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Reductionism is dead! Long live Reductionism!

Posted Dec 02 2008 11:48pm

istock_000006766876xsmall1 The 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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