A Reductionist Analysis of Reductionism?

It can be seen that reductionism isn’t only a scientific and philosophical habit or obsession — it’s actually a human habit or obsession.

People naturally reduce things. They also seek out essences even if there are no essences to seek. Indeed the use of “stereotypes” and generalisations — in all walks of life — is often a result of this way of thinking. And the thing is — it’s not always wrong or suspect. Sometimes there are generalisations which contain a lot of truth — if not the whole true. Stereotypes capture elements of truth. And almost everything can be reduced down to more basic elements; whether more basic material things or more basic problems. Perhaps physicists and philosophers are indeed the worst (as it were) offenders. As the science writer and journalist John Horgan (in his The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Science in the Twilight of the Scientific Age) puts it:

“They want to show that the complicated things of the world are really just manifestations of one thing. An essence. A force. A loop of energy wriggling in a 10-dimensional hyperspace.”

Then, ironically, Horgan hints that the arch-reductionist — a sociobiologist — should himself state:

“[A] genetic influence lurks behind this reductionist impulse, since it has motivated thinkers since the dawn of civilisation. God, after all, was conceived by the same impulse.”

Here it is argued that a sociobiologist should give a reductionist account of the reductionist impulse itself. In other words, just as a sociobiologist may boil many — or even all — (biological and behavioural) things down to genes; so he must also boil the reductionist impulse (or even instinct) itself down to genes. Thus sociobiological reductionism is applied to sociobiological reductionism — as indeed it must be (if you think about it). So it’s ironic that reductionism — which is the enemy of so many religious people and many philosophers — should itself be seen (by some) as a result of a religious impulse.

As I said about generalisations and stereotypes, many reductions may be largely correct. Still, they could/can never be the whole story — though even this could be deemed a generalisation. It depends, first of all, on what’s being reduced. It also depends on what, exactly, is being said about what’s being reduced and what it’s being reduced to. In the end, the sociobiological claim may not be as monumental and all-encompassing as one first imagines. In other words, it’s often anti-reductionists who overstretch the claims or intents of reductionism rather than the reductionists themselves.

In the end, most people are happy with some — or even many — reductions. This is primarily the case because many reductions don’t seem to have any direct impact on human beings as such; either philosophically, morally/religiously or politically. Earlier John Horgan mentioned that God was “conceived by the same impulse” which drives reductionism. Later he says that

“[m]ost of Einstein’s contemporaries saw his efforts to unify physics as a product of his dotage and quasi-religious tendencies”.

Perhaps I’m cheating here because that “dotage” was about scientific unification, not scientific reduction. Though unification and reduction often — or always — walk hand in hand. For example, Horgan cites Einstein’s own case in which he

“spent his later years trying to find a theory that would unify quantum mechanics with his theory of gravity, general relativity”.

This appears to be an endeavour in unification which, at the same time, would have required reductive work. After all, when you get down to the basics (or when you reduce things to quantum mechanics), then that’s when you see that things are more unified. The unification would come from the reduction of the separate elements. However, it can be said that quantum mechanics is in itself a reduction in that in order to (as it were) get there, things/objects would have had to have been reduced to molecules; molecules to atoms; atoms to sub-atomic particles; then particles to forces, fields, energy, spacetime itself …. and what have you…

So what about a sociobiologist (or an evolutionary psychologist) reducing (say) love down to genes or at least to some other lower (perhaps biological) level?…

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