Reductionism: Still Awesome, Still Misunderstood

I realized that there’s a thing called “missing the point” about “missing the point”. After all, I kind of knew that my defense about the pure awesomeness of reductionism would be misconstrued  into something much much worse. (But who knew it would be my friend Andrew Tripp, of the Depaul Alliance for Free Thought?)

Such is the reality of internet discussion. So let’s clear up some of the charges.

For instance, Mr. Mei seems to hold the belief that at some point that I said reductionism, namely the understanding that everyone and everything is made up of atoms, is a horrible evil viewpoint that causes children to have nightmares. Or something.

Actually, not quite. As even the original author of my chosen definition of reductionism has said, such use of diction (i.e., “evil evil belief”) are for comic effect (to satirize a culture that seems to consistently misunderstand the concept). Also, I have to point out that that only a passing reference was made to Andrew’s post, and that the post itself was not an ad hominem, or even a specific reply, to what Andrew wrote. (If anything, I was more interested in the replies of a bunch of philosophically-minded Christian Facebook friends). But let’s move on.

I would love, LOVE for him or anyone else to show me where I said that.

By posing this question, it seems that Andrew doesn’t seem to understand what I thought the most distasteful part of his original post was, or what I’m criticizing and not criticizing. And the pride by which he innocently quotes Dan Fincke again in his reply (which is what I was objecting to) seems to confirm my point. Here’s the bulk of the relevant quotation, with my added bolding for emphasis:

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.

The biggest point here is that both philospher (Dan) and social activist (Andrew), by writing this piece or quoting it as if it were accurate, seem to really miss the point about the mere reality of reductionism. For one, they seem to think that reductionism means “judging patterns as somehow artificial”, and that somehow thinking about things atomically destroys features that are interesting on higher levels. However, that doesn’t seem to be what reductionism actually is, which is incidentally covered on my Number Three point about how “maps are really important”. I don’t just think this is just bad philosophy; it’s also quite misleading to a general audience.

But I think Andrew’s beef with the overall secular community is the following:

How does this work with reductionism, then? Well, take that viewpoint and mix it with the sorts of upper-crust white academics who sit at the top of the atheist movement…

…Thus, we have the movement’s near-total lack of engagement with issues of race, gender, and institutional violence.

This is what I refer to when I criticize over-the-top reductionism. Not reductionism itself, but the ability of it to intersect with old notions of color-blindness to allow otherwise rational atheists to ignore issues affecting marginalized communities.

Now this is just confusing. After proudly quoting an entire Dan Fincke paragraph about the mistaken idea that “reductionism” is about ignoring the importance of human-level maps, and after writing an entire post using the word “reductionism” straight-up, only by the end of Andrew’s reply do we get somewhat of a conditional statement: so we’re not talking about true reductionism but (fake?) over-the-top reductionism.

And hence my point on Number Two, lampooning how people think atheism causes mass murderers, or how Darwinism leads to racism. Somehow Andrew also missed the point here: the thing is, if people want to offer a critique of the misuse of a particular concept, they have to be careful.

Just as eugenicists don’t deserve to be described as “Darwinists” (and in my humble opinion “social Darwinist” is really really pushing it), people who think reductionism implies race-blindness (or any other normative position, implicit or explicit) don’t deserve to be described as “reductionists”. At the very least, we should use language that makes this distinction clear, not wobble around with confused definitions and popular misconceptions. After all, we don’t say of 1940’s America that too many (white) scientists “have an annoying tendency to be Darwinists“.

And to reiterate my points so that everything is really really clear.

1) Human-level maps are really really important. It means that our mental conceptions matter. It means that we have to work towards social justice. It means that race, gender, sexual orientation, political institutions, and the issues and correlations that tie everything together really matter.

2) You have to be careful about what you say is “real”. Especially when you’re talking about reductionism, saying that the patterns of “biology” are real and that you can’t describe it on a lower-level is really bad philosophy. Also don’t fall for the Mind Projection Fallacy, and wear lots of sunscreen.

3) Reductionism is still awesome, beautiful, and unbelievably cool. I think I covered this in my original post.

4) All we need is love. I dunno. I just felt like writing that.


Posted on July 22, 2012, in Humanism, Math, Rationality. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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