Of reductionism

Of reductionism August 29, 2019


The barn near Park City
The iconic McPolin Farmstead in Park City, Utah   (Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)


Reductionism, the practice of analyzing and describing complex phenomena in terms of what are regarded as simpler or more fundamental phenomena, can be a contentious matter — especially when those allegedly more “basic” phenomena are said to provide a “sufficient” explanation.


For example, can Vincent Van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night be adequately described by counting the daubs of oil on the canvas and explaining their chemistry?   Is Michelangelo’s David sufficently accounted for by giving its precise dimensions and the recording the composition of the stone from which it was made?


Are biological phenomena fundamentally reducible to chemical processes?  And are chemical processes ultimately a matter of physics?  To put it another way, are the biological sciences really rather bogus, in a sense?  Isn’t that pretty much what is suggested if everything biological can be expressed in terms of chemistry?  But if chemistry can be fully accounted for in terms of particle physics, doesn’t that suggest that chemistry itself is something of a phony science, concealing rather than revealing the fundamental truth?


And how far can this go?  William Shakespeare was, biologically speaking, a male bipedal mammal.  Does biology account for his creation of King Lear and the Sonnets?  Or should we turn, instead, to chemistry? But wouldn’t that merely be mumbo jumbo, since the real explanation of Shakespeare’s work is to be sought in the interactions between atomic and sub-atomic particles in and around the immediate vicinity of his “body”?


I’m reminded, in thinking about such questions, of a challenge issued by the prominent nineteenth-century Irish physicist and defender of Darwinian evolution John Tyndall FRS (1820-1893):  “Given the molecular forces in a mutton chop,” he is reported to have demanded, “deduce Hamlet or Faust therefrom.”


Here are two poetic expressions of resistance to a dehumanizing reductionism:


The first is from the American poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), while the second comes from his fellow American Walt Whitman (1819-1892).


The Horrid Voice of Science

“There’s machinery in the
     There’s a mainspring to the bee;
There’s hydraulics to a daisy,
     And contraptions to a tree.

“If we could see the birdie
        That makes the chirping sound
With x-ray, scientific eyes,
     We could see the wheels go round.”

And I hope all men
Who think like this
Will soon lie


When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


Posted from Park City, Utah



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