Reductionism Undermines Both Science and Culture

by Ramray Bhat and Nikos Salingaros (March 2013)


Notwithstanding the continued imagery of the wild-haired scientist untouched by surrounding happenings and upheavals, science has intensely contributed to, and at times rewritten, social and political histories. Among the more contentious of its contributions is the philosophy of reductionism. Thus physicists in the earlier part of the last century were prone to investigating the dynamics of atoms and everything smaller than them, as if matter and all its wonderful properties could be explained only through protons and neutrons, later moving on to quarks and other such elusive elementary constituents. Similarly, much of biology in the latter half of the twentieth century was devoted to understanding and developing the tools for understanding the workings of genes, to the extent that Richard Dawkins advocated a worldview wherein it is the genes that live and evolve, using individuals and their anatomies as vehicles for perpetuation (Dawkins, 1990).

The pathologies of urban dystopia

Tradition, religious belief, and sustainability are casualties of reductionism

Within this observed range of plurality there exists a basic commonality that respects evolved complexity, the existence and communication with different states of meaning and consciousness, and the individual creative potential of human beings. More than just leveling distinctions among cultures, therefore, reductionistic thinking erases their underling complexity and reduces people to a one-dimensional definition. And this contracted dimension is strictly a crudely mechanical one. Any additional states such as those responsible for the existence of mind and meaning, of connectivity to the multiscale phenomena in the universe and to religious dimensions, are denied.

Towards a synthetic worldview

A resilient approach to the environment, and in figuring out how to prevent human beings from destroying it, requires abandoning polarizing twentieth-century political divisions. As Roger Scruton convincingly argues (Scruton, 2012), the solution lies in local (i.e. small-scale, topical) responsibility, and away from the top-centered collectivist state, monolithic bureaucracies, or global multinational control. At the same time, society needs to stop its willful and ideologically-driven desecration of evolved traditions, because those are in many cases still the best sustainable alternatives to non-resilient twentieth-century practices. Using science to promote progress is wonderful, but it must be in an enlightened rather than reductionistic framework, otherwise the consequences could be devastating in the long term.


In conclusion, our discussion is not just about aesthetics, but touches upon the very survival of humanity and the ecosystems that support life on earth. We feel sufficiently alarmed by the present approach, which rests upon exclusively reductionistic advice given by experts to both governments and the private sector. We are not optimistic that modern societies can avoid catastrophic systemic collapse by continuing to trust those same experts, all of whom are firmly rooted in a reductionistic, mechanical view of the universe. Major decisions that affect the future of humanity and civilization: what types of science to fund, the shape of our buildings and cities, providing a fertile educational and media environment that nourishes a symbiosis between tradition and the culture of life, require a new kind of input. Realizing the near-impossibility of diverting a comfortable way of doing things that has so far produced great material wealth, it is nevertheless imperative to turn to anti-reductionistic thinking so as to recover sustainable aspects of humanity lost in the past century.

Acknowledgment: We are indebted to Alexandros A. Lavdas for criticism and useful suggestions.

Ramray Bhat ([email protected]) is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California and Nikos Salingaros ([email protected]) is a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas and a prominent urbanist and architectural theorist.


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