February 15th, 2002

More Than the Sum of the Parts

Timothy Wilken, MD
The strategy of physics called reductionism has been one of the most powerful tools in the history of science. What is reductionism? How does it work? Lawrence Krauss1993 explains: 
A physicist, an engineer, and a psychologist are called in as consultants to a dairy farm whose production has been below par. Each is given time to inspect the details of the operation before making a report.

The first to be called is the engineer, who states: “The size of the stalls for the cattle should be decreased. Efficiency could be improved if the cows were more closely packed, with a net allotment of 275 cubic feet per cow. Also, the diameter of the milking tubes should be increased by 4 percent to allow for a greater average flow rate during the milking periods”.

The next to report is the psychologist, who proposes: “The inside of the barn should be painted green. This is a more mellow color than brown and should help induce greater milk flow. Also, more trees should be planted in the fields to add diversity to the scenery for the cattle during grazing, to reduce boredom”.

Finally, the physicist is called upon. He asks for a blackboard and then draws a circle. He begins: “Assume the cow is a sphere….”.

This old joke, if not very funny, does illustrate how—at least metaphorically—physicists picture the world. The set of tools physicists have to describe nature is limited. Most of the modern theories you read about began life as simple models by physicists who didn’t know how else to start to solve a problem. These simple little models are usually based on even simpler little models, and so on, because the class of things that we do know how to solve exactly can be counted on the fingers of one, maybe two, hands.

I like the cow joke because it provides an allegory for thinking simply about the world, and it allows me to jump right in to an idea that doesn’t get written about too much, but that is essential for the everyday workings of science: Before doing anything else, abstract out all irrelevant details!”

Reductionism means to reduce the problem being studied down to its component ‘parts’. Then by understanding the behavior of the ‘parts’, you can assemble an understanding of the behavior of the ‘whole’. Historically science has divided Nature into ‘parts’ in order to study natural phenomena. Some of these ‘parts’—light, particles, atoms, molecules, plants, animals, and humans—form the focus for the classical sciences—optics, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology.

But, Universe is process rather than structure as will be explained more fully in the next chapter. What classical science has called ‘parts’ of the structure are in fact ‘wholes’ or stages of process. We humans will need to revise all our sciences to bring them up to date with Universe 2002—our most current model of Nature.

In Universe 2002, some of these stages of process are simpler—light, particles, atoms, small molecules, and some of these stages of process are more complex—large molecules, plants, animals, and humans. Those scientists who focused on the simpler stages of process have most benefited from the reductionist strategy. Those scientists studying the evermore complex stages of process have found reductionism less useful.

As the focus of science has shifted from the simpler to the more complex processes, reductionist strategy begins to exclude relevant details. M. Mitchell Waldrop writing in1997 explains: 

Complexity theory attempts to provide a general scientific understanding of “complex” systems, both in nature and in the human world. Examples of complex systems include ant colonies, immune systems, brains, economies, and human cultures. Even though these examples may seem very different on the surface, they do share a number of properties that make them alike at a deeper level.

First of all, complex systems typically contain very many interacting parts. Thus, a brain consists of billions of interacting neurons, and an economy consists of millions of people and thousands of firms. Many other complicated objects, such as computers, also have multiple parts, but in a complex system there is nothing like a computer’s central processing unit. Moreover, the components often are not only leaderless but also “active,” in the sense that they constantly adapt their behavior in response to what is going on around them. Thus, animals in an ecosystem will change their foraging behavior when their customary food grows scarce, and consumers in an economy will change their purchasing plans in the face of a recession.

Even with no one in charge, complex systems can often spontaneously shape themselves into highly organized patterns and structures. When weather conditions are right, for example, randomly moving molecules of air and water vapor above the Gulf of Mexico will organize themselves into a hurricane. When technological conditions were right for the personal computer industry to emerge, hundreds of new start-up firms organized themselves into a few locations.

Finally, such spontaneously formed patterns are constantly changing. Complex systems never seem to settle down to a state of equilibrium. Upheaval and change are the norm.

The above properties make complex systems very difficult to understand by the conventional methods of science. Physics and chemistry, in particular, have achieved enormous success over the centuries by a strategy known as “reductionism”—dividing up the world into comparatively simple pieces to study with mathematical precision. With complex systems this strategy rarely works. The interactions are as important as the individual pieces, and all of them have to be taken into account at once.

Yesterday, Arthur Noll wrote:

This notion that: “The whole is more than the sum of the parts.” is a statement I have strongly disagreed with in the past, and yet I agree with much of what Timothy writes, I am moved to think more about the matter, and see if we cannot reach agreement about it. Someone else … talked about emergent properties as things were put together. … The question in my mind, is if there was anything mystical, anything unexpected about the process. The energy and mass are all accounted for.
Arthur, synergic science is real science. The term synergic comes from the root word synergy. The dictionary defines synergy as the working together of two things to produce an effect greater than the sum of their individual effects. A simple example might be two muscles working together or two medications combined to treat a medical illness. R. Buckminster Fuller writing in 1975 explained:
Synergy means behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately. Synergy means behavior of integral, aggregate, whole systems unpredicted by behaviors of any of their components or subassemblies of their components taken separately from the whole. Synergy is the only word that means this. The fact that we humans are unfamiliar with the word means that we do not think there are behaviors of “wholes” unpredicted by the behavior of “parts”.
Synergy can best be illustrated I think, by chrome-nickel-steel – chromium, nickel, and iron. The most important characteristic of strength of a material is its ability to stay in one piece when it is pulled – this is called tensile strength, it is measured as pounds per square inch, PSI. The commercially available strength of iron at the very highest level is approximately sixty thousand PSI; of chromium about seventy thousand PSI; and of nickel about eighty thousand PSI. The weakest of the three is iron.
We all know the saying, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. Well, experiment on chrome-nickel-steel, pull it apart, and you will find that it is much stronger than its weakest link of sixty thousand PSI. In fact it is much stronger than the eighty thousand PSI of its stronger link. Thus the saying that a chain is as strong as its weakest link doesn’t hold. So, let me say something that really sounds funny: Maybe a chain is as strong as the sum of the strength of all its links. Let’s add up the strengths of the components of chrome-nickel-steel and see. Sixty thousand PSI for iron and seventy thousand PSI for chromium and then and eighty thousand PSI for the nickel, that gives you two hundred and ten thousand PSI. If we add in the minor constituency of carbon and manganese we will add another forty thousand PSI giving us a total of two hundred and fifty thousand PSI.
Now the fact is that under testing, chrome-nickel-steel shows three hundred and fifty thousand PSI–or one hundred thousand PSI more than the combined strength of all the links.
This is typical of synergy, and it is the synergy of the various metal alloys that have enabled industry to do all kinds of things that man never knew would be able to be done based on the characteristic of the parts.”
R. Buckminster Fuller, SYNERGETICS–Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, Volumes I & II, New York, Macmillan Publishing Co, 1975, 1979
Synergy is the associated behavior of ‘wholes’, not predicted by examination of the ‘parts’.

So as Universe becomes more complex, reductionism fails to be as effective a strategy for understanding. In the past scientists have referred to the sciences of Physics and Chemistry as the hard sciences and those of Biology, Psychology and Sociology as the soft sciences. By this they implied that the scientists in the soft sciences were not as precise and rigorous as those in the hard sciences. The physicist with his hard science is not necessarily more precise and rigorous than the psychologist with his soft science, the physicist has been focusing on the so called simpler ‘parts’ of Universe, while the psychologist has been focusing on the more complex ‘parts’ of process.

But something deeper is going on here. Science is making an even more fundamental error. The labeling of stages of process as ‘parts’ of Universe represents an even larger error. The stages of process are not ‘parts’ they are ‘wholes’. And the study of ‘wholes’ requires an inclusive approach. This approach is diametrically opposed to reductionism.

Innovation and invention occurs when the scientist sees the ‘whole’ first. This fact is almost unknown. Our reductionist science teaches us that the discoverer simply assembles the ‘parts’ he finds in Universe into ‘wholes’—whether these parts be postulates of a theory or pieces of a new invention. But this belief is wrong as Arthur Young the inventor the Bell helicopter explains: 

There are no helicopter “parts”, until after you first create the concept of the “whole” helicopter, then you make the “parts” to make the “whole”. The “whole” is invented first. The “whole”comes before the “parts”. The something extra in the “whole” contains the “purpose” and “function”. This cannot be determined by examining the parts alone.

Since purpose is in the “whole” and not in the “parts”, the “whole” must be greater than the “parts”. How can we account for this? Because the “whole” cannot function when divided. It follows that function is that aspect or “cause” which is not in the “parts” and which reductionist science cannot deal with, because science deals with mass, length, and time, which are all “parts”. This leads to a basic cosmological postulate: The “parts” are derived from the “whole”, and not the “whole” from the “parts.” ”

Fuller comments on this as well, 

It is manifest that Universe is the maximum synergy-of-synergies, being utterly unpredicted by any of its parts. It is readily understandable why humans, born utterly helpless, utterly ignorant, have been prone to cope in an elementary way with successive experiences or “parts”. They are so overwhelmed by the synergetic mystery of the whole as to have eschewed educational strategies commencing with Universe and the identification of the separate experiences within the cosmic totality. Universe apparently is omnisynergetic. No single part of experience will ever be able to explain the behavior of the whole.”

Remember, the main strategy of classical science has been to use reductionism—the breaking of phenomena into ‘parts’ for examination and experimentation. Reductionism is the method that produced most of the discoveries of the physical sciences including that of energy. Reductionism focuses on the part to the exclusion of the whole. Because reductionism reduces the data being examined, it must by definition be incomplete. Reductionism is blind to the ‘whole’. Reductionism cannot see synergy. This is not to say that all reductionistic science is wrong or that the tool of reductionism has no value. But we must use it cautiously.

As our understanding of complex science grows we will discover how (1+1>>2). It will not be magic. When they detoninated the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert it much have appeared to the observers to be the result of MAGIC. As science writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
My argument is even simpler then that. I think we can be more working together than we can be working separately. And, much more working together than we can be working against each other. This is just common sense.
Human synergy is working together by explicit intent. (1+1)>>2
Human neutrality is working separately and ignoring each other. (1+1)=2
Human adversity is working against each other. (1+1)<2

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