In recent years most people’s perspective of health has evolved from merely the absence of disease, towards incorporating the concept of wellness or well-being. There is however no universally accepted definition of wellness, and for some it involves the balanced ‘integration of body, mind and spirit’, and for others the ability to ‘live life to the fullest’. Your experience of well-being is after all a subjective matter, as only you can feel well through the senses of your own being.
Your interpretation, understanding and value of health and wellness, as with all human experiences, is dependent on your subjective worldview. “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are”, said Anaïs Nin. Whether aware of it or not, the lens through which you look at the world around you, eventually becomes part of you.
Your worldview is ultimately determined by whether you consciously and unconsciously reflect on daily experiences, the values or principles you base your decisions on, and the extend to which you allow society to dictate your choices. This brings us to one of the greatest paradoxes of our time: although freedom is highly prized in all Western societies, the majority of us do not exercise freedom in daily decision making.
Never has the power of media been so strong in swaying public opinion, because as John Mayer says, “if they own the information they can bend it all they want”. What was referred to as ‘indoctrination’ 50 years ago, is now endorsed with ‘scientifically proven’. In between the daily paper, Mrs Jones and the Holy Science, most people have surrendered all cognitive responsibility for making their own healthy choices.
You might argue that your local paper runs a decent column on nutrition, that science is essential for understanding the world we live in, and that Mrs Jones is in fact the most educated neighbor you’ve ever had. That all sounds fair. The problem however is not the messengers – the problem is the message. Most of what is researched, taught, commercialized and believed about health in the present-day, is a product of reductionist science.
Reductionism is the philosophical position that explains or studies complex phenomena by reducing it to its simplest constituents. In other words, a complex system is seen as nothing more than the sum of its parts.
Reductionism forms the basis of modern science and has contributed hugely to our knowledge in areas like physics, chemistry and micro biology. However, the adverse effects of it’s overpowering dominance on current thinking, particularly in the area of wellness, has not received much attention. For a more detailed look at how reductionism and it’s strong grip on modern philosophy came to be, click here.
Although reductionist theory contributed to dramatic transformation in scientific and philosophical thinking which led to the rejection of superstitions and the medieval doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, it also resulted in the disentanglement of rationality from human spirituality and the human body. Has this reductionist obsession with the rationally quantifiable aspects of humanity not led to the disintegrated modern man? Dislocated from his body, a stranger to nature, and ignorant about the existence of God.
As a largely uncontested frame or reference for centuries, reductionism has not only become the indisputable champion of modern scientific investigation, but a core principle to Western philosophy. This general tendency to reduce (or isolate) phenomenon in order to explain (or define) life, becomes more peculiar when compared to the worldviews of non-Western cultures.
The underlying principle in Eastern and African philosophy is that of cosmic unity: everything influences and is being influenced by the rest of the whole. Thus, nothing can be understood outside of the context within which it exists. This is expressed in the traditional African concept of Ubuntu, in which personhood is defined in relation to the community, roughly translated into ‘I am because we are’ (Nicolson 2008:39-40).
In this holistic (or systemic) approach, the whole explains the part, while in the reductionistic approach, the part explains the whole. Neither of these positions need to be held in absolute authority over the other, and maybe true wisdom lies in incorporating both. What we learn from the holistic perspective is that more knowledge of the smaller parts does not necessarily equate to greater understanding of the whole.
Using microbiology as example, Herbert Muller put it this way: “To say that a man is made up of certain chemical elements is a satisfactory description only for those who intend to use him as a fertilizer (Muller 1943)”. What we gain from reductionism only adds value to our understanding of nature and life, if this is synergized with knowledge of the whole.
Brian J. Ford of Cambridge University, author of over 30 books and publisher of several papers in medical and scientific journals, states in his article On Intelligence in Cells, the current emphasis on “the minutiae of the cell may be fashionable, but it can teach us little of life in the round”. He goes on to say that the obsession with reductionism has led to the peculiarity that most contemporary cell biologist never observe the behavior of living cells!
In explaining how vogue sciences has turned us away from the majestic realities of life, Ford uses this analogy: “Molecular biology is rather like looking at the transistors in a radio and guessing how they work. [When] the important thing is not the radio, but the programs”. The truth is, all disciplines of science based on reductionism, are at risk of forgetting about the “programs”.
It is of importance here to add some qualifiers to the term science: scientific endeavor is an essential part of intelligent living and human development. In the same way the first humans observed the sun rising and setting at certain times and planned their day accordingly, we adjust our daily behavior according to experience and observation of the environment. Even though trivial, my protocol for boiling an egg no more than 5 and half minutes because I like a soft yellow, is also scientific enterprise.
A formal definition of science refers to “the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. Science also refers to “a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject”. And lastly, Science is also used as a collective noun for all scientists who practice the discipline of scientific study.
Since most do not make these distinctions when talking of science, they often foster the same level of trust in Science (representing the global body of scientists), than they do in the scientific probability of the sun rising tomorrow. This misconception denies the reductionist essence of Science: it consists of no more than the sum of the fallible human beings with imperfect theories it is made up of.
Carl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, stressed that “all observation-statements are theory-laden”, and are as much a product of purely subjective factors such as a scientist’s interest, expectations or wishes, as they are a function of what is objectively real (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). If we accept that not all lawyers are honest, then surely we cannot postulate that a desire for truth and the welfare of society is the motive behind all scientific endeavor.
We have however ignored Popper’s advice, and contemporary science has been accepted by millions as guardian of the indisputable truth. Left unscrutinized, science has in fact become the religion of choice for many, and most consumers swallow whatever ‘facts’ it produces with a religious fervor (much like the superstitions and religious dogmas of the middle ages).
The advice of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is as applicable today as it was in the 15th century: “If you find from your own experience that something is a fact and it contradicts what some authority has written down, then you must abandon the authority and base your reasoning on your own findings”. However, due to the white coat neurosis of our day, consumers have become conditioned to believe that only those who spend their lives inside laboratories can be trusted to provide scientific answers to the questions of life.
Life outside the laboratory teaches us that no isolated molecule, cell, muscle or bone of any organism functions on it’s own. And since there is no empirical number or scientific test that can explain or predict the most valuable attributes of life – love, hope, faith, trust, kindness or natural beauty – reductionist science cannot merit its untouchable position of authority in Western society.
Due to the ignorance of present-day science to the holistic nature of life, it’s best you don’t put faith in science to provide all your answers. If you do, you might miss out on the best of live – the immeasurable. As Albert Einstein said, “everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted”.