Atheist Reductionisms

Last month, I told the Friendly Atheist‘s Richard Wade the following:

Atheists sometimes have an annoying tendency in my experience to be reductionists, especially about matters that are part of the social or moral or psychological world. They often want to say things like we’re all really just a bunch of atoms. There is a tendency to talk like the only level of explanation that is at all meaningful is on the physics level. Now, of course everything in our experience is ultimately physical and made up of atoms, which are further composed of subatomic particles. But that does not mean that atoms are the only level on which true things can be said. Those atoms combine in remarkably complex patterns that give rise to the objects of study in chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology. Those emergent patterns are real. It’s not like in biology we say, “There’s no such thing as evolution because this organism and its descendants are really still just patterns of atoms”. The differences in the patterns of atoms that make up one organism and its offspring are significant. They are worth saying there is something new evolved in nature when an organism is distinct enough in the patterns of its properties from its ancestors. These are real subjects of study. Real differentiations in nature. It would be stupidity to judge those patterns as somehow artificial simply because there is a way to conceptualize the organisms in purely atomic terms that pay no attention to the features that are interesting on the biological level.

Read More.

Last week, Andrew Tripp, of the blog Considered Exclamations, was inspired to build off that discussion to frame a discussion about privilege among atheists:

In my thinking, this sort of reductionism is the kind of belief that leads directly to erasure and marginalization, as Dan briefly mentioned. The reductionist mindset allows one to remove the personal from life; when there are only atoms, why should we worry about anything that make them up? Whether or not this attitude is consciously constructed or not, it is the one that prevails currently in many atheistic circles, and what it has resulted in is yet another reinforcement of the old white male-driven hierarchies.

We haven’t been looking to break down the old ways of knowing; instead, we have coopted them and slapped a secular label on them. We have been trying to create a permanent, ahistorical, neutral set of standards by which all knowledge and worth is to be judged; that of science, atomism, whatever we choose to call it. It’s the same type of framework that has been used by popes, priests, and dictators for centuries; the enemies of freethought, of rationality, the things we have been supposedly fighting for. By inhabiting this reductionist philosophy, we have never looked outside the box; the framework does not allow, epistemologically, for questions of identity to enter our conception as being a worthy aspect of investigation, for it is such a subjective thing; our conceptions of our and others’ being is always in flux, always depending on sense data gained from experience. It resists quantification.

The result of this rejection of identity has been ignorance of the concerns and circumstances of those who do not fit the norm set out by the knowledgeable class who propagate the ways of knowing I have briefly set out; the Dawkinses, Harrises, Krausses, etc., have never to my knowledge ever stopped for a moment to consider the issues and oppressions that their objective mindset, in a way, helps to reinforce; in the former’s case, when he did, he ended up only revealing his ignorance on such matters.

Read the end of the article and over 140 comments at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, where the article was cross-posted as a guest post.

On a personal note, Ed and I met Andrew together at the Reason Rally, so it is cool for me to see him pop up on Ed’s blog, referencing me. If you live in the Chicago area and would like to meet me and Andrew, chime in on this Facebook thread or contact me via e-mail so we know how many people to plan for when we hold the Camels With Hammers Chicago meet up on August 4. Having spent the last 5 days meeting colleagues and readers and other assorted secularists at CONvergence and then the St. Cloud State University Secular Student Alliance, I am super-pumped for this next Midwest meet up!

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • ik

    This is a very, very risky attitude. Unfortuantely, it is absolutely neccesary.

    Reductionism: Good, true and absolutely neccesary.
    Trying to Reduce Everything Even When THere Is No Good Reason To: Not good.

    Also, I would like to oppose the idea that a single perfect objective framework is bad. It’s good if and only if it is correct and includes all variation that anybody knows about.

    I kind of question the idea that every individual SJ movement must focus on everything. Not trying to oppose all of this, but I think that movements with individual focuses are kind of a good idea and in some cases would prevent some issues from being dominated by people without a concern in them.

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      “It’s good if and only if it is correct and includes all variation that anybody knows about.” To paraphrase what I’ve seen Paul Krugman say in economics, if you’ve got to ask that the actors involved in your system of thought to have properties that humans don’t have, you’re going to have a problem. We already know humans have cognitive biases and illusions (or as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says: brain failures). We would have to deny the humanity of the participants in order to try to say that this kind of thought is productive. Instead, we should pursue systems of thought that are robust to the “garbage in, garbage out” problem. I’ve been finding some forms of “pragmatism” very seductive and productive here, in part because by denying focus on theoretically possible kinds of objective reasoning we focus on the reasoning we’re *actually* capable of and the kinds of justification and warranted strength of our beliefs.

    • http://consideredexclamations.blogspot.com Andrew Tripp

      ik: I would argue, and have done in several of my writings, that “a single perfect objective framework… [is] good if and only if it is correct and includes all variation that anybody knows about” is impossible to achieve. I draw from Adorno extensively on this point, that all singular objective frameworks inevitably become conservative, and when challenged, violent. I’d point you towards his “Problems of Moral Philosophy” lectures for more.

  • brenda

    Ok, Andrew Tripp has a good discussion of privilege but I don’t see what reductionism has to do with it. Popes and kings exercised power, they weren’t reductionists. Nor do I see how having low level descriptions of reality available reinforces traditional modes of power. Hasn’t the gay community *benefited* from being able to say that there is a strong genetic component to homosexuality?

    If one’s understanding of real world phenomena has explanatory power, whether it’s reductionist or not, then that power is available to those who have the correct description of reality. Since science is no respecter of persons, and political power is all about deference to persons in authority, doesn’t scientific knowledge, which is quite often but not always reductionist, have a democratizing effect on society?

    Tripp said “I’m writing about this today because I think the atheist/skeptic/humanist/insert chosen descriptor here movement is way, way out of touch with the world.”

    Well duh. That’s kinda the whole point isn’t it? Isn’t the purpose of being obsessed about obscure scholastic disputes to shut out everything else? And is it really a surprise that when a movement prides itself on being empty of content (atheism is a “lack”) that every base and venal motive will rush in to fill the vacuum?

    Oh and Pharyngula has been an open cesspool for years, gee I can’t imagine why, but folks are only just now discovering this? Man oh man.

    • F

      In the same way that people who are against scams or murder or bullying would pride themselves on a lack of content when successful, yeah.

      “Reductionism”: Reading your post as a long and irrelevant spam preamble that leads to a non-sequitur insult. I suppose this is meant to be holistic, or something.

    • http://consideredexclamations.blogspot.com Andrew Tripp

      Brenda: I consider reductionism to be an inherent part of privilege in that such an attitude instructs us that socially constructed notions of identity, especially race and gender, are unimportant and not to be critically considered precisely because of their constructedness. We are, and have been, suffering under a notion of color-blind racism ever since Civil Rights; that if we don’t talk about racism, it will simply go away. The same goes for gender inequality; if we simply stop thinking of women and men as different, problems will evaporate by themselves. As history has proved, and I would point you towards Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s “Racism Without Racists” for much better analysis, this attitude simply has not worked, and in fact has served only to further racism and misogyny.

      As to the point on scholasticism, I don’t think that “obscure scholastic disputes” should shut out everything else. I think to do so is essentially irrational and fails to properly grasp exactly what real-world problems are. If we as philosophers are not examining such issues with the aim of making change, then we are being unethical.

    • eric

      This is a reply to Andrew’s reply.

      Andrew, I suspect you are somewhat tilting at windmills. There may be philosophers who argue for a reductionist science where “socially constructed notions of identity, especially race and gender, are unimportant and not to be critically considered precisely because of their constructedness.” But IMO that claim flies in the face of how most natural scientists would understand reductionism. We understand that important, studyable properties emerge from interactions. Emergent properties are not rejected because they are emergent. Likewise, scientists generally accept the concept of scale as being important – i.e., that it is often valuable to study the collective properties of more fundamental units without reducing them to their constituent parts. No physicst tries to solve equations of motion for a cannonball using QM – that would be stupid. No biologist tries to describe the functioning of the liver via quark-gluon interactions. Again, that would be stupid. The thermodynamic concepts of pressure and temperature are almost inherently collective – they become largely meaningless a the individual, atomic level. Yet chemists happily use pressure and temperature.

      In short, I think you are not representing science correctly if you think scientists are so reductionist as to reject socially constructed properties as unimportant/unworthy of study merely because they are constructed. We recognize and study lots of constructed qualities as valuable in their own right. We are (for the most part – there may always be exceptions) not the straw man you think we are.

    • brenda

      @ Andrew Tripp – I feel like we are talking about two different things. How does understanding that race is an unscientific concept promote racism? In my building there are many who are very different than me and not at all liberals. I have used the reductionist “race is not a scientific concept” to great effect in countering the unthinking racism (and the more overt kind) that some people have. So isn’t it the case that reductionism gives me the power to combat racist and patriarchal attitudes that still persist?

      Science is value neutral. It’s a tool. The world of politics is all about values and desires. Doesn’t understanding the world around us give those who were formerly without power under traditional systems the power they need to struggle for a better deal? Science is our friend, not our enemy.

      I had not heard of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva before but googling him lead me to the wikipedia page on Color Blindness (race). It seems to me that the criticism section confuses the distinction between intent, what is going on between one’s ears, and behavior, what is going on between people. I have certainly been discriminated against many times in my life. I do not care what people think. I *only* care about what they do. So when discrimination happens I just want them to stop. I can’t change their minds. In ordinary conversation and away from discriminatory acts is when I can argue for my liberal principles but people who are actively racist are not typically teachable. For them I use the levers of power available to me to get them to stop.

      From the wiki page:
      “Critics of color-blindness argue that color-blindness operates under the assumption that we are living in a world that is “post-race”, where race no longer matters, when in fact it is still a prevalent issue.”

      How is it reductionism to believe we are in a post racial society? That isn’t a reductionist attitude, it’s willful ignorance. Conservatives who seek to end affirmative action are not being reductionist. They are plugging their ears and shouting “lalalalalala I can’t hear you”.

      “I don’t think that “obscure scholastic disputes” should shut out everything else.”

      True but sometimes they do. I should have been more clear who I was talking about. I meant that the New Atheist movement has spent vast amounts of energy debating the TAG and other obscure issues that people don’t care about. For them the whole point is to obsess about trivial matters to the exclusion of all else. Obsessional behavior is avoidant because normal human relationships cause the obsessive great anxiety. Academics have their place but I wasn’t talking about them.

  • F

    I still find this to have good points overall. I just haven’t run into very many of these extreme reductionist atheists. Could be the atheists I know and the internet communities I frequent simply don’t have much truck with that sort of thing. This, Dan’s blog, certainly does not.

    • http://consideredexclamations.blogspot.com Andrew Tripp

      F: If you haven’t, consider yourself very lucky! And consider me envious of you. One of the reasons I so admire Dan’s writing, and the commenters here, is that such attitudes are not held or argued for.

  • http://blog.noctua.org.uk/ Paul Wright

    The sort of reductionism that’s attributed to atheists here is usually attributed to them by theists, not atheists themselves. You know, asking atheists “Why do you care about this? You believe everything is just atoms”, asserting that on materialism “our thoughts are not qualitatively different that Dr Pepper fizzing in the driveway” and so on. At least in my experience.

    I’m also at a loss to know what the connection between naive reductionism and failure to sign up for American-style identity politics actually is, or why that failure to sign up is supposed to be a bad thing: “privilege” has become a dirty word because the ID politics fans use it to close arguments the same way Christians say “you are blinded by your sin, I’ll pray for you”. Scalzi’s stuff about how straight, white, male is the lowest difficult setting makes the same point without having to accept a bunch of dubious framing.

    > We have been trying to create a permanent, ahistorical, neutral set of standards by which all knowledge and worth is to be judged; that of science, atomism, whatever we choose to call it.

    This is pretty muddled: the fact that kinds and priests had a universal standard does not mean that universal standards are bad (over on Metafilter, they have this “You know who else liked X? Hitler” joke argument, but here it is advanced seriously). Science is not in general the same thing as atomism.

    I see no evidence that, say, Dawkins, thinks that concerns which resist scientific quantification are invalid, since he devotes whole chapters of The God Delusion to talking about morality (in a pragmatic sense, not about meta-ethics). Dawkins may be incorrect about right and wrong in specific cases, shockingly, but I doubt this is because he only cares about atoms or science.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The sort of reductionism that’s attributed to atheists here is usually attributed to them by theists, not atheists themselves. You know, asking atheists “Why do you care about this? You believe everything is just atoms”, asserting that on materialism “our thoughts are not qualitatively different that Dr Pepper fizzing in the driveway” and so on. At least in my experience.

      Lawrence Krauss is running around the country telling atheists there is no meaning in life because physics. And I am constantly being told by scientistic atheists how worthless and expendable philosophy is. Constantly the assumption is made that every philosophical problem either reduces to an empirical one or is nonsense and bullshit to be ignored. Constantly philosophers are attacked for solving non-empirical problems in ways that are not empirical, as though that made any sense. The other day in this blog’s comments section someone tried to compare physics to philosophy by saying physics has made lasers, philosophy nothing. And by this apples to oranges comparison declared that “philosophy is batting ’0′”. It was so clueless. And so sadly typical.

      Then there’s this ridiculous quote from Terry Pratchett that I see atheists share on Facebook:

      Humans need fantasy to be human. Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet you act, like there was some sort of rightness in the universe by which it may be judged: Yes. But people have got to believe that or what’s the point? My point exactly.


      Here was my reply
      to coming across that quote:

      “Grind the universe down to the finest powder” and, indeed, not only will you find no single molecules of justice or mercy but you also will find no molecules of evolution or of trees or of global warming or of antibiotics or of any other parts of reality that do not exist on the subatomic level. It is an idiotic reductionist standard to hold any of those things to the standard that they must not emerge out of complex relationships but exist as the basic particles of known existence in order to be anything other than fantasy. There are more ways to see the world genuinely than through a microscope.

      You will never gain any insight about astronomy by staring at the sky with a microscope. You will miss out on plenty of everyday levels of reality by never seeing the world in the magnificently rich ways our eyes naturally evolved to see it but by choosing instead to stupidly seal microscopes over your eyes so all day you see nothing but the microscopic level of what is around you. And this is not because you cannot cope without “fantasies” but because it will make you utterly and unnecessarily blinded to realities you were evolved to properly see and understand on the everyday level of existence.

      In the The Blind Watchmaker, pg. 13, Richard Dawkins adeptly explains how to avoid absurd forms of reductionism and to reduce things in properly scientific and philosophical ways. His only mistake is first to imagine that no truly absurd reductionists exist:

      The nonexistent reductionist–the sort that everybody is against, but who exists only in their imaginations–tries to explain complicated things directly in terms of the smallest parts, even, in some extreme versions of the myth, as the sum of the parts.

      This beast is not just mythical as can be attested by the Pratchett quote, which speaks for a great many moral anti-realists, including many moral error theorists, who refuse to look for moral truths and falsehoods in the levels of existence in which they are meaningful and rationally valid, and rather argue that since they are not present on the subatomic level of existence they cannot possibly have any true meaning or rational validity anywhere else.

      Here is how Dawkins describes the proper reductionist attitude, the hierarchical reductionist:

      The hierarchical reductionist, on the other hand, explains a complext entity at any particular level in the hierarchy of organization in terms of entities only one level down the hierarchy; entities which, themselves are likely to be complex enough to need further reducing to their own component parts; and so on. It goes without saying–though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this–that the kinds of explanations which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels. This was the point of explaining cars in terms of carburettors rather than quarks. But the hierarchical reductionist believes that carburettors are explained in terms of smaller units…which are explained in terms of smaller units…which are ultimately explained in terms of the smallest fundamental particles. Reductionism, in this sense, is just another name for an honest desire to understand how things work.

      Using this same attitude we can understand how moral relationships can be explained as real even as we vigorously explore their roots in biological and psychological and evolutionary dynamics. We really can describe how effectiveness relationships are a perfectly fine, naturally consistent way to describe basic reality from one perspective (and if you doubt me please read and show me the flaws with this post: Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)). We can note that the word good, from an objective standpoint, only fundamentally refers to these natural. objectively describable, relationships of effectiveness. Every other sense of the word good we have can be reduced to a statement about such effectiveness relationships. And from here, we can use our understandings of psychology and biology and game theory  and all the rest of empirical knowledge to figure out how to effectively allow humans to maximally flourish, and we can think objectively (if not always conclusively) about the real worth of our moral systems, our subjective values, etc. in terms of how effective they are in helping us effectively be the kinds of beings we have the potential to be.

      And on the level of practical decision making there are clearly ways to be more consistent or more inconsistent and there are clearly ways to make choices which are objectively more or less conducive to realizing our own ends. Understanding decision making and what it is all about means grasping the ways that it is only rational to act in ways that are ultimately conducive to one’s own true goals. It is not a “truer” way to understand practical decision making by reducing it and saying it’s just a “fantasy” since it’s really driven by a bunch of unthinking atoms and so there is no better or worse way to reason. It is not a “truer” way to understand practical decision making to think it involves no rules of better and worse, and that, therefore, no one could make any mistakes in understanding what is in their own interests.

      The truth of what is rational or irrational, consistent or inconsistent, goal-realizing or goal-thwarting about a given rational judgment is objectively determinable (at least in principle) without ludicrous, obtuse forms of reductionism.

      The proper, hierarchical reductionism (which I think in some ways Kant lacked) simply recognizes that standards of practical consistency and practical effectiveness in decisions must be grounded in the next more fundamental level of explanation down–levels of explanation about what kinds of beings we effectively are (psychologically and socially, etc.) and how best to effectively realize ourselves in the most maximally flourishing ways. It is only rational in our practical decisions to realize our own intrinsic powers as effectively as we can.

      And it is important to realize that what we are psychologically and socially does not simply reduce to what we are biologically or evolutionarily. The processes that explain how our psychologies emerge or under what evolutionary pressures they did or how they might make us better at spreading our genes, are all not necessarily decisive in our proper understanding of how we flourish psychologically or socially. Understanding what value to my genes it is that my hands work as they do does not tell me the limits of what a strong and effective hand can do. My hands did not evolve for typing but they can still flourish better if they learn this extra skill exceptionally well than if they don’t.

      And just because my genes would be well served by reproducing and the traits I have were selected for their fitness as reproducing genes, does not mean that I have to have any interest in reproducing necessarily. I can flourish in those traits’ intrinsic powers according to their own intrinsic standards of effective being and never put them to the purpose of reproducing–and yet still flourish as the being I am in terms of the objective excellence of my powers. Put in a formula: my thriving is not identical with my genes surviving.

      Finally, moralities themselves can be rationally valid and objectively binding enough for us, even though they should be reduced to another level of explanation and justification themselves. Their standards of right and wrong gain their truth and validity from their abilities to create good and prevent bad for us. And different moralities, even ones which make quite opposite prescriptions from our own, may in different times and places be as good at creating flourishing as ours are for those people in those other times and places, without the value of moralities being totally subjective. Any given morality can be assessed as objectively better or worse for any given people compared to other possible moralities they can have. The key point to stress in this is that even though sometimes a different culture is objectively better off with a given different value judgment or a given moral rule than we accept this does not mean that just any values or moral rules are automatically good or automatically equal to all others for all times and in all places. A culture can still be wrong about what is its own good sometimes and be in need of improved values.

  • blotonthelandscape

    Andrew, I’m responding to you here as I don’t have time to read your full post, but I think the excerpt here is well-put.

    In my first Economics lecture at uni, the lecturer introduced the difference between a “positive” and “normative” statement. I think this sort of dichotomous approach to subjects in the social sciences and in assessing cultural practices is important, because it allows for the benefits of a reductionist approach (seeing the parts that make up the whole, identifying stakeholders and contributors) whilst allowing us to step back and say “Hey, maybe maybe Pareto Optimality is actually a poor justification for slavery.” Sciences like cosmology gain little from this sort of thinking, as the individual phenomena are what is of interest.

    Economic behaviour and policy done badly is often the result of Positive economic theory applied without reference to normative assessments of the application.

    As an anecdotal example, I read an article in The Economist on India’s plans to scrap rice subsidies in order to improve international competitiveness and land usage. Thinking this sounded like a good plan, I brought it up in a lecture with my well-travelled Professor, whose immediate response was to wax lyrical about the fragrance, colour and variety of rices found in a typical Indian street-market, and how they would turn their noses up at the stuff that was exported; how removing the subsidy would undermine the cultural and ecological heritage of the locals for some perceived economic gain.

    @Alex Songe That quote from Krugman is an excellent one (pretty much sums up the fatal flaw of a rationalist approach to economics), although I read an article he wrote in which he defended the use of “dual-economy” thought experiments against accusations of reductionism. He is a master at constructing these thought experiments though.

  • Sarah

    Has PZ Myers deleted the comments on the Always Name Names thread? Your link to Dawkin’s comment goes to a page with no comments!!

    What’s going on?!? Pretty soon people will pretend that Dawkin’s never said it and he will get away with his privilege-denying mansplaining!

    • adelady

      A lot of items at ScienceBlogs lost comments and navigation around old posts with the move to NatGeo.

      The older stuff may or may not reappear as they gradually deal with all the other problems that arose as a consequence of that move.

  • eigenperson

    I don’t buy it.

    I mean, I buy the part about privileged atheists often not wanting to address important issues, and I buy the part about reductionism not necessarily being the appropriate way to think about everything. But I don’t really buy the argument that reductionist thinking is a driving force behind that privilege.

    The reason I don’t buy it is that there is no evidence whatsoever. As far as I can tell, you’re making an argument that goes something like this: reductionism = “permanent, ahistorical, neutral set of standards” = “framework that has been used by popes, priests, and dictators” = our enemies, therefore bad. I’m pretty sure that’s nothing more than a slightly modified argumentum ad Hitler — “dictators did this, so it’s bad.” Also, I dispute the very premise that popes, priests, and dictators have striven for such standards. If anything, they have sought to keep a thumb on the scale.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I’ve been chewing over Andrew’s extension of the idea of reductionism a lot since reading his post yesterday. I think what is reductionistic in the calculations of the popes and dictators, et al. is that they don’t respect autonomy and difference but look at individuals as units of efficiency or inefficiency, allegiance or disloyalty, contributors to stability or instability, etc.

    • eigenperson

      I agree that dictators do those things, but how can that possibly be called reductionism? It is a completely different concept from philosophical or scientific reductionism; he explicitly says he is talking about the latter. The only similarity is that both can be described using the word “reduce”. Scientific reductionism says that natural phenomena can be understood completely by understanding simpler phenomena. Dictatorial reductionism, or whatever you want to call it, says that people are worth nothing beyond their value to the dictator. I do not see any meaningful connection between these concepts.

      Blurring the line between these concepts seems like equivocation to me.

    • eric

      Daniel, on your popes and dictators response – isn’t that a bit wierdly Orwellian? If your interpretation of Andrew is correct, he’s describing leaders who support classist notions that different groups of people had different fundamental rights as “reductionist,” while claiming more enlightened sets of rules (like, for example, a constitution that says every single citizen has exactly the same rights) is non-reductionist.

      Shouldn’t it be the other way around? If ‘reductionism’ is taken to mean treating people as units of something, it would seem to me that the ideologies that treat everyone as the same basic unit are more reductionist than the ideologies that treat different types of people as different types of units.

      Perhaps the problem with kings, popes, and dictators is that they aren’t reductionist enough, because they don’t agree that a king, pope, or dictator is the same sort of unit as a regular citizen. ;)

      I tend to think that the problem with such folk (as well as sexists and racists) is that they ignore the fact that our sames outweigh our differences. But if Tripp think reductionism is bad, is he arguing that our differences outweigh our sames?

  • brenda

    Reductionism doesn’t cause people to marginalize others. People choose to marginalize other people and use reductionist arguments to justify their actions. If those did not work they would pick some other tactic or simply engage in raw power.

    In the same way, religion is not evil and does not cause people to act in an evil manner to others. People who wish to cause others harm pick and choose ideas from the larger culture which will further their self-centered goals. They will use whatever works because it is their intent that they should benefit while other suffer.

    It’s people who do bad things.

  • Axxyaan

    I think you should be very aware of the context in which atheists say things like: “We are mere atoms” or “Life has no meaning”. I will say we are mere atoms in contrast of there being a need of something more, something magical/dualistic/supernatural in order to explain our existence and properties. In the same way as a car is at the bottom nothing more than atoms and doesn’t need a horse spirit to make it move.

    Sure what we are is not determined by use simply exiting out of atoms but by how structure is build upon structure and it is how this structures allow for all kinds of functionality that things and people become valuable.

    In the same sense I will say life has no meaning. We are not some kind of pawns/components in a game/machine of the gods where the situation we find us in is somehow linked to the puropse of the divine player(s)/engineers.

    Sure we can find meaning in the world, but that is by constructing this meaning ourselves and projecting it on the world. But this is a characteristic of us being humans and not of the world itself. This is best illustrated by the fact that the same event can have wildly different meanings for the various participants.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I am aware of the context and I reject your assumption that all meanings are merely constructs and that everyone’s interpretation of events’ meanings is as valuable as anyone else’s. You are precisely the kind of reductionist I am criticizing. You are over stripping the world of meaning just to get the gods out.

    • Axxyaan

      Well your rejection is meaningless. The correctness of the assumption doesn’t depend on you rejecting it or not.

      Besides I haven’t said anything about everyone’s meaning being as valuable as anyone’s else. I only said the meaning of an event can be wildly different for any of the participants. Do you deny that is the case?

      And no I am not over stripping the world of meaning just to get the gods out. On the contrary I am willing to recognize the meaning that an event has for an individual, while you seem to care more for some kind of external/objective criteria with which to determine the meaning of an event, thereby dismissing the particular meanings for the indivuduals as less valuable.

      All in an attempt to cast “my kind of reductionist” as being less humane. Well it is my experience when I visit people in hospital or hospice, to try and lend some kind of moral support, that in those circumstances these people experience more support if you accept the meaning they give an event than when you try to have them accept some external/objective meaning for that event.

      Now I don’t doubt that you can start with reductionism and come to some very inhuman conclusions. But the same can be said of holism. The humaneness of one’s actions don’t depend on whether one is a moral objectivist or subjectivist or seeing meaning as inherent in the event vs seeing meaning as the place one gives it in one’s life.

      So if you want to try and argue for the reality/objectivity of morality, be my guest. I think you are wrong but that is what you think about me. But if you are going to suggest or argue that your assumptions is more conductive to moral behaviour and that those “kind of reductionists” are more inclined to behave inhuman or less empathetic or more dismissive towards people who are the victim of systemic discrimination then I would like to see some scientific research in support of that idea. Otherwise it seems you are just kicking at your philosophical opponents in order to posture as the more moral one and as such claim the high ground.

      Much like creationists do with people who recognise that humans are a kind of aninal. The creationists start with that idea in order to conclude that those who recognize humans as being animals, are less moral. Because if humans are animals there is no reason to treat humans differently from (other) animals. In the same way you and Andrew Tripp seem to think you can conclude in the same way from people who think we are a collection of atoms to those people having no reason to treat people differently from other collections of atoms or one person from an other.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I’m not just talking about moral grounds, I’m talking about truth grounds. There are some meanings that have subjective components but not all do. And even if you cater to someone’s subjective desires for how to interpret an event that does not give it validity. I imagine in hospice you might indulge someone’s religious interpretation of their own death because in a context like that fights over truth may be less humane or pragmatic. But that does not make their “constructed meaning” a true one. Similar with other meaning constructs. How one treats the dying is very different than how one looks at things truthfully.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Much like creationists do with people who recognise that humans are a kind of aninal. The creationists start with that idea in order to conclude that those who recognize humans as being animals, are less moral. Because if humans are animals there is no reason to treat humans differently from (other) animals. In the same way you and Andrew Tripp seem to think you can conclude in the same way from people who think we are a collection of atoms to those people having no reason to treat people differently from other collections of atoms or one person from an other.

      And this is completely backwards. The point is that when you say all we are is animals like others and all we are is an arrangement of atoms YOU are the one reducing us to the level in which all the higher order meanings are stripped out. You’re reducing us to the level where those things are not taken into account. I’m not saying that we just reduce to those things. I am saying that the emergent patterns that make us distinct are real, whereas you’re saying they’re arbitrary constructs that we just “make up”. I’m saying there is actual truth to those emergent patterns—including “meaning” patterns and moral patterns. You’re saying the only real patterns are the atoms and then that the meanings and the morals are just made up by us and have no objective validity. That makes you the reductionist who undermines the truth of meanings and values, not me.

      Once you start saying we just “construct” meanings but they have no further objectivity or truth than that, then you’d might as well admit that on your view morality and meaning are formally the same as made up religions. And all the objections against adhering to religions as though they were true apply to the constructs of meaning and morality equally. Morality and meaning would be as arbitrary and irrationalistic and deluded as religious beliefs.

      But they are not. And I account in detail for the numerous ways they differ. I am not just dogmatically asserting anything.

    • Axxyaan

      I imagine in hospice you might indulge someone’s religious interpretation of their own death because in a context like that fights over truth may be less humane or pragmatic. But that does not make their “constructed meaning” a true one.

      This suggest you have little knowledge about the subject. Meaning is not about truth. It is about the place an event has in the narrative of your life. How important was the event, did the event learn you something about yourself or your friends/familiy did what you learn shock you. Was the shock positive or negative, did it cause a turn in your life? Those sorts of things.

      As a simple example, two persons can own the exact same car but the meaning of that car can be wildy different for the two. For the first that car can have very little meaning, just one way of transportation out of many, one he doesn’t use that much. For the other that car can be the key to his independance from his partents, a door to the night life, an opportunity to meet other people.

      An other example is about being a volenteer visiting homes for the elderly. Often enough when I hear people commenting about the habitants, they involve comparisons with todlers. The primary examples being the quarrels about seats. In general the commentor can’t understand what is so important about a particular place at the table that it is worth argueing about. One place is as good as another, taking another seat is no big deal.

      What these commentors fail to realise is that these people have lost a lot of control in their lifes. Most things are decided for them instead of them deciding themselves. So what typically happens is that the habitants guard whatever control they (think) they have very carefully and that can include having a claim on a particular seat. So for those habitants it isn’t about the seat it is about what that seat means to them, something they have control over. And when someone/something threatens to limit their control even further they tend to react aggressively.

      But if you would examine the seats objectively, you would find very little to support prefering one seat over the other.

    • Axxyaan

      And this is completely backwards. The point is that when you say all we are is animals like others and all we are is an arrangement of atoms YOU are the one reducing us to the level in which all the higher order meanings are stripped out.

      No I am not. I just explained about context and you claimed to be aware of context yet here you are ignoring all context. What I am doing is denying that we need a magical/dualistic/supernatural component in order for those higher order functions to form.

      You’re reducing us to the level where those things are not taken into account

      No when I say things like that I am just discussing “us” at a level that is appropiate for the point that is under discussion.

      This is something we do all the time. Suppose someone thinks a dish can only taste well if there some meat product in it. Unknown to him a friend of his serves him a vegetarian dish which he enjoys very much when the surprise is sprung on him. Taken by surprise he asks: “Are you sure there is nothing meaty in it” to which his friends answers: “No it is just veggie stuf”.

      Will you claim the answer of the friend is somehow inappropiate because it reduces the meal to a level in which all other information is ignored? Should a third party use this answer in an attempt to imply the friend doesn’t care about preparations but thinks that any pile of veggie stuf is equally tasty, would you find that a fair comment of that third party?

      whereas you’re saying they’re arbitrary constructs that we just “make up”.

      No I am not saying they are arbitrary constructs. That is your strawman because you turn everything that is not objective into arbitrary.

      Once you start saying we just “construct” meanings but they have no further objectivity or truth than that, then you’d might as well admit that on your view morality and meaning are formally the same as made up religions. And all the objections against adhering to religions as though they were true apply to the constructs of meaning and morality equally. Morality and meaning would be as arbitrary and irrationalistic and deluded as religious beliefs.

      This is bullshit. You might as well argue that because taste is subjective and so formally there is no difference between a pile of shit and a carefully crafted meal we might just as well enjoy the pile of shit.

      Formallity is not usefull for every kind of problem you want to tackle. So if you want to tackle morality of the meaning of life, why don’t you start with argueing that a formal treatment is the right tool to do the job instead of just assuming it and proceeding from their.

      And if you do find formallity so important why don’t you give a formally worked out example of an objective moral. Don’t you think that would be convincing? Because that is what you seem to have in common with all other persons that claim morality to be objective. The failure to give a worked out (formal) example starting from pure facts and arriving at an objective moral rule.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Axxyaan, when you defend your example of the disempowered sick person asserting their need for control you use objective categories. You explain that that person is not being irrational because their actions make sense when understood in the proper context. That’s being objective. Objective does not mean formal to the point of excluding all relativities of situation. All objectivity is relativized to factual situations. But it’s still objectively defensible. That’s not the same thing as meaning being simply “created” by us. There are meanings that are objective beyond just “it’s just a box”. It is only that those meanings require, for their actualization, contexts which are often socially or individually constructed, through which they can objectively work.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Axxyaan, here is a post wherein I demonstrate how you can contextualize a social construct’s value within an objective framework.

    • Axxyaan

      Daniel (or Dan whatever you prefer), you are reversing roles. When we talk about a characteristic being objective, we generally mean that it depends on the object we associate it with. So if the meaning of this seat would be objective we should expect this meaning to depend on the characteristics of the seat but it doesn’t. The need of control is a characteristic of this person not of the chair. It is her need of control that makes her project meaning on that seat.

      But there is nothing on that chair that makes it more suitable for receiving this meaning. It could just the same have been the fact that this person watered the flowers every day and one day found someone else had already done it.

      The fact that I am objective in overseeing this situation doesn’t make the meaning of this seat objective either. It is not about the objectivity of the observer, it is about which charcateristics of an object are objective (depend on the object itself) and which are subjective (depend on how a subject react to it).

      Sure we can introduce objectivity anywhere you want. You can observe me enjoying kidney’s in mustard-saus and you can then objectively conclude that I find that a tasty dish. That doesn’t change the fact that the tastyness of this dish is a subjective characteristic and not an objective one and that if you want to argue that tastyness is an objective characteristic, you will have to do more than point to objective characteristics in me that make me find that dish tasty.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X