The Holistic Genome

The Holistic Genome – blog

Reductionism is dead! Long live Reductionism!

with 3 comments

istock_000006766876xsmall1The western philosophy of science has long been depended upon reductionism. To put it simply; in order to understand a complex system some reduce it to more manageable parts.

Reductionist thinking is the basis of many areas of modern science.  Biology and chemistry being a subset of physics, for instance.  Or trying to identify the smallest subatomic particle, such as what we are trying to do with the Hadron collider.  

Western medicine has, over the millennia, attempted to adapt to a more rigorous scientific primer,  and as a consequence, adopted reductionism as it’s foundational philosophical approach.  However, we, in medicine, know that there are so many things that we do that is such an art and not a science … from the empathy and compassion that we show, to holding someone’s hand when they need it or just listening to a patient without interrupting. 

Moreover, medicine is more than the sum knowledge of applied biology and chemistry.  It is social, psychological, spiritual and at times, existential.  A patient is more than the sum of their parts. Why should their genes be any different? 

Reductionism does do it’s job for us in science.  We are, after all, human, and we can’t simultaneously comprehend the larger whole and how everything interconnects.  However, we must know it’s limitations. 

We should be mindful about the bigger picture.  We must realize, we are not just the sum of our parts!  We are more that it!  We have a mind, a body and a spirit. 

Genomics should be no different.  We should approach the integration of genomic information into the clinical practice of medicine as yet another modality that facilitates expression of this magnificent art of medicine and not use it to divide us, or place us into bins! 

“Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity!” 

                                                                               Hippocrates, c. 400BC

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Written by Jonathan Holt, DO

December 2, 2008 at 10:26 pm

Posted in holism, spirit

3 Responses

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  1. OK, I’ll start the conversation:

    This boils down to an emotional appeal for medical humility and a vague sense of mysticism, but I’m confused what’s the meaning of the difference between “the sum of the parts” and “the thing itself.” That’s the interesting question, but you’ve left it here as a mystery.

    Andrew Yates

    December 22, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    • My point is that Life is mysterious! We try to understand it by breaking it down in to smaller pieces, but that mental exercise ultimately fails to explain it. Our very attempt at an otological identity of a “thing” fails to recognize its true complexity. I don’t mean to be mystical or too deeply philosophical about this point, but it is fundamental to my approach to life and my approach to the practice of medicine. Thanks for pondering it with me.

      Jonathan Holt, DO

      December 23, 2008 at 7:49 am

  2. Ok, “mysterious” is a good attitude to encourage exploration, but that exploration is valuable because it gradually improves our understanding of reality. As I understand from what you’ve written, your philosophy is that because reality intrinsically incomprehensible (perhaps because a description of a thing isn’t the described thing itself?) that reduction is a futile exercise.

    Amusingly, isn’t your hypothesis that reality is irreducible itself a reduction? After all, musings about reality are not reality themselves. Then, by your own logic, isn’t your own argument insignificant? Thus, isn’t any argument claiming reduction is futile is itself futile?

    Andrew Yates

    December 26, 2008 at 2:02 pm


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