Aug 24 2012

The Generative Paradigm, Part I

Published by at 3:26 am
Under Generative Science | Reductionism

“At one time, the earth was supposed to be flat. Well, so it is, even today, from Paris to Asnieres. But that fact doesn’t prevent science from proving that the earth as a whole is spherical. No one nowadays denies it. Well…we are still at the stage of believing that life itself is flat, the distance from birth to death. Yet the probability is that life, too, is spherical and much more extensive and capacious than the hemisphere we know.”

-Vincent van Gogh

Towards a Theory of Generativity

Allegorical indications of generative-type thinking exist as far back as the written record. Early cave paintings of animal herds represent a primordial attempt at modeling a complex phenomenon. Most early societies placed the priest-healer-shaman right at the center of the local belief system, responsible for the weather, crop yields and success on the battlefield as much as the health of the populace. Their observation that sick people often seemed to miraculously self-heal lent a strong argument to the notion that the cure was often in large part spiritual and mystical, although these early physicians were practical enough to investigate the use of herbs and other natural products as well. However these agents were more or less tried against the ‘system as a whole,’ as this was best where the salutary effects of the agent could be noticed.

In time as the practice of medicine became more refined as an elemental splanchnology (the anatomy of viscera) became more integrated into medical thinking, undoubtedly, at least initially, from its use in haruspicy (divination through entrails) and eventually surgery. From this developed the initial awareness most of the organs were critical to life, and that somehow their proper integration was critical to optimum health. Thus evolved the paradigms of balance, which came to dominate the medical doctrines of virtually all the great cultures of the ancient world. Excesses and deficiencies of energies in the great organs of the abdomen, chest and pelvis would be treated by intervention until some degree of harmony was achieved.

Because each individual had their own degree and topology of imbalance, prescriptions were highly personalized and many of the agents employed were quite sophisticated in their actions and clinically effective: a testimony to this is the fact that their indications and usage persists in large parts of the world to this day.

The inductive methods that have gone on to typify Western scientific thought were first advanced by Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), whose Novum Organum (1620) was the first attempt at a replacement for the analytics of Aristotle’s Organon and the subsequent culture of Aristotelianism with its excessive emphasis on teleology (the belief that final causes exist in nature) that had hampered scientific investigation during the medieval age. The Posterior Analytics section of the Organon deals with the demonstration of scientific knowledge, maintaining that ‘to know a thing’s nature is to know the reason why it is.’ [1]

A flock of auklets exhibit swarm behavior.

Swarm behavior

Bacon’s method consisted of procedures for isolating and further investigating the form nature, or cause, of a phenomenon, including the method of agreement, method of difference, and method of concomitant variation. [2] Thus, if a plant yields more fruit when watered daily, and less fruit when watered weekly and when it is more or less successful according to the frequency of watering, then it is scientifically reasonable to say that being frequent watering is causally related to the plant’s fruit yield. Throughout the subsequent centuries, Bacon’s method of induction was amplified and further developed by René Descartes (1596 – 1650) who advanced the idea of mechanistic reductionism.

Reductionism can best be seen as an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things. Reductionist philosophy holds that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents. The basic question of reduction is whether the properties, concepts, explanations, or methods from one scientific domain, typically at higher levels of organization, can be deduced from or explained by the properties, concepts, explanations, or methods from another domain of science, typically one about lower levels of organization. [3]

Clocks and Blenders

Unlike the generativity, reductionism cannot readily impute the behaviors of a complex system, given that its basic methodology depends upon the interpretation of discrete linear cause and effect relationships that often fail to typify the world at large. One can dismantle a spring-driven clock rather easily, and with a minimum of mental effort, soon clarify the relationship between the power train, gearing, escape mechanism, verge, crutch and pendulum. However it would take an enormous leap of imagination to discern that the major function of the device was to simply convert energy stored in the spring into the a reflection of the passage of time. The account of the device cannot understood from the role of the elements of the device, because the account is simply the length of time the clock has run, which is really reflective of information gain and not work performed.

Dismantling a clock does not give an indication as to its ultimate purpose.

An example of this is the time-honored tendency in medical education to split the life sciences into two very distinct and teachable subjects: the study of normative processes; physiology, and the study of diseased processes; pathology. Attempts to employ a more nuanced approach to the subject, i.e. textbooks in pathophysiology typically describe one aspect or the other, with perhaps the added convenience of the entire exercise finding itself within the confines of a single cover.

The goal of this monograph is not to criticize reductionist thinking, nor proffer the suggestion that generative strategies somehow substitute for reductionist thinking. Reductionism has few faults as a logical device when employed under the conditions for which it was designed. Most of the problems with reductionism lie with the thinker, not the paradigm, since a difficulty usually arises when the scientist misapplies it as a modeling device, or expects its predictive capabilities to be uniform under any and all scenarios and circumstances. Reductionism has traditionally stood opposed to the precepts of vitalism; the premise that living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things. [4] The generative paradigm can be seen as a tool with the capacity to extend the utility of both systems.

The mathematical biologist Jack Cowan devised a simple thought experiment to help determine if the reductionism is suitable for a proposed experiment: Simply drop the object of interest into an imaginary kitchen blender and throw the switch. If after a minute or so, the experimenter is still interested in the material in question, the investigation can proceed via purely reductionist modeling. [5]

From its earliest beginnings naturopathic philosophy has simultaneously struggled and embraced the dualities of reductionism and holism, linear and non-linear determinism and the reality of complex adaptive systems, because it held to the tenets of vis medicatrix naturae (Vis) long after most other medical disciplines had rejected its precepts as simple vitalism. The generative paradigm attempts to fit the doctrines of holism, complexity and the Vis into a framework that is buttressed by the recent advances in bioinformatics, molecular genomics and network combinatorics. The result provides a new, exciting and helpful way of predictive modeling that combines traditional naturopathic healing wisdom with a strong and robust conceptual framework.

  1. Aristotle, Posterior Analytics. Mure, GRG (translator) (2007); The University of Adelaide:
  2. Hesse MB. ‘Francis Bacon’s Philosophy of Science’, in A Critical History of Western Philosophy. (1964); O’Connor, DJ (editor) New York, pp. 141—52.
  3. Brigandt I and Love A. ‘Reductionism in Biology.’ in: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
  4. Bechtel W and Richardson. ‘Vitalism’. in: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (1998) London: Routledge. Craig E. (Ed.)
  5. Wimsatt W. Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise Approximations to Reality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (2007)

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “The Generative Paradigm, Part I”

  1. When the terms are used in a scientific context, holism and reductionism refer primarily to what sorts of models or theories offer valid explanations of the natural world; the scientific method of falsifying hypotheses, checking empirical data against theory, is largely unchanged, but the approach guides which theories are considered. The conflict between reductionism and holism in science is not universal—it usually centers on whether or not a holistic or reductionist approach is appropriate in the context of studying a specific system or phenomenon.