I remember learning about the scientific method through an example in a textbook. The example was that of spontaneous generation in which someone tested the statement that rotting meat generates flies. They did this by placing rotting meat in a sealed jar and directly observing that flies never emerged from the meat. From this example we were supposed to learn about attacking a problem through the process of observing, questioning, isolating out a testable hypothesis, experimenting, and finally concluding the validity of the hypothesis. The aspect that I want to focus on in this piece is the separation of aspects of a problem. I believe that the scientific approach of analyzing a problem by breaking it down into manageable chunks is very pervasive in our world, and exists in many aspects of our culture. I see ripples of this divide and conquer approach in many facets of industrialized modern life: in the production world via the separation of labor, in the academic world with the near-infinite specialization of fields, the artistic realm in which the separation of elements in a viewing experience are abstracted into various components (think the chain from impressionists through cubists through object-less art into formless art and beyond), we analyze food in terms of its constituent nutrients, and we educate students in specific and separated subject matters from a young age right on through to post-graduate work. This cultural shift formed a type of revolution, in the sense that a new mode of seeing the world emerged to challenge the old and then traditional modality of knowledge. This new scientific modality allowed better predictive models which could be generated, tested, and improved. A working predictive model leads to confidence in the approach that generated the model and this helps to fuel these generational changes and slowly replace the old models.

In the future that we deserve I envision a dethroning of the divide-and-conquer approach by a more systemic mode of thought. We are witnessing real-time worldwide inter-connectedness and its impacts. I suspect that this connectedness will be echoed in a new language and paradigm for combining previously separate parts of scientific models for problem solving. The systemic approach to problem solving will be to see and model the inter-relationships of aspects that science/abstraction/industry has separated. We are discovering just how connected and complex things really are, and new models must be formed in light of this. Such new models will require more synthesis as opposed to separation. Just walk into the mathematics section of any university library and see hundreds of books which are only readable by a handful of experts in a highly specific field. I suspect the same is true in many core sciences. We are producing specialists who are becoming increasingly marginalized, what we don't have are people to glue together the disparate parts.

Many important and interesting problems are not attackable by a divide-and-conquer approach. For instance the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the over-usage of our planet's non-renewable resources, inter-nation and inter-cultural conflicts, or appropriate and adaptive education. We are just now beginning to develop the language infrastructure to even describe the extent of these problems largely as a matter of necessity. As we address more complex problems via synthesis and system thinking we will form the way for new approaches and paradigms by which inter-connectedness is understood, modeled, and more accurate predictions are made. Such models could bring confidence and such confidence could fuel the new modality by which future generations see knowledge. This modality would of course be echoed in many aspects of life and culture in unforeseeable ways, leading to better insights and thus wider or more refined approaches and the positive feedback loop of new ideas would carry the process. View your problem as the top level, view it as the bottom level, think about how to see and describe interconnected aspects of related problems and you'll be working towards solving the systematic problems we face and unlocking new insights into the world that the old approach is unequipped for.

Discussion[View | Edit]

Enjoyed reading this, but puzzled by last sentence. Unsure what "Think from the top-down and bottom-up about how to see and describe interconnected aspects of problems..." is suggesting? Doesn't thinking from a starting point of top-down and bottom-up (a hierarchy? why the need for this?, what sort of 'top' is meant?, and a schism, or division) lead to the perpetuation of division? Up till then encouraging us to see and describe how to create synthesis of (inherently partial) views? I may be misunderstaniding, but wonder if an example would help? For example what would thinking from the top-down and bottom-up about how to see and describe interconnected aspects of the growing gap between the rich and the poor, or the over-usage of our planet's non-renewable resources, begin to look like? Does something like "Think from a variety of different starting points about how to see and describe interconnected aspects of problems..." work better? Philralph 18:02, 19 July 2010 (UTC)

  • ANDY's reply* Thanks for taking a look at this. You're right, I've betrayed myself, well, kind of. This is about a post-scientific approach, science is excellent at the breakdown of problems into sub-atomic problems, but lacks when it comes to reconstructing information about the macro-sized supra-problems, the inter-connectedness of the problems, how to pull from one problem into another. Science searches out statements which can be demonstrated as true or false, but lacks methods for constructing those cellular statements into larger organic statements. So a hierarchy is what I am recommending in the sense that some problems naturally contain sub-problems and are naturally sub-problems themselves of other larger-still problems, and what science tends to be ill-equipped for is 'zooming out'. I'm not advocating the rejection of science or the atomic statements it creates but a framework for understanding the relationship between the various statements which would allow a basic level of zooming out.

The phrase Top-down/bottom-up seems to imply a motivating perspective, objective, question, purpose, etc and not some type of multi-faceted objective list, but a multi-faceted objective list tends to always fall under a logic that connect the objectives. So the gap between the rich and the poor could be taken as a starting point for a systemic analysis, and you could see that it as under the problem of cultural axioms (and other macro-problems for sure) which would also be a super-problem of 'resource over-usage'. So seeing these systemic problems as sub-problems of cultural axioms might then direct study towards the interplay of different cultures with industrial technologies.

To see top-down as a reference to a departure point for a particular study, is the way you might study the human body, every sub-study is subject to its relationship with other sub-studies and supra-studies, the lungs don't really make sense on their own, or at least such a study is out of context, they only make sense as organs in the body. To study the body might not make much sense without studying atmospheric pressures or nutrition or sunlight... So the departure point is then something motivating a study, and in a systemic way of looking at things you might have to be aware of external factors, internal factors, how your question relates to other questions, and shared logic with other studies.

I do see problem statements in a somewhat hierarchal mode, which is a nod of respect to an axiomatic/unified approach to knowledge, but the hierarchy isn't a straight line, maybe more like a multi-dimensional graph or a hierarchy of webs of connectedness which is just a pointer to the intuition I have in mind. If we view any possible inquiry as a node on a graph with directed edges then the earlier perspective of departure point is like saying: I'm at node A1 which points towards sub-inquiries A1.i, A1.ii and is pointed to by supra-inquiries A, B, C and has sister inquiries A2, A3. Understanding how one inquiry is connected and relates to other inquiries, and the top-would merely refer to your local origin. Another perspective is that any problem has supra-problems and if you trace them all back you could find some small list of problems with no supra-problems. The ultimate statements from which all others are built, at that point this becomes an exercise in theoretical philosophy, which might be too esoteric to ever catch steam.

Anyhow I'll think about how to say that in a more concise and clear way, thanks!

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