Reductionism (19TH CENTURY)

Also called mechanism, or mechanistic philosophy.

Associated with Carl Ludwig (1816-1895), Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), Ernst von Briicke (1819-1892) and Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896).

The theory that life can be understood entirely in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry. Modern bioscience approaches biology from this perspective.

Compare with: vitalism

Types of reductionismedit

There are a number of distinctions made within reductionism

  • Ontological reductionism is the idea that everything that exists is made from a small number of basic substances that behave in regular ways (compare to monism).
  • Methodological reductionism is the idea that explanations of things, such as scientific explanations, ought to be continually reduced to the very simplest entities possible (but no simpler). Occam’s Razor forms the basis of this type of reductionism.
  • Theoretical reductionism is the idea that older theories or explanations are not generally replaced outright by new ones, but that new theories are refinements or reductions of the old theory in greater detail.
  • Scientific reductionism has been used to describe all of the above ideas as they relate to science, but is most often used to describe the idea that all phenomena can be reduced to scientific explanations.
  • Linguistic reductionism is the idea that everything can be described in a language with a limited number of core concepts, and combinations of those concepts. (See Basic English and the constructed language Toki Pona).
  • The term “greedy reductionism” was coined by Daniel Dennett to condemn those forms of reductionism that try to explain too much with too little.
  • Analytical reductionism as used in “Is Reductionism A Good Approach In Science?” “is the underlying a priori of ontological reductionism”.

The distinction between the processes of theoretical and ontological reduction is important. Theoretical reduction is the process by which one theory is absorbed into another; for example, both Kepler’s laws of the motion of the planets and Galileo’s theories of motion worked out for terrestrial objects are reducible to Newtonian theories of mechanics, because all the explanatory power of the former are contained within the latter. Furthermore, the reduction is considered to be beneficial because Newtonian mechanics is a more general theory—that is, it explains more events than Galileo’s or Kepler’s. Theoretical reduction, therefore, is the reduction of one explanation or theory to another—that is, it is the absorption of one of our ideas about a particular thing into another idea.

Methodological reductionism is the position that the best scientific strategy is to attempt to reduce explanations to the smallest possible entities. Methodological reductionism would thus hold that the atomic explanation of a substance’s boiling point is preferable to the chemical explanation, and that an explanation based on even smaller particles (quarks, perhaps) would be even better.

Theoretical reductionism is the position that all scientific theories either can or should be reduced to a single super-theory through the process of theoretical reduction.

Finally, ontological reductionism is the belief that reality is composed of a minimum number of kinds of entities or substances. This claim is usually metaphysical, and is most commonly a form of monism, in effect claiming that all objects, properties and events are reducible to a single substance. (A dualist who is an ontological reductionist would presumably believe that everything is reducible to one of two substances.)

Reductionism and science

Reductionist thinking and methods are the basis for many of the well-developed areas of modern science, including much of physics, chemistry and cell biology. Classical mechanics in particular is seen as a reductionist framework, and statistical mechanics can be viewed as a reconciliation of macroscopic thermodynamic laws with the reductionist approach of explaining macroscopic properties in terms of microscopic components.

In science, reductionism can be understood to imply that certain fields of study are based on areas that study smaller spatial scales or organizational units. While it is commonly accepted that the foundations of chemistry are based in physics, and microbiology is rooted in chemistry, similar statements become controversial when one considers larger-scale fields. For example, claims that sociology is based on psychology, or that economics is based on sociology and psychology would be met with reservations. These claims are difficult to substantiate even though there are clear connections between these fields (for instance, most would agree that psychology can impact and inform economics.) The limit of reductionism’s usefulness stems from emergent properties of complex systems which are more common at certain levels of organization. For example, certain aspects of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are rejected by some who claim that complex systems are inherently irreducible and that a holistic approach is needed to understand them.

Daniel Dennett defends scientific reductionism, which he says is really little more than materialism, by making a distinction between this and what he calls “Greedy reductionism”: the idea that every explanation in every field of science should be reduced all the way down to particle physics or string theory. Greedy reductionism, he says, deserves some of the criticism that has been heaped on reductionism in general because the lowest-level explanation of a phenomenon, even if it exists, is not always the best way to understand or explain it.

Some strong reductionists believe that the behavioral sciences should become “genuine” scientific disciplines by being based on genetic biology, and on the systematic study of culture (cf. Dawkins’s concept of memes). In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins introduced the term “hierarchical reductionism”[3] to describe the view that complex systems can be described with a hierarchy of organizations, each of which can only be described in terms of objects one level down in the hierarchy. He provides the example of a computer, which under hierarchical reductionism can be explained well in terms of the operation of hard drives, processors, and memory, but not on the level of AND or NOR gates, or on the even lower level of electrons in a semiconductor medium.

Both Dennett and Steven Pinker argue that too many people who are opposed to science use the words “reductionism” and “reductionist” less to make coherent claims about science than to convey a general distaste for the endeavor, saying the opponents often use the words in a rather slippery way, to refer to whatever they dislike most about science. Dennett suggests that critics of reductionism may be searching for a way of salvaging some sense of a higher purpose to life, in the form of some kind of non-material / supernatural intervention. Dennett terms such aspirations “skyhooks,” in contrast to the “cranes” that reductionism uses to build its understanding of the universe from solid ground.

Others argue that inappropriate use of reductionism limits our understanding of complex systems. In particular, ecologist Robert Ulanowicz says that science must develop techniques to study ways in which larger scales of organization influence smaller ones, and also ways in which feedback loops create structure at a given level, independently of details at a lower level of organization. He advocates (and uses) information theory as a framework to study propensities in natural systems.[4] Ulanowicz attributes these criticisms of reductionism to the philosopher Karl Popper and biologist Robert Rosen.[5]

Reductionism in mathematics

In mathematics, reductionism can be interpreted as the philosophy that all mathematics can (or ought to) be built off a common foundation, which is usually axiomatic set theory. Ernst Zermelo was one of the major advocates of such a view, and he was also responsible for the development of much of axiomatic set theory. It has been argued that the generally accepted method of justifying mathematical axioms by their usefulness in common practice can potentially undermine Zermelo’s reductionist program.[6]

As an alternative to set theory, others have argued for category theory as a foundation for certain aspects of mathematics.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Ontological reductionism

Ontological reductionism is the claim that everything that exists is made from a small number of basic substances that behave in regular ways (compare to monism). Ontological reductionism denies the idea of ontological emergence, and claims that emergence is an epistemological phenomenon that only exists through analysis or description of a system, and does not exist on a fundamental level.[7]

Ontological reductionism takes two different forms: Token ontological reductionism is the idea that every item that exists is a sum item. For perceivable items, it says that every perceivable item is a sum of items at a smaller level of complexity. Type ontological reductionism is the idea that every type of item is a sum (of typically less complex) type(s) of item(s). For perceivable types of item, it says that every perceivable type of item is a sum of types of items at a lower level of complexity. Token ontological reduction of biological things to chemical things is generally accepted. Type ontological reduction of biological things to chemical things is often rejected

One thought on “Reductionism (19TH CENTURY)

  1. Kenda Zelkind says:

    When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.