Cherished Principle

Lets deal with reductionism. In some quarters it seems to have a bad name. To me it is one of the corner stones of the confidence in science.


Conventionally, we have the physical sciences, mainly physics and chemistry, that examine the basics of matter and energy, space and time. The findings should be universally applicable to everything except spooking spiritual non-material stuff. On top of this we have (my personal name) the historic sciences, mainly geology, biology and astronomy, that examine how things came to be the way they are at any time and place. They use the ‘laws’ and ‘theories’ of the physical sciences as the foundations for their own ‘theories’. In this sense the historical sciences’ theories can be reduced to those of physics and chemistry. This does not mean that a geologist is going to explain volcanos in terms of protons and electrons – but they know that if they worked the years it would take, they could do it. Sciences are looking for foundational theories that cover their area. So physics has quantum theory and the theory of relativity (which they want to connect in one theory). Plate tectonic theory is almost central to geology; biology rests largely on the theory of evolution. Each of these sciences has its specialty areas, like molecular biology with their own theories; molecular biology can be reduced to biology and chemistry. These theories are convincing because of the experimental evidence and because they can be reduced to physical sciences.


I know there are other sciences such as the applied sciences like medicine that lean on other sciences. And there are non-sciences that science uses as tools such as mathematics. Nothing is as simple as this little picture implies. I am not trying to draw a picture of the sciences but of the principal of reductionism.


Reductionism does not mean taking the world apart and not putting it back together – things are not left thrown about on the floor. It is not the opposite of holistic thinking – science very often looks at the big picture. Reductionism is the insurance policy that thought has not flown away from the solid ground of the physical world and that different as the various sciences are, they are not incompatible.


This is why the phrase ’emerging properties’ bothers me. It is one thing to say, “here is the evidence but it has not yet been reconciled with some other parts of science.” It is often an honest statement of the state of affairs. But to say that something is an emerging property is not clear. It is used often as an explanation although it explains nothing but it does imply that reduction might be impossible. Sometimes it seems to mean that the evidence appears to show a material situation but I would like to leave open a non-material situation. Or vice versa, it looks non-material but I would like to leave open the possibility that it is material. It is sitting of the fence be refusing to say that the state of reduction actually is in this case.


There is another idea that bothers me. It is that there is a material world with no dualism or magic non-material stuff ; BUT, there are two ways to describe it that are not connected by reduction. What? There are psychological/mental explanations and scientific/biological explanations of the same things. It is not the reality that is dualist but the description of reality. This is like saying that psychology is not a science and never will be. That is not what many psychologists want.


I, for one, cherish reduction as an ideal in science. In Christof Koch book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, he says he is a reductionist because, “I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic, because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky about us and deep within us”


4 thoughts on “Cherished Principle

  1. I tend to agree with the view expressed here, as far as one think inside our scientific knowledge. It has been shown that a strong emergence (with downward causation) is inconsistent with the assumption of physical closure: there is no reason not to think at a basic level only. See : . However these prior assumptions do not go without saying, and quantum entanglement, for example, could be considered a genuine case of irreducibility (In this case, physical closure is broken by measurement which is not part of the physical model. The measurement problem is still debated, and there exist realist interpretations that restore physical closure, though).

    I agree with reductionism as an important methodological principle for building knowledge. The danger here would be to conflate a useful methodological principle, which has been proved very succesful, with a metaphysical assumption, which amount to say that because science is so succesful, reality is what science tells us and nothing more. Not so obvious…

    This is especially problematic when it comes to explain our own existence, and the macroscopic unity of consciousness. How is there anything macroscopic without emergence? Maybe you mean that there is a kind of epiphenomenal emergence? (what philosophers call supervenience)…

    About the different levels of description: your position is almost indefensible. Everyday language is all but explicitely reducible to physical concepts. It involves intentional stances, dispositions, values, abstract conventions and so on, and though all of these concepts are rather straightforward and objective, any attempt to reduce them to physical facts, or even to sensory data (which was the project of empiricism) was a blatant failure. (Here are some examples I just read yesterday: “Suffering builds character”, or “All depressions result from bad monetary policy.” found on this page, which is rather interesting by the way, for a short rationalist introduction to epistemology by Eliezer Yudkowsky: )

    It is today consensual that scientific investigation involves epistemic values, and thus that scientific concepts somehow depends on those high-level concepts rather than the contrary. Maybe also you focus too much on “explanation”, as if explanations were the only kind of relevant “true” propositions. Finally, if there did not exist such different levels involved with consciouness, I don’t think neuroscientist would search the neural *correlates* of consciousness. They would simply have consciousness as an empirical concept. After all, physicians do not search the *correlates* of digestion. They just describe and analyse digestion as a process.

    JK: Thanks for the comment. I have had an interest in Yudkowsky’s ideas for a few years. There is nothing I disagree with so far in this sequence. We will see where it goes. I tend to use the word ‘truth’ very little except in the non-philosophical, everyday use. We see the map but not the territory.
    Our main difference remains the question of what is included in the idea of consciousness. I do not include any actual thinking in consciousness while you seem to. You have to interpret what I mean when I use the word as: an awareness of a model of the self in the world working closely with working memory and attention. I am not using consciousness in regard to the creation of the model – we are not conscious (read aware) of the creation of the model. I have to interpret what you say when you use the word: a conscious ‘mind’ as opposed to an unconscious ‘mind’. Our real difference is whether there is one mind or two produced by the brain, and whether consciousness is part of the workings of a single mind or is one of two minds.
    But it is not just semantic but a difference in how we interpret the experience of the world. I really, really do not think this is a philosophical question but a scientific one. I am following the science (and would change my way of looking at things if the science pointed to a different understanding). I do not expect the science to be largely settled for many years.

  2. I have a problem with your usage of ‘awareness’. I think both our definitions of consciousness involve ‘awareness’, but I do not see how this can be a scientific concept at all.

  3. I have gained a lot while reading your blog. I will definitely share this information with my friends.
    Thanks for sharing.

    JK: Thanks for the comment.

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