The curtain call for reductionism?
Although it has dominated science and philosophy for quite some time, reductionism—the view that all things are reducible to more fundamental constituents—appears to be falling out of fashion. Last month, Richard Polt wrote an interesting piece, “Reality Is Flat (Or Is It?)”, for The New York Times. Therein, he explicitly leverages Aristotle’s account of emergent, holistic essentialism to combat what he considers to be the dehumanizing effects of reductionism. Back in July, Scientific American writer Ashutosh Jogalekar similarly criticized the theory in his article “The Higgs boson and the future of science”. While Jogalekar praises reductionism as the “great legacy of the twentieth century”, he believes that emergentism will be the tool of the twenty-first. “Reductionism,” he writes, “falls woefully short when trying to explain two things; origins and purpose.” As for emergentism,
While emergence had been implicitly appreciated by scientists for a long time, its modern salvo was undoubtedly a 1972 paper in Science by the Nobel Prize winning physicist Philip Anderson titled More is Different, a title that has turned into a kind of clarion call for emergence enthusiasts. In his paper Anderson […] argued that emergence was nothing exotic; for instance, a lump of salt has properties very different from those of its highly reactive components sodium and chlorine. A lump of gold evidences properties like color that don’t exist at the level of individual atoms.
It is doubtful that either Jogalekar or Anderson is familiar with the ancient Greek roots of such thinking; but this kind of emergentism is in fact identical to the Aristotelian essentialism discussed by Polt. Aristotle’s essentialist “forms” or essences are merely emergent structures shared by multiple entities: levels of being that are irreducible to their constituents. For example, if we took salt apart into sodium and chlorine, we would learn about the parts that compose salt, but not about the compound salt itself. By contrast, the reductionist claims that the parts explain the whole, without exception. Salt just is sodium and chlorine, and any supposedly “emergent” properties are ultimately illusory. Likewise for sodium and chlorine themselves, until we have reduced everything to particles so fundamental that they explain all others. As Jogalekar says, this makes purpose or function wholly inscrutable. As Polt says, it flattens nature into meaninglessness.
Polt correctly notes that the reductionist project would, for example, annihilate the difference between a “chunk of granite” and a horse: “the horse is just a more complicated effect of the moving and material causes that physics investigates.” By “moving” and “material” causes, Polt refers to two of Aristotle’s famous “four causes”—the only two that have survived into the modern era. The other two causes, formal (“form”, “emergent structure”) and final (“purpose”, “directedness”), fell by the wayside long ago. By ditching forms and reducing everything to its fundamental parts, reductionists must, in Polt’s words, “say that human beings aren’t irreducibly different from horses”, and therefore from chunks of granite. If the reductionist project is taken to its logical conclusion, the only “real” things are the most fundamental particles. “Macroscopic objects” and “sensations” are illusions.
Of course, this position is merely a retread of one advocated more than 2,300 years ago by the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus. “The first principles of the universe are atoms and empty space,” Democritus says. “Everything else is merely thought to exist.” Democritus is one of history’s most consistent reductionists. He firmly believes that the “objects of sense”—color, heat, sweetness, macroscopic beings—are a mere façade, shadows cast by the “atoms” that compose them. (The reader should avoid drawing strong comparisons between the atoms of Democritus and those described by modern science.) But there is a marked paradox in this line of thinking. How can we propose the non-existence of the very objects through which we understand microscopic structures? Is it possible to avoid presupposing the objects of sense even as we declare them false?
Contemporary essentialist philosophers, such as Crawford Elder and David S. Oderberg, powerfully argue that it is not possible. Plato, too, rejected the philosophy of Democritus; and Aristotle perfected his mentor’s system, leaving us with something highly similar to the emergentism praised by Jogalekar. In fact, because Aristotle was a scientist as well, his essentialism defined scientific practice for many centuries. Aristotelian scientists were not interested, necessarily, in deconstructing reality to find out what made it tick, but rather with understanding the forms and purposes of macroscopic phenomena. It was science dictated by emergentism: scientists sought to locate the “purpose” and “form” of everything. It resulted in interesting discoveries, but it also brought on countless false notions. However, as Polt writes, “Since Galileo, we have increasingly been living in a post-Aristotelian world where talk of ‘natures’ [forms] and ‘ends’ [purposes] strikes us as unscientific jargon”.
Galileo was one of the first advocates of the current scientific method. Talk of formal and final causes was tossed aside in favor of inductive studies of material and “moving” (“efficient”) causes: a full-blown reductionism. Where earlier scientists had neglected microscopic causes, these people neglected macroscopic causes. Michael Allen Gillespie writes in The Theological Origins of Modernity that it was Francis Bacon who concretized this theory. Bacon was a nominalist—an intellectual descendent of William of Ockham, with whom our readers are now well acquainted. Thanks to Ockham’s philosophy, the formal and final causes of medieval Aristotelianism were largely bankrupt by Bacon’s time. This forced Bacon to look for knowledge beneath the surface. “To come to nature’s inner chambers,” Gillespie says of Bacon’s theory, “we must tear it to pieces, constraining, vexing, dissecting, and torturing nature in order to force it to reveal the secret entrances to its treasure chambers.”
Thus, history moved in a circle. Reductionism gave way to emergentism, which gave way to reductionism; and reductionism may, perhaps, give way to emergentism once again. The “atoms and the void” equation of Democritus, once completed, is unhelpful to science and devastating to human society. It is also logically impossible: no amount of reduction can obliterate essentialist presuppositions. (Which is good, because anti-essentialism gives rise to science-destroying skeptical paradoxes, such as Hume’s problem of induction and Goodman’s terrifying New Riddle of Induction.) If the articles by Polt and Jogalekar are any indication, the distaste for naïve reductionism has finally reached the public forum. If the comment section below Polt’s article is any indication, we still have a long way to go.
Still Eating Oranges