“In some areas of knowledge we try to reduce a complex whole to simple components, but in others we try to integrate simple components into a complex whole.” Discuss this distinction with reference to two areas of knowledge.
[Note: A version of this post appeared here on Sept 19 2013.]
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.
(From 'The Tables Turned', by William Wordsworth)
These lines are from a pair of poems in Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, which encapsulate the central tension between emotion and reason within his revolutionary project of writing poetry which we have come to know as belonging to the 'Romantic Period'.
In these lines, Wordsworth appears to argue against the 'meddling intellect' of the learned community of minds in 18th Century Age of Enlightenment whose focus on Reason has been at the expense of human empathy. Wordsworth's criticism seems to be aimed specifically at the scientific spirit whose need to discover the laws of nature have led only to one thing: the destruction of the natural environment. He was quite possibly pointing to the mass industrialisation and its adverse effects on society which was made possible by the very scientific discoveries made by intellectuals such a Newton in the 17th Century. Newton's laws of motion not only gave us a mechanistic view of the world, but also gave us a means of controlling and shaping that world to our most immediate social and economic needs.
The last line of the verse stands out, however, as underlining the main thrust of Wordsworth's criticism of the scientific urge for new knowledge: science, in its attempt to know how the natural world works, is a form of 'murder'; it fails to see natural objects, or even the natural world, in their wholeness. By trying to find the essence of life by dissecting nature into its parts, we kill that essence. The life force of nature is something more than its individual parts.
Wordsworth's lines appear to make two assumptions: first, that what makes nature work in the way that it does somehow inheres invisibly in natural objects like a hidden essence or soul-like element just waiting to be seen, without physical interference, by someone who has the right skills (this is the 'essentialist' assumption). And second, Wordsworth doesn't seem to take into account that science works in both directions: reducing things to their simple parts and putting them back together in imaginative and often more efficient ways. So one of the key knowledge questions embedded in this question are: in what ways do the parts of an object relate to the whole? To what extent is a natural object more than the sum of its parts?
Think of someone new to mechanics. How is she going to know how an engine works? Reading about it in theory is one half of the job. If, however, she takes an existing engine apart and learns about the different roles played by each physical component, in time, she’ll know enough about them and their interrelationships to put them back together in working order. The engine is itself is nothing more than the sum of its parts. Is this true of knowledge? If you want to be an economist, is it enough for you to pick apart all the various facts about how an economy works (‘the engine’ of an economy’) to be able to claim that now you have economic knowledge? What ‘more’ do you need?
Let’s continue the thought experiment. Presumably, if our mechanic ever came across an alien engine, given sufficient time, she’d be able to learn about the individual alien components and reverse engineer the engine using components with which we’re more familiar. This alien engine too would also be nothing more than the sum of its parts. (Can we reverse engineer an entire economy?)
Now extend this analogy to living things. Say human minds. Can we reduce a mind to the component parts or physical functions and chemical reactions of the brain? Surely a mind is MORE THAN the sum of its parts (we have discussed this idea in a series of posts under the tab ‘Consciousness’ - read posts from bottom up!).
Implicit in this Q is the idea of ‘reductionism’ or ‘materialism’, which is a view of knowledge held by most scientists: all material things can be reduced to their smallest physical particles. Combined with this view is the idea of ‘mechanism’: to think of living things as organic machines. Scientists who believe in reductionism tend to be ‘monists’ (only matter is real – no place for immaterial entities); whereas those who take the ‘essentialist’ position are dualists (mind is something separate from its physical and chemical brain functions). It gets a little more complicated than this especially when you take account of recent developments in technology and AI.
Coming back to the question of mind or consciousness: if mind IS only a system of organised facts (just like a human or alien engine, the mind is a ‘brain engine’), then presumably we can reverse engineer it like any other engine (click the picture above to view the TED Talk on this issue)...