Reductionism is a Straw Man

A Conservative friend recently re-posted this article from National Review on Facebook. While the article makes a number of interesting points, I find myself in disagreement with its conclusions, and feel the need to respond.

Some of the key players in this story will be Reductionism, Naturalism, Morality, Mind, Science, God, Man, and a few others. Plato is quoted in the article as saying, “Moral Value is real and non-natural.” and this begins the debate.

What is Naturalism? If your assumption is that Man is above nature, which was the prevailing view at the time of Plato, then Naturalism might be regarded as the study of everything sub-human. Man is made in the image of God, and dogs and trees are not. But according to the article (and I agree), Naturalism has been gaining in stature over the last couple thousand years, and now Man is seen as part of nature. The nail in the coffin, if you will, was Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the continued attempt to build thinking machines, and the ever-continuing decline of religion in modern life. So Naturalism is the belief that everything is part of nature: everything on Earth, all of life, the sun, the planets, the stars, everything, including Man. And this is seen as a huge threat to belief in God, the sanctity of life, the true source of moral authority, and all things sacred to the Conservatives.

How did this “perversion” come about?

[I must admit that I do have some conservative leanings, and I do not think that we should give up too soon on many of the beliefs that have made us who we are. But, as a thorough-going atheist, and a trained scientist, I see Man as part of Nature, and not as above it. But don’t read too much into that last sentence.]

This article would not be the first to suggest that Reductionism is the perversion that has elevated Naturalism to the New Religion. Indeed, it is here really only implied. But I will argue that Reductionism is a straw man, the latest whipping horse. Reductionism is the belief/process by which complicated things are broken down into simple things. Science is thought by many to be the paradigmatic example of reduction. However, we need a little history here.

Aristotle was probably the first great thinker to clarify the notion of reductionism. But for him, it was only one half of the coin. There was Analysis, and there was Synthesis. Analysis breaks the complicated down into smaller parts, and Synthesis builds complicated things from these smaller parts. True understanding, according to Aristotle, involved applying both Analysis and Synthesis in the world.

For example, in the modern world, we use Analysis (Reduction) to break thermodynamic phenomena into simple laws that underly everything, and then the engineers use those laws to build complicated (and much bigger and more powerful) machines. Even more recently, Reductionism led to our understanding of the transistor, in the form of equations regarding current flow in semi-conductors, an act of Analysis. And then these tiny bits are put back together (Synthesis) in the form of supercomputers, the internet, the smart phone, and everything that is currently wrong with modern society (okay, just kidding).

So Reductionism (Analysis) is useless, and is the straw man, without its complement, Synthesis.

Indeed, the article lets the scientists mostly off the hook when it comes to its criticism of Reductionism (although they don’t say why), and then blames the psychologists, modern intellectuals, philosophers, etc.

But reductio ad infinitum is, indeed, reductio ad absurdum, and I’m not sure that any sane person really argues for that. When physics gets down to the quantum level (sub atomic particles), it recognizes that there are different rules down there, and the reductio stops, more or less. Grand unification is still a goal, and yes, we still build super conducting super colliders in order to press the search downward even further. But I would not say that that is Reductionism run amok. It is just modern science trying to tie up the loose ends down there.

The real fear of the Conservative is that we are trying to reduce Mind and God to laws of the universe, and then to tie morality to those physical (natural) laws. The jury is still out on whether that is possible. I, for one, believe that it will happen, eventually.

In the meantime, the fight between God and the Reductionists will continue, with Man caught somewhere in the middle.

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