Opinion guest column

Science, a wondrous and reductive practice

The reductive nature of science has broken down many of its topics, and built them back up.

The periodic voyage of celestial bodies, the cosmic rhythm that was only just observable to the humble Earth-dweller, in many ancient civilizations, represented fate, hope and a way of life itself. The Mayans held the Venus cycle in high regard, its movement representing a challenge to the mighty Sun, auspicious timing for territorial war.

Recently, the world beheld the Transit of Venus, as she danced across the Sun. This event occurs every 243 years, the last when James Watt patented the Watt steam engine, ushering in the Industrial Revolution. Still, life continued as normal on this extraordinary occurrence. Venus was quickly forgotten.

What has changed since the times of the ancients and the times of today? Why did events of planetary motion lose its throne in the minds of civilizations?

I argue this is a consequence of the reductive nature of science. Scientific inquiry obeys Occam’s razor, carving out the most concise explanation. What was once astrology became astronomy. The greats, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, explained to the world that a few simple laws regulate this periodicity and rhythm. A heavenly ballet became a mechanistic push-and-pull. There was no special force except that common force we feel even here on Earth, gravitational force. The remarkable and exclusive became regular and deterministic.

With each passing generation of early scientists, this broad body of belief slowly decayed and lost repute. Remained only the bones, the pure astronomical qualities of astrology.

Advancements in science have often resulted in such transformation. With empiricism and deduction at the core of its logic, science takes grand observations in nature and whittles them down to a few constants, equations and rules. Such findings are daily presented in academic journals and lauded for how well they perform this reduction.

The most reductive advancement, so far, is the success in decoding the human genome. Every last base pair of the 6.4 billion that supposedly constitute an individual have been identified. Nested in our study and understanding of genetics is a popular deterministic principle. You are your genes, more or less. Some are born athletes, some are born mathematicians. A quick analysis of your DNA can illuminate the spectrum of ability and disability you will attain in life before you leave the womb.

However, scholars are revisiting this principle. Is it too reductive? Indeed, a cursory understanding of epigenetics points one in such a direction. There are cellular factors nearby that regulate your genome, that determine if the sacred code will have a decree. Simplistically, these factors can turn your genes on and off. Environmental influences, like diet, exercise, or even completing Sudoku puzzles every morning may alter your fate through this means.

Though classifying DNA and identifying genes is reductive, there remains an element of free-will, of creative quality that rescues human potential from the tomes of cold formulas and equations. You can decide how well to train your mind and body, genes are not destiny; not entirely.

The most ambitious scientific undertaking, currently, is the Human Connectome Project. This scientific endeavor seeks to identify the neural circuits of the human brain in their entirety. A future vision is the ability for anyone to access a database of circuits and surf the emotional, cognitive and perceptual channels that generate the mind.

Two consortiums are heading the venture, one of Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Minnesota, and the other of Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of California Los Angeles.

The mind has been a topic approached by many disciplines for many centuries. Neuroscience, a field rapidly maturing and mutating, seeks to understand how the brain, a 1.5 kg ball of fat and protein, generates the mind. The ambition to map out every last connection and circuit could in effect reduce vast bodies of belief to the simplicity of a circuit board. The philosophical becomes physical.

Will the brain and mind become reduced through this endeavor? The mind is the golden nugget itself. All pursuit of knowledge has some nested root in the mind, for it is with this internal state that we can even observe, contemplate and imagine. If we reduce this, what have we left?

Time will tell if the mind will go the way of astrology. However, there remains a murmur of hope. Science itself tells us connections between neurons are plastic. That is, our individual experiences dictate how well connections are made within the circuit. This is unlike a circuit-board, with known voltages, resistances and currents. The brain is a dynamic structure, with enough variability to support the idea of individual uniqueness.

Contemplations on the consequences of science are not meant to be admonishing. They are simply reflective. Science and medicine has afforded society the most phenomenal of achievements, and deserve their due standing.

In paving these roads, simply remember what was pushed aside. Look ahead even, as science progresses, current beliefs will inevitably crumble, leaving only a faint trail of stardust.

Abdul-Kareem Ahmed is a teaching assistant for the department of
Brain and Cognitive Sciences