The 5th element 

If the planks of a boat were replaced through time, would the boat still be the same boat when all the planking had been replaced? (The Delphic Oracle)

In an attempt to explain and understand the world around us, science has developed an approach or methodology to shed light on issues which, otherwise, would still belong to the realms of the inexplicable due to their intricacy and complexity. In other words, by reducing elaborate interactions in the universe to essential and more basic mechanisms, science manages to give us a reasonable explanation about how the universe works. This approach or methodology is called Reductionism. A simple definition from Wikipedia:

Reductionism can mean either (a) 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 or (b) a philosophical position 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.

Some examples: All chemical elements in the universe are made of the same sub-atomic particles: protons, neutrons and electrons (scientists have also discovered that these particles are formed by even smaller ones, such as quarks and bosons); earthquakes have their origin in simple ruptures in the rocky layer of our planet; the colour of our eyes is determined by genes which are passed from generation to generation. Reduction, as we can see, has provided humankind with precious insights on how things work and why.

However, while some people argue in favour of reductionism, others are fiercely critical. Holists – as the latter are called – say reductionists have transformed glorious sunsets into wave lengths and frequencies, cathedrals into layers of mortar and bricks. Holists accuse reductionists of interfering too much in areas beyond physics and other sciences by giving explanations to events that cannot be explained by particle interactions, frequencies and chemistry/physics laws. They even say that just like an ideology based on a religious doctrine, reductionists also tap into an ideology: one which is based on materialism (Broad, 2006).

Water is composed of one atom of oxygen and two of hydrogen. Taken isolated, a molecule of water displays few distinctive characteristics. However, when trillions of them are together, incredible things may – and usually – happen: rivers, oceans, floods, storms, clouds, mist, ice, snow, etc. In other words, water contains other elements far beyond its molecule. Its properties and characteristics far exceed those of its molecule. Our brain cells, synapses and electrical impulses also say very little about the myriad of thoughts we have and the decisions we make each day; or the words we utter in order to compliment, express feelings of love or anger.

So, if you haven’t yet thought of an answer for the question at the beginning of this post, now is the time. Your answer will reveal if you tend to be a reductionist or if you have a more holistic view of the world around you. Is the essence and “soul” of the boat more than the sum of its parts?

Curiously, it was the Greeks who first reduced nature’s foundations into mere 5 elements: earth, air, fire, water and aether (Aristotle, c. 350 BCE).


Broad, William J. The Oracle: The Lost Secrets And Hidden Message Of Ancient Greece. 2006


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