Blog Archives

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.”


When Religion Claims to Tame Natural Impulses

Often one hears from the religious (and from Christians in particular) that religion tames the natural state of the human. The creationist pseudo-intellectual John Piper, for example, often talks about this in his oh-so-sophisticated “analysis” of atheism.

But why should we believe that the willingness to put rules and regulations on human freedom in the name of mystical ascetic values is not natural tooReligion, as described by Daniel Dennett, is entirely natural phenomenon. It is exactly what one expects from a species that, having evolved for billions of years, still have frontal lobes that are too small and hormonal glands that are too big. Even with our frontal lobes, we are host to countless cognitive biases that we are very seldom aware of and which seriously disrupt our ability to make reliable, accurate inferences from available evidence.

It is therefore no surprise that we, as natural people, have a long history filled with superstition and off-the-charts irrationality. We have and we continue to believe that witchcraft and demonic possessions are real things, and that we can kill witches or perform exorcisms. We have people that fall for Nigerian scams and arguments like Lewis’s Trilemma or TAG. We have a surprising number of highly educated people committing the conjunction fallacy. We have a very difficult time understanding Bayes’s Theorem.

The methods of skeptical inquiry that we take for granted, the methods of science, rationality, and logic are not natural. We are not born with nearly the kind of sharp rationality that we should have; rather, we are inescapably mammals full of delusions and beliefs that we don’t realize we have.

The secular idea of human freedom, of living in a pluralistic society with a separation of church and state, is also not natural. It is politically radical, religiously blasphemous, and chronologically modern. The history of humanity is filled with patterns of oppression, and much of this oppression comes from ideas about how we should control the apparent “natural” impulse of man. This need, this will to political and moral power, is as natural as the impulses themselves, and it leads to very bad places.

These ideas are a rejection of our supposed “natural” ideas of sex, of work, of family life. They’ve placed women in bondage and homosexuals in jail. They’ve made certain days of the week “holy” enough to not allow anyone to work (or sell alcohol). They continue to haunt us through taunts of, “we love the sinner, but hate the sin”. They seek to define what people can wear or how they should present themselves (often with extra regulations for a specific gender). They care about your family and your marriage and feel threatened when your family isn’t like theirs. They’ve warned against the dangers of skepticism, of free inquiry, of rational inferential methods. And they absolutely cannot stand atheism, because all people are born without a belief in God, and whatever people are naturally can’t possibly be good.

If religion wants to tame us as natural people, then it has to start at the fundamental level. It has to demonstrate why it is correct outside of the realms of “personal experience” and other fallacious methods of inquiry. It has to demonstrate, and not merely assert, why it is morally superior. Even after hundreds or thousands of years, there is still work that they haven’t even started.