Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Reductionism, Science and Reason

by Tibor R. Machan

Some natural scientists who like to philosophize prefer the doctrine of reductionism as their philosophical position. This view is that everything in reality is but one kind of thing—there are no real differences, only apparent ones. So, for example, even though it seems like music is different from airline travel, or mice are different from giraffes, or again that a Rembrandt painting is different from the contents of one's trash can, by the reductionist account all these things are the same—atoms, or strings or, to quote a famous passage from All the King's Men, dirt:

"... there ain't a thing but dirt on this green God's globe except what's under water, and that's dirt too. It's dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain't a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt."

Even the Bible propounds the reductionist thesis when it proclaims we all came from dust and will return to dust, although this implies that for some time we aren't dust.

Why, when in fact so many things are so different from one another if one goes by what one can see, feel, hear, touch and think about, is this notion that it's all the same so appealing? Why, when it is contradicted by the evidence we face all around us, do serious people embrace it nonetheless?

For one thing, if it were true that everything is composed of just one kind of thing, say, atoms, then if we came to know atoms well, we would have bypassed having to come to know anything else. That would be enough. We would then understand everything else just fine since, well, it is anything else at all, it only appears to be. (Why so? That's a mystery the reductionists haven't addressed.) In all periods of human intellectual history there have been very bright thinkers who have accepted this idea, from ancient times to the present. Democritus, born at Abdera in about 460 BCE, was the most famous of the Greek atomists who thought everything is but atoms, albeit configured somewhat differently, which made it appear that there are indeed different beings in reality. But that is an illusion.

Today the most prominent candidate is string theory, the notion that the world is composed of zillions of ever so tiny strings. The view is meeting with some resistance lately, though, because it tends to be untestable. But it also has a lot of champions.

In philosophy the most prominent reductionist was the Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He got his ideas from Galileo who believed the best way to go about understanding anything is to break it into its smallest parts, then figure out the principles that operate those parts and then apply the principles to everything. A very promising idea—saves a lot of time since all one needs is to understand one thing, the smallest, and everything else falls into line.

Is reductionism credible? Depends on the criteria of credibility. If one goes by our experiences with the world, it is not—there are too many things that are vastly different from each other. Apples, shoes, cars, clouds, symphonies, dogs, bacteria, etc., and so forth. One reason there are all those different departments at universities is the fact that so many different kinds of things need to be understood to be an educated person, educated about the world. But for a reductionist it would be enough to just study subatomic physics. We'd know everything from such study alone.

But perhaps our experience is all askew. We suffer from delusions, illusions, misunderstandings galore. Still, it is difficult to reconcile that with the very fact that we try to gain understanding. Isn't understanding different from what is being understood? If our minds seek answers to questions about something, aren't the minds most often something different from what they wish to understand?

I find reductionism so contrary to the facts that face me day in and day out in all realms of my life that I tend to believe it is a hopeless quest. It makes better sense to accept that reality comes in many forms, types, and kinds and go about studying it all in the spirit of the division of labor—chemists some parts, physicists others, biologists, psychologists, astronomers, economists, and so forth yet others.