Reductionism: A Response to Professor Ellis

Unpublished paper for the University of Southern California's Templeton Lecture Series, April 2005.


 I agree with so much of what professor Ellis says that I am, no doubt, less than the ideal commentator in this case. Nevertheless, I found his presentation to be highly interesting and instructive—and highly important in this day when we are having to come to grips with the limitations of what, roughly, "scientific modes of inquiry" can do for our understanding of the totality of things within which we must have our lives.

I would summarize the main points of his presentation as follows: "Reductionism," as he says, "tends to imply that all that is real are particles and the forces between them. However by themselves these entities cannot give a causally complete description of the world around us." Structure, context and broader systems involved in applied and integrative sciences go beyond particles and forces between them, and must do so to allow knowledge of broad ranges of reality as we find it around and within us. Prof. Ellis says that "attempts to introduce reductionist methods as the only thing in domains where an integrated approach is needed results partial understandings of limited use. This is particularly true in the human sciences where it results in limited and degrading views."

As I understand our intellectual situation at present, no one is prepared to claim that we now actually do understand human life and the human world, or—very importantly—the relation between the human brain or body and human experience, on the basis of physical science in its current form. The idea that is advanced by those on the reductionist’s side is that "science" is advancing and eventually will be able to show either that experience is (identical to, the very same thing as) physical/physiological processes, or that it rides as a helpless and ineffectual passenger upon such processes. That curious half-way house known in philosophy as "non-reductive physicalism" (John Searle, and possibly Colin McGinn) has been convincingly shown impossible to sustain by Jagewon Kim (see his "The Myth of Non-Reductive Physicalism"). Of course, who knows what physics and its close dependents may look like in the future. But the idea that a physics very like the present one will be able to explain everything is simply a dream driven by obscure metaphysical (ontological) ideas or feelings that certainly have no basis within physics and its dependents themselves. A helpful response to this claim I have just made would be to logically derive the dream by a logically valid process from the now established truths of the physical sciences. Of course that has never been done and it cannot be done, and that for a very simple reason: The dream—an all inclusive vision of reality and knowledge—does not lie within the subject matter of those sciences. They each have a specific subject matter, and those subject matters have relationships which can be investigated by methods appropriate to them. But none of them has as their subject matter reality as a whole or knowledge as a whole, and this has been repeatedly pointed out by careful thinkers from Aristotle to Edmund Husserl (see his: The Crisis of European Sciences), and, in their own eccentric but powerful ways, by Wittgenstein and Derrida.

But the point is in fact a very simple one, to be found (as Aristotle found it, Bk IV of his Metaphysics) just by looking at the content of the various sciences, or what they are about, what they treat of. It is hard not to be aware of this, even if you go ahead, for whatever reason, and assert reductionist views that in one way or another, deny it. Such an awareness generates a strong tension that can give rise to what Professor Ellis calls "Fundamentalism." He describes the essential nature of Fundamentalism as: "A partial truth proclaimed as total truth, and associated inability to relate theory to context." Not to quibble at terminology, but Fundamentalism is at bottom a matter of the will. So I would say "resolute refusal to relate, etc." rather than "inability," but I acknowledge that the refusal can and often does transmute into inability. And this, I think, in part accounts for the deadlock often described as holding between "science and the humanities." With this language C.P. Snow, now largely forgotten, brought out issues of vital importance for current and future civilization, and for universities and higher education in particular.

"Fundamentalism," I believe, is always driven by the desperation that arises from a heavy sense that what we have "put our money on" just is not going to work—at least is not working. So we must force it. And then we find that force also is not working. And that is where, as Prof. Ellis so rightly says, fundamentalism leads to "dogmatism as proof, the infallible guru, intellectual stockades"—and, I would add in our current context, charges of being unscientific and of lower intelligence and research ability. If one side in whatever discussion can succeed in hanging the moniker "science" on itself, how could it possibly be Fundamentalistic? It needn’t any longer be reflective or logically careful, for it is "scientific." But, in truth, Fundamentalism is not a matter of the views one holds. It isn’t a matter of what you believe, but how you handle your beliefs. It is a matter of tenaciously holding that there must be something wrong with the opposing party, either in their motivation or their ability, since they do not agree with our views on certain matters.

In any case, the "scientific" reductionist will certainly just deny that the things omitted by his account, according to Ellis—free will, top-down causation in the brain, "self-hood, willpower, freedom, responsibility, etc., etc.,"—exist at all, or he will insist that they are mere chemical processes and not what we take them to be from the point of view of life ("Folk Psychology"). And the issue then becomes one of "Who is the Fundamentalist now?"

There is a long tradition of reductionist books—almost a literary genre in its own right by now—trying to reassure us that nothing has been really lost by cheerful materialism. This line runs at least from Ludwig Büchner’s old Force and Matter (first German ed., 1855), up through the writings of Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, and now, most recently, Owen Flanagen (The Problem of the Soul, Basic Books, 2002). These writings all have a tone of gentle, elevated tut-tutting. (Büchner, to be sure, was not so gentle.) Their authors would certainly patronize any claim such as Prof. Ellis’s, that "science per se excludes most truly human endeavors…" But it is still a rock hard fact that they nor anyone else has come remotely close to showing how "science" does include the things which Prof. Ellis lists as omitted by Reductionism. They just hand out more promissory notes, with no date of redemption; but as he says, it continues to be true that "these important parts of human life…simply…lie outside the strictly limited domain of science itself."

At this point, though agreeing in substance with Professor Ellis, I would prefer to use a slightly different language. There is little point in trying to carry on discussions in terms of "science." There are sciences, no doubt—note the plural—and there are scientists. These are fairly well individuated types of objects. We know a good deal about how to approach them, find out about them, and relate to them. But this is not true of science in the singular, nor of whatever is expressed by the adjectival form, "scientific." Some decades ago we had, in philosophy, a long and furious discussion under the heading of "demarcation." How do you tell what is "scientific" and not? Currently, the only still-recognizable name from that discussion is Karl Popper’s. The problem of demarcation was that of designating what distinguished scientific from non-scientific areas (or scientific theories from non-scientific claims). Nothing really came of this discussion, for various reasons which I spare you. But I am convinced it really came to nothing because there is no such thing as science and no quality that marks the scientific. They are hopeless abstractions, and they only serve to cloak—or to attempt to cloak—in authority certain claims and procedures that really have no rational foundation, and certainly no foundation from within the content of any of the particular sciences. Now something true and helpful can be said, and Prof. Ellis does this, about some procedures followed by many scientists. But I wouldn’t want the task of showing that all scientists work in those ways all the time, or that certain people who are scientists have ever worked in those ways. Of course we run into the problem of who counts as a scientist, and of when those who do are doing "science" are speaking "scientifically" (ex cathedra, as it were) and when they are not. It is not uncommon to see the scientist treated as always speaking "scientifically." Alas! But I venture to say that scientists often speak non-scientifically, and among philosophers who would like to be "scientific," there are hardly any who ever speak "scientifically"—whatever that means. (Such philosophers often speak of themselves as being "scientifically minded"!)

The outcome is, I think, that there are many different types of subject matters (including, by the way, the practices of scientists and of the sciences themselves) which present themselves more or less directly to our consciousness and action, and that these are subject matters (the physical sciences themselves included) about which the physical sciences have little or nothing to say. There is no reason why they should. This leaves us to pursue the problems of whether and how we do have knowledge of these extra-science subject matters; but those problems should be answered or solved by reflective analysis of the knowledge we do have of those subject matters, which, as it turns out, is not a task for physics et al, because physics is not about such things. But we do know many things by means of other avenues than physics, et al. And if we did not, we wouldn’t be here having this discussion this evening.

Prof. Ellis makes numerous important points that I have not mentioned. What he has to say of ethics under reductionism is especially crucial for our time. Ethics has through the ages been, for the most part, recognized as centered on the will. With reductionism the will disappears. It is no accident that 20th Century ethical theory has almost nothing to say of the will or of moral character. The will disappears under the increasingly reductionist approach of empirical psychology. Before G.E. Moore, in philosophers such as T.A. Green and F.H. Bradley—and even in Henry Sidgwick, though less so—will and character was the center of moral theory. Where this center disappears, as it must under Reductionism, moral knowledge disappears, as it actually did after Moore and the other Intuitionists. Intuition and reflection were not able to resist the social force of claims that "science" is the only knowledge. Life then must be left to the influence of feeling and politics, as is now largely the case.

Related Resources

You may also like...