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.

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greengang asked: I'm confused by certain parts of your "Modern Isolation" piece: "Basically, nominalism relocates meaning and logic to the human mind, which gives Ockham’s God the power to change reality at will". In particular, I don't understand what part of it, as opposed to the voluntaristic approach, is responsible for this effect. I'm also a little confused on what the will -is- and how it is defined in this context. What are some articles/readings I could do on these?

Thanks for your interest in our post.

With that comment about nominalism, our writer was referring to the differences between Ockhamist and Aristotelian understandings of universals. Aristotle is a “moderate realist”: he believes that universals are within nature, independent of any mind. Humans merely discover them. Even if there were no humans, universals and their logical connections would still exist. Scotus’s voluntarism alone was not enough to break these connections, because they were considered to be necessary: they were truths that could not be otherwise, even if God willed it. In order to make universals pliable, Ockham, as a nominalist, tells us that universals do not exist in nature. Rather, they are part of language—beginning with mental language. If humans and their languages went out of existence, then so too would universals. 

In conclusion: Aristotle believes that universals begin in nature; Ockham believes that they begin in the human mind, which projects them on to nature. (It should be reiterated, though, that humans for Ockham must experience particular beings before their minds can fabricate universal concepts.) More information on Aristotle’s moderate realism may be found in our past articles “Notes on will" and "The why-how distinction”. The best contemporary technical text on the system and its rivals is David S. Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.

As for the will, it was also discussed in “Notes on will”. In brief, philosophers from Aristotle through Descartes considered it to be an immaterial force that exerted control over the body. However, even contemporary materialists and determinists hold views that were influenced by voluntarism. For more detailed looks at voluntarism and its importance, we recommend Michael Allen Gillespie’s Nihilism Before Nietzsche and The Theological Origins of Modernity. Both books analyze Ockham’s ideas and trace their movement in the centuries after his death.

We hope that this was helpful.

Ask Still Eating Oranges #3

We’ve received yet more questions from readers. After the break, we answer one from tanfoi305 regarding our favorite films; and one from nichijoe regarding our article on Nelson Goodman’s New Riddle of Induction.

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