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Reductionism and its Alternatives

2-1-2006 Essay 2 Wijsgerige Vorming Chimed Jansen

Contents Introduction Reductionism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 3 3 4 5 5 6 7

Intertheoretic Reductionism The Range of Reductionism Holism . .

Complex Systems Approach versus Reductionism and Holism . Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Bibliography .

Introduction Reductionism is a tool used to understand and explain processes or objects through analysing the parts which make them up. It is used widely in science and is an implicit basis for accepting the relevance of science. This essay explores reductionism in an attempt to identify its usefulness and limits. To accomplish this end different forms of reductionism will be discussed. Comparisons will be made with two alternative theories, holism and complex systems approach. This will be concluded with a personal reflection on the merits of each approach. Reductionism Reductionism is a process which can be applied to many fields. In the most general terms it is the explaining of complex entities through appealing to simpler and or more fundamental levels. It can be applied to theories, objects or phenomenon and can take the form of a process, theory or belief dependant on a person’s level of commitment to its premise. To allow for a focused debate about reductionism I would like to introduce two examples of how reductionism might be applied. First an example from scientific theory, biology, and second an object, the automobile. The reductionist view is that biology can be explained by chemistry and the automobile explained by engineering and physics. In the case of biology this can be seen in the example of the study of heredity being explained by the nature of DNA macromolecules a chemical phenomenon. While in the case of the automobile the engine is designed to convert chemical energy into kinetic energy through parts engineered to harness the laws of physics. Reductionism implies the acceptance of realism as it involves approaching an ultimate reality or real theory which exists at the basis of all other reality or theories. Particle physics is generally accepted as the core theory and the particles it describes as the core level of physical reality. This is the reason the theory physicists are attempting to find which combines the three fundamental forces and quantum physics, has been dubbed the theory of everything. For a reductionist realist such a theory would indeed be the core to understanding ‘everything’. Intertheoretic Reductionism A specific type of reductionism is particularly relevant to science, intertheoretic reductionism as described by Nagel in his book, The Structure of Science,1961. In this model two theories are reducible if the more fundamental theory explains all phenomenon explained by the theory to be reduced and more. The second prerequisite is that both theories are sufficiently developed. For Nagel this includes the presence of derivability and connectabilty between the theories. Derivability is the simply the ability of one theory to be derived from the other theory. Connectability is the presence of bridge laws which can be used to connect the two theories, these can be conditions or intermediate theories. 1 An example of a theory from biology reducing to a theory in chemistry could be a theory of energy. For example a theory in biology is that one of the
Peter Machamer and Jacqueline Sullivan, Leveling Reductionism,,8.24.doc

features of life is metabolism. In chemistry there is a theory that chemical reactions store or release energy through altering the composition or conformation of the involved molecules. A bridge law in this case might be the second thermodynamic law of entropy which suggests that the ordered systems of live entities found in biology require energy to exist. The result of the reduction would be metabolism is equal to chemical reactions which store or release energy. The problem with this theory is that often the bridge laws don’t exist. For example if we want to reduce the entire field of biology to chemistry this includes behavior patterns of animals and the ‘web of life’ or patterns of species interdependence. These are features for which no bridge laws exist to connect these patterns to chemistry. This results in a severe limitation in the number of theories which can be reduced successfully. In fact for many scientists the only completely successful application of intertheoretic reduction was in the reduction of ideal gas laws to kinetic theory. The Range of Reductionism Defendants of the strong form of reductionism hold that reductionism always applies. This can lead to conflicts in cases where additional properties seem to be apparent on one level and absent at a deeper level. The long held view of the life force is an example of such a property. This was the quintessential argument against the reduction of biology to the level of chemistry. Recent advances in fields such as biochemistry have found nothing to imply the property was anything more than simply a phantom of biologists and spiritualists. However it would be naïve to assume this to be definitive proof. Religious beliefs can also become victims of reductionism, where the technique is assumed to be able to explain all phenomenon there is no reason to believe in supernatural influence through God(s), demons, angels, etc. It is here that these reductionists would apply the Occam’s Razor, which can be stated as: “Given two equally predictive theories, choose the simpler.” 2 With this in mind all theories of additional forces beyond those needed to explain an event are made redundant. Of course how it is applied depends on the person using it and in the end it can be seen as merely a rhetorical tool, for those who disagree can claim their own theory to be simpler. Chatton devised an anti-razor which stated: "If three things are not enough to verify an affirmative proposition about things, a fourth must be added, and so on." 3 This anti-razor, is in fact not so much an opposite of Occam’s Razor as its balance. It avoids the oversimplification which can occur through the application of Occam’s Razor. In the example of reductionism it avoids ‘greedy reductionism’, reducing a problem to the point at which that which is to be understood ceases to be identifiable, and represents moderate reductionism. In greedy reductionism the problem to be solved is simply avoided by averting attention to details which can no longer solve the problem. For instance in explaining the colours of bird feathers through chemistry alone, we will never find all the reasons for their existence. These may include attracting mates, camouflage, or scaring predators, all of which must be explained at the level of biology if they are to be understood.
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Occam’s Razor, Occam’s Razor,

Holism Moving away from reductionism we find the holism which does not even consider moderate reductionism a valid process. Holism maintains that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This denies the validity of reductionism and gives an added value to all complex entities. A fundamental difference exists between these entities and their parts such that any reduction looses the essence. For holists biology entails more than chemistry occurring within living organisms, it studies processes which only exist at the level of biology. The automobile on the other hand can only be understood as a complete object, once it is reduced it ceases to be or represent the car. Complex Systems Approach versus Reductionism and Holism This argument is developed in complexity science which analyses systems built up of parts coupled in a nonlinear fashion. This means that the effect of influencing part of a system may be non proportional to the size of the influence. For example replacing an amino-acid in an enzyme with another amino-acid may have no effect on the enzyme or it may drastically alter the enzyme (in activity and or tertiary form). In neither of these cases is the effect proportional to the change which has taken place. The roots of this approach lie in systems theory, which developed as a way of looking at the complexity and interdependence of systems built up of parts which form an emergent whole. Here emergence is specifically the formation of complex patterns from interactions between simple sets of variables. The advantage of the complex system approach is that it allows space for both non-linear and linear systems. Thus in our biology example the DNA – heredity relationship is seen as linear (though DNA it self is a good example of an emergent system), while the feather colour – chemistry relationship is seen as nonlinear (in aspects which deal with bird-bird interaction or bird-predator interaction). In the case of the automobile a linear relationship would be the relationship between aerodynamics and mileage. While a non-linear relationship might be the relationship between the form of the car and the year it was made, reflecting cultural influences and technological advances in society for example. Several features of complex systems set it apart from the classic reductionism / holism dualism. First of all it includes space for the influence of time; a complex system features a history. Secondly it can be nested within another complex system, thus emergent systems can form from other systems for example, a bird exists of cells which contain DNA each of which are complex systems. Thirdly it may contain feedback loops whereby the system influences its parts or influences, thereby altering it self. These features help us analyse the context within which we find the subject, where reductionism seems to imply analysing the subject as if it were autonomous. Systems theory is replacing reductionism in many areas of science because of this ability to combine a broader set of influences in the understanding of a phenomenon. 4


Anonymous, Systems Theory,

Conclusion When I first read about reductionism I had the feeling it was missing the point. This is because in reducing to lower ‘simpler’ levels phenomena are not necessarily any easier to explain or understand. For example when we reduce from the level of biology to the level of chemistry, hereditary traits are explained by variations in DNA macromolecules, however reducing once again to the atomic, or subatomic, level ads no further information to our understanding of the hereditary process. In fact at this level it becomes almost imposable to describe the hereditary process at all. It is because of these ‘natural boundaries’ to reduction that I feel the process must be used within limits and therefore I reject ‘strong reductionism’. Another aspect in which I felt reductionism failed is in its inability to provide a complete understanding of a process. Continuing with the example of hereditary traits, I feel that even after a reduction has been made to the level of DNA there are other aspects involved which exist at the macroscopic level. These would include the selection process involved in finding sexual partners, survival attributes for specific environments and other consequences of having specific traits. Together these could be called the environmental aspects of hereditary traits. Finally I felt reductionism lacked the influence of history. Again looking at the example of hereditary traits, how can we understand heredity without looking at it in the context of the generations passing through history? It is through looking at the processes over vast spans of generations that we can identify the variation process that leads to the evolution of traits. Furthermore it is by looking for evidence from the earliest stages of life on the planet and the very beginning of hereditary traits that we can learn how it came to exist as a process. Therefore time is an essential aspect of any phenomenon and cannot be disregarded if one wishes to understand it. These are the very elements introduced in the complex systems approach and it is no surprise then that my conclusion is that the complex systems approach is superior to either reductionism or holism. I feel the complex systems approach plays two important roles, it is a path of moderation between two extremes and it widens the scope of our understanding of phenomenon beyond the object, process or theory itself. I find its replacing of the classic approaches of reductionism and holism a healthy and necessary change.

Bibliography Anonymous, Reductionism, Anonymous, Scientific Reductionism, Anonymous, Complex System, Anonymous, Emergence, Anonymous, Occam’s Razor, J De La Piedra, Reductionism, Antireductionism and Supervenience, S. Allen-Hermanson, W. Seager, Panpsychism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005, Nigel Williams, Biologists Cut Reductionist Approach Down to Size, Science, 1997, William Hasker, How Not To Be A Reductivist, 2003,