Reductionism isn’t scary or oppressive. It’s beautiful.

My friend Chana has given the best definition of reductionism I’ve seen:

Reductionism <ri-duhk-shuh-niz-uhm>, n. The evil evil belief that people are made of cells. And cells are made of atoms. And atoms are made of quarks and leptons. And everything is quantum configurations in something or other.

For many, the “evil evil” part throws them off, way off. To them, it’s not just scary (like death). It seems morally repugnant. After all, do we start treating each other like we’re just globs of goo? Is there not something “real” in the make-up of a human being, something that goes beyond just an assortment of cells? Does it lead to erasure and marginalization of peoples, or the continuation of male, white hierarchies?

Are you telling me that everything I see above, its beauty and truth and essence included, is all reducible to smaller things?

Well here are a few points to clear up our Hollywood, pop culture idea of this scary, scary idea. So here we go:

1) Reductionism is true.

If anything, you should accept reductionism because it’s overwhelmingly likely to be true. The alternative would mean that there’s something in us or about us that isn’t material or physical, which is magic. And if it’s magic, it isn’t an explanation. And you shouldn’t believe it.

2) Reductionism isn’t a normative claim.

Being a reductionist doesn’t mean you should or shouldn’t be a liberal or a conservative. It doesn’t say if religion is good or bad (although it suggests that most religions are untrue). It doesn’t say anything about how you should or shouldn’t treat other people. So claims about reductionism leading to social ills are in the same approximate category as claims about atheism leading to the Holocaust or claims about Darwinism leading to eugenics.

3) The dichotomy between Map and Territory does not mean that maps aren’t important.

Reductionism doesn’t say that our moral and ethical systems are worthless. It doesn’t say that biology is useless because it’s ultimately physics (even though biology IS physics). In fact, we must acknowledge that our human-level maps are incredibly important. And no, it isn’t just science that’s important. Philosophy, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, history. Juggling, piano-playing, fire-breathing, skydiving. All of it. Important, and invaluable to us all.

4) Reductionism is beautiful, in every way.

Think about it. You’re made of atoms. And the atoms (or other smaller things) make up entirely what you are.

And the entire immensity of the Universe, its happenings and events, which go on on an unimaginably massive scale are also made up of smaller things, on a scale unimaginably small. The atoms that make up who you are in every way–mentally, physically, consciously, biologically, psychologically–all of it comes from the explosions of unbelievably large stars millions of miles in diameter, explosions that were made up of unbelievably small and subtle quantum events on scales far smaller than less than one millionth of a centimeter.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this view of the world is amazing. It means that there’s no magic, no fuzziness, no blurriness or supernatural nonsense in our model of reality. It means that the “magic” that we feel in our experience is great, because we are able to understand it on a more general (but less information rich) level. It means that somehow we’ve evolved a remarkable and intricate consciousness that can abstract from complex information, that can reason and discover, and that can develop amazing ethical systems to make the world a better place. Reductionism gives us a beautiful perspective to understand reality.

As Carl Sagan said, “the beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.”


Posted on July 5, 2012, in Rationality, Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I was wondering how to say this; you’ve done quite a good job.
    The only problem is that a person of religious faith may feel pressured by:
    “And the atoms (or other smaller things) make up entirely what you are.”
    And we haven’t made much progress in reducing ‘consciousness of self’
    to more fundamental & elucidating bits.

  2. Interesting, that your train of thought leads you to rest upon “beauty.” How does the reality of beauty derive from atoms, leptons, and other fundamental particles, which do not possess beauty? I was also wondering, what is the difference between the “magic” you deride without argument, and the fundamental properties of these particles and forces in nature for which we will never have an answer to why they have the properties they have? In other words, can’t these fundamental properties also be described as “magic”, since they just are the way they are? Just labeling them “physical” does not help explain anything and it does not escape the “magic” you despise.

  3. Reductionism is dangerous because it is dogmatic. It is dangerous because, unless you are of a scientific temperament that is awed at complexity and vastness, reductionism is not far removed from nihilism, that sickness of the west. And is the west not the most scientifically advanced nation? And are there not so many Feynmans or Sagans that can bask in pure wonder and revel in the power of their models and understandings to catch a glimpse of the “universe”, that is perhaps removed from most others? But the universe is surely TRUE! Atoms and quarks and whatnot. But what if these were mere fictions as no one had actually SEEN such things. But the scientists merely say that humans place too much emphasis on the visual aspect of experience. But we accept the scientists as they give us technology, the proof of the “truthfulness” of their endeavors. But the fact that science works may be no different from the “fact” of the anthropological principle. We exist, therefore, we exist. Science simply works in the way that your hand is capable of grasping something. Science explains itself in its own way and I suppose that might be called “Darwinism”. I need to go back to Heidegger’s discussion of “ontic manuals” (the sciences)…hmm. It’s too much for me. I suppose I could just say GESTALT and be on my way.

  4. Disregard and please delete that last comment. It’s so muddled and this is a difficult topic. Thanks for posting this though.

    • This message is intended as a response to instanoodles 2012 September 23 which was a disclaimer for a comment posted the day before.

      I know nothing about these comment web sites and can only hope my comment is seen by instanoodles, to wit., there was absolutely no need for you to rescind your comments of the previous day.

      Having been a scientist from my teen years throughout adulthood thus far, take my word for it, what you wrote is perhaps more enlightening than the full body of learned writing on the subject of reductionism.

      I commend to your attention a quotation from Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787):

      “Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong.”

      Some assurance that I am not a complete crank [person] may be gained by typing my name into the Google search engine.

      And, for the record, a detailed understanding of the Veil Nebula does nothing to diminish its beauty. Rather, the beauty is enhanced by the understanding, though processes at the quark level are not really involved.

      Finally, can someone educate me as to the point-&-click-&-type mechanics of having a coherent exchange of thoughts on the inspirationalfreethought website ?

      Roger Lynds

  5. I love to disseminate information that I’ve accumulated
    through the yr to assist improve group efficiency.

  1. Pingback: Reductionism: Still Awesome, Still Misunderstood « Inspirational Freethought

  2. Pingback: Because I’m an Atheist « Inspirational Freethought

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