Notes from the Publisher

Killing Reductionism - Part 1

One of the most dangerous yet tempting philosophies is reductionism.  Reductionism is a general concept which says that all reality must reduce to one or a few principles.  Physics, for instance, is the best example.  Within physics there is a constant drive to reduce all of physics to one or a few laws in operation which govern everything else.  Please note that while the examples we will use are based in physics, this concept extends beyond physics to a great many fields, which we will cover in later postings.

There are two things I don't like about reductionism:
  1. It is useless even if it is true
  2. It isn't true
In this post, we will cover the first of the above statements - reductionism is useless even if it is true.  Even if the major premise of reductionism is true - that is, all of the universe is based off of just one or a few principles, the concept of reductionism is useless in a practical sense.  The fact is that we encounter the world at a variety of levels of detail.  Looking at chemical reactions in terms of atoms and molecules is infinitely more practical than looking at chemical reactions in terms of quarks and neutrinos.  While it might be true that the quarks and neutrinos would depict a more accurate view of the reaction, from a practical standpoint, they are equivalent.  Actually, the chemical one is better because it is more readily understandable, and its explanation exists at the level of abstraction in which it is being performed.

Even more fun are things such as the ideal gas law.  The ideal gas law is a little quirky simply because it assumes (falsely) that gases do not take up any space.  The interesting thing is that, even with a patently false assumption, it is still a useful tool!  However, in order to use it appropriately, chemists must take into account the real properties of gases in combination with the ideal gas law.  Now, from a pure reductionist standpoint, this sort of thinking is ludicrous - why would you load in false assumptions just to balance them out with practical concerns later?  Why not just find the real laws of gases, and then operate accordingly?  The answer is that the ideal gas law does operate at a level of abstraction which is useful for solving problems, despite the fact that it makes false assumptions!  Depending on the problem being solved, sometimes we need to think abstractly enough as to steamroll real differences into nothingness, while at other times (usually when a project goes from R&D to Engineering) these differences need to be taken into account.  Sometimes these differences have no theoretical basis whatsoever, and are just the result of experience.

So, even if reductionism is true, there are three practical reasons to operate as if it were false:

  1. The level of abstraction when dealing with "the lowest level" makes the computations too hard for higher levels of abstraction
  2. The level of abstraction needed for thinking about problems may necessitate reasoning at higher levels, even if such reasoning makes use of false (and therefore blatantly anti-reductionistic) assumptions
  3. Since we are ignorant of a great many causes (both practical and theoretical), we will always have to deal with certain causes and effects in haphazard manners, in order to make up for the lack of knowledge on our part

In the next post, we will consider whether or not reductionism is even true.