of shifts in the ways thinkers were proceeding in their work across a large spectrum. No doubt unsatisfying (and unnerving) if you're in the 21st-century business of selling your intellectual property, but there it is. As your book says, there was a river of thinkers that make up the Enlightenment--coming together, interacting, working off each other's ideas, and influencing public debate often without recognizing their full indebtedness to the public dialogue. So the history becomes more about that moment in time than about any single individual.

As for the difference between Baconian reductive reasoning and whatever it was that Plato and Aristotle did, I'll leave that to a historian of science, because I don't know.

But yeah, I too get blown away by histories that show me people didn't always think in the same fundamental ways that we do now--or that they don't all operate from the same basic premises even in the present. (See for example the interesting, if somewhat simplistic, account see Nisbett, Geography of Thought.) Figuring that stuff out is a key reason I'm a cultural historian.

G-Fav said...

Yeah, it was the contrast to Eastern thinkers ("why didn't they come up with reductive thinking?") that kind of shocked me.

Is that Geography of Thought book good? I have no sense of how to pick non-science texts and am generally weary of works for the popular audience. Believe it or not, our former CEO suggested both that and Consilience to me about 5 years ago, and I'm finally getting in to reading the former.


ps Right now J-Fav and I are watching Inconvenient Truth. Woah!

Anonymous said...

I've been meaning to leave a longer comment here for ages, and I'm not getting around to it. But I wanted to mention that around my intellectual/social circle, we use 'reductive thinking' as something verging on an insult: it implies ignoring the situated nature of whatever's going on, and frequently is correlated with doing 'reductive' user models that don't in fact represent several important aspects of the reality under consideration -- and, unfortunately, a lack of realization that this might be a problem. So it was somewhat of a surprise for me to see your post.

One alternative way to think about this stuff might be to think about Western medicine, which has been a solid reductionist endeavour since the Enlightenment. It's done pretty damn well at several problem areas, but there are spaces where precisely that kind of reductive framework doesn't give you the kind of information you need to solve the problem, and more holistic approaches can really be useful. For example, acupuncture is far and away one of the best approaches to pain management -- but doesn't fit into a Western, reductive paradigm at all. Or look at it the other way up. The single biggest killer in the developed world is heart disease, by quite some margin. You can give patients statin, you can individually prescribe the elements that make up better exercise and dietary regeimes, but what's needed to solve the problems is often more holistic and larger scale than that -- by a number of measures, NYC is the healthiest city (of its size?) in the United States, for the simple reason that nearly everybody walks nearly everywhere, a lot of the time. And sure, you could build a model of health that incorporated all those different elements, but it's an uphill battle and I think often ends up being frustrating, unproductive and often, frankly, intellectually dishonest.

So. Aren't you glad I didn't get around to really replying in detail like I meant to?