The Problem With Reductionism Illustrated

The Problem With Reductionism Illustrated August 20, 2012

The cartoon is good just for a chuckle, but I think it also illustrates an important point. Using the methods of analysis appropriate in an underlying domain will not produce useful results if applied without modification or addition to a different, overarching one. Organisms need to be approached differently than particles. Minds need to be approached differently again. Reducing things to their constituent parts can teach us important things, but we also need to study how they function as a whole, and do justice to their emergent properties. Reductionism can be deadly – for frogs, at least.

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  • angievandemerwe

    Emergent properties is how biologists and psychologists have understood biological development and human development….Wholistic understanding leaves many scratching their heads in the most “cutting edge” science; neuroscience. What are the differences of the brain, mind and consciousness? Some still believe that there is a cause (stimuli) to every neurological response, but are responses uniform, or are there variances that defy categorizing. How does one use control groups in “brain/mind” studies without also understanding a specific brain/mind? If experiences are impacts upon the brain, that affect one’s “thinking”, then how are differences/variables not to affect results. Or can these differences/variables be controlled?

  • James I agree that “Reducing things to their constituent parts can teach us important things, but we also need to study how they function as a whole, and do justice to their emergent properties.”
    But, seriously, who doesn’t agree? I still think that the “reductionist” threat is a nonexistent threat. Sure there are plenty of scientists who see the mind as an end product of naturalistic processes; but who then, among them, would completely reject pscyhology, ethics, or social sciences?
    Is it the rejection of free will that you see as reductionist? There are christian psychologists who have problems with the basic notion of free will. (Richard Beck, Experimental Theology blog, comes to mind).

    • Well, there’s the denial of free will, but if you take a look at Jerry Coyne’s blog, for instance, he has lately been blogging about the humanities and whether there is any “knowledge” gained through them that doesn’t boil down to science. But I don’t think that one necessarily has to “reject” those other disciplines to have reductionist tendencies. I think it is enough to simply consider that they are all inherently inferior to physics by the greater the degree they are removed from it! 🙂

      • I’ve read Coyne on this topic before, and I don’t see his opinion as reductionist. His points about the increase in knowledge is very specific. He may argue that, for example, music does not add new knowledge to the world – but this is not an argument that music does not add value to the world – Coyne is a music lover.

        I don’t think Coyne is trying to make value judgments here; he’s not concerned with the inferiority or superiority of fields of study in the human experience. He is only concerned with establishing the nature of knowledge and information, and distinguishing between fields that add knowledge, and fields that simply have other purposes.

        His real beef is with the notion of religious revelation, and with apologists who try to equate science and religion together as two different but complementary ways of studying the universe. For Coyne, science increases our understanding of the universe progressively. Religion does not.

        Other fields increase our knowledge of the universe to varying degrees, and for Coyne, this is related to the degree in which they employ scientific methodology. But, again, this is not a value judgement on fields of study. Increasing knowledge is a good thing, but it’s not the only good thing that humans do.

      • I’m just not seeing “the reductionist threat.”

        Are reductionists trying to weaken the arts and humanities in our school systems through legislation (as creationists try to weaken evolution through legislation)?

        Are reductionists protesting marriage equality, denying global warming, blocking access to women’s reproductive health resources, or watering down higher education with “business models”?

        And even if reductionists did form some sort of organized threat, who is a a reductionist, really? Coyne is trying to define knowledge and categorize how it is increased. He’s not saying that Beethoven’s Ninth symphony is “inferior” or less valuable than Darwin’s Origin of Species.

        It’s just different.