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Descartes and the Scientific Reductionism

Essay by   •  August 6, 2011  •  Essay  •  495 Words (2 Pages)  •  3,156 Views

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To introduce Scientific Systems Thinking, the opposite viewpoint is presented initially.

René Descartes, who lived in Europe in the seventeenth century, was one of the important and influential thinkers in western history. He has been called the 'Father of Modern Philosophy', and much of the western philosophy created after his time is a response to his writings, which are studied everywhere to this very day. His most famously philosophic statement is "cogito ergo sum" which means 'I do think, therefore I do exist'. He was also an expert in mathematics, no less than in philosophy, and contributed a lot to this field too: he was the first to express functions by drafting graphic axes of X and Y describing the function of XY values, created analytic geometry, introduced infinitesimal calculus, and so forth. He contributed greatly also to physics, optics, astronomy and other areas (Clarke, 2006; Grayling, 2005).

However, for our purpose Descartes' Scientific Reductionism is important. The term Scientific Reductionism has been used to describe various reductionist ideas about science, but globally it's an approach to understanding complex things by reducing them to their simpler basic parts. According to this approach, the whole complex thing is not more than the sum of its components, and therefore the best scientific strategy is to attempt to explain the smallest possible entities, aiming to give explanation to macroscopic properties in terms of microscopic components (Jones, 2000; Rosenberg, 2006).

In this manner, Descartes (1985, p. 58-59) compares a sick man to a badly constructed clock, and a healthy man to a well-made clock: "a clock constructed with wheels and weights" is like "the body of a man" that is "as a kind of machine equipped with and made up of bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood and skin". A clock that "is badly made and tells the wrong time" is like " a body suffers from dropsy, for example", and "when I consider the purpose of the clock, I may say that it is departing from its nature when it does not tell the right time; and similarly when I consider the mechanism of the human body, I may think that, in relation to the movements which normally occur in it, it too is deviating from its nature". Descartes says that he was making "comparison between the idea of a sick man and a badly-made clock, and the idea of a healthy man and a well-made clock".

According to Descartes' view, the entire universe, and equally everything in it, can be regarded as a clockwork mechanism too; to understand it, one need only to investigate the parts and then to put them together correctly. If you know the smallest components in isolation from each other - you know also the total; all you have to do is to reassemble each component to recreate the whole. In other words, the answer

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