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.”