Reductionism = static world = Let’s find out!

17 martie 2009
We live in the 21th Century. This is a fast moving, energy filled, quantic world. It is not anymore a mechanic, almost static one.
"Reductionism can either mean (a) an approach to understanding
the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of
their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things or (b) a
philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of
its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of
individual constituents.[1] This can be said of objects, phenomena, explanations, theories, and meanings.

Reductionism is strongly related to a certain perspective on causality.
In a reductionist framework, phenomena that can be explained completely
in terms of other, more fundamental phenomena, are called epiphenomena. Often there is an implication that the epiphenomenon exerts no causal agency on the fundamental phenomena that explain it.

Reductionism does not preclude emergent phenomenon but it does imply the ability to understand the emergent in terms of the phenomena from and process(es) by which it emerges.


Reductionism dates back to ancient Greek philosophy in which some philosophers, notably Democritus, viewed the world as a mechanistic, material machine.[2] Democritus was famous for his theory of atomism.

It was introduced later by Descartes in Part V of his Discourses
(1637). Descartes argued the world was like a machine, its pieces like
clockwork mechanisms, and that the machine could be understood by
taking its pieces apart, studying them, and then putting them back
together to see the larger picture. Descartes was a full mechanist,
but only because he did not accept the conservation of direction of
motions of small things in a machine, including an organic machine.
Newton’s theory required such conservation for inorganic things at
least. When such conservation was accepted for organisms as well as
inorganic objects by the middle of the 20th century, no organic
mechanism could easily, if at all, be a Cartesian mechanism.

Types of 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 Galileos
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 theorythat is, it explains more events than
Galileo’s or Kepler’s. Theoretical reduction, therefore, is the
reduction of one explanation or theory to anotherthat is, it is the
absorption of one of our ideas about a particular thing into another

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 substances 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 most aspects of chemistry are based on physics, and similarly many aspects of microbiology are based on chemistry , such 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.[citation needed]



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.[citation needed]

Michael Ruse has criticized ontological reductionism as an improper argument against vitalism.[8]

Reductionism in linguistics

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. The most known form of reductionist constructed
language would be Esperanto (Also See Basic English and the constructed language Toki Pona).[citation needed]


Limits of reductionism

A contrast to the reductionist approach is holism or emergentism.
Holism recognizes the idea that things can have properties as a whole
that are not explainable from the sum of their parts (emergent
properties). The principle of holism was concisely summarized by
Aristotle in the Metaphysics: "The whole is more than the sum of its

The term Greedy reductionism, coined by Daniel Dennett, is used to criticize inappropriate use of reductionism. Other authors use different language when describing the same thing.


In philosophy

The concept of downward causation poses an alternative to reductionism within philosophy. This view is developed and explored by Peter Bgh Andersen, Claus Emmeche, Niels Ole Finnemann, and Peder Voetmann Christiansen,
among others. These philosophers explore ways in which one can talk
about phenomena at a larger-scale level of organization exerting causal
influence on a smaller-scale level, and find that some, but not all
proposed types of downward causation are compatible with science. In
particular, they find that constraint is one way in which downward causation can operate.[9] The notion of causality as constraint has also been explored as a way to shed light on scientific concepts such as self-organization, natural selection, adaptation, and control.[10]

In science

Phenomena such as emergence and work within the field of complex systems theory pose limits to reductionism. Stuart Kauffman is one of the advocates of this viewpoint.[11] Emergence is strongly related to nonlinearity.[12] The limits of the application of reductionism become especially evident at levels of organization with higher amounts of complexity, including culture, neural networks, ecosystems, and other systems formed from assemblies of large numbers of interacting components. Symmetry breaking is an example of an emergent phenomenon. Nobel laureate P.W.Anderson used this idea in his famous paper in Science in 1972, ‘More is different’[13]
to expose some of the limitations of reductionism. The limitation of
reductionism was explained as follows. The sciences can be arranged
roughly linearly in a hierarchy as particle physics, many body physics, chemistry, molecular biology, cellular biology, …, physiology, psychology and social sciences.
The elementary entities of one science obeys the laws of the science
that precedes it in the above hierarchy. But, this does not imply that
one science is just an applied version of the science that precedes it.
Quoting from the article, "At each stage, entirely new laws,
concepts and generalizations are necessary, requiring inspiration and
creativity to just as great a degree as in the previous one. Psychology
is not applied biology nor is biology applied chemistry

Sven Erik Jorgensen, an ecologist, lays out both theoretical and practical arguments for a holistic approach in certain areas of science, especially ecology.
He argues that many systems are so complex that it will not ever be
possible to describe all their details. Drawing an analogy to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle
in physics, he argues that many interesting and relevant ecological
phenomena cannot be replicated in laboratory conditions, and thus
cannot be measured or observed without influencing and changing the
system in some way. He also points to the importance of
interconnectedness in biological systems. His viewpoint is that science
can only progress by outlining what questions are unanswerable and by
using models that do not attempt to explain everything in terms of
smaller hierarchical levels of organization, but instead model them on
the scale of the system itself, taking into account some (but not all)
factors from levels both higher and lower in the hierarchy.[14]

Disciplines such as cybernetics and systems theory
strongly embrace a non-reductionist view of science, sometimes going as
far as explaining phenomena at a given level of hierarchy in terms of
phenomena at a higher level, in a sense, the opposite of a reductionist


In decision theory

In decision theory, a nonlinear utility function for a quantity such as money
can create a situation in which all relevant decisions to be made in a
given time period must to be considered simultaneously in order to
maximize utility, if all relevant decisions act on utility
only through this quantity. In such a situation, the optimal choice for
a given decision depends on the possible outcomes of all other
decisions, including those which may have no causal
relationship to the decision at hand. Breaking such a problem apart
into individual decisions and optimizing each smaller decision can lead
to drastically sub-optimal decisions. Such nonlinear utility functions
for money are used in economics
and are necessary in order to satisfy reasonable assumptions about
rational behavior. Such decision making situations are the norm, rather
than the exception, in many business settings.[16]

In religion

Certain religious beliefs
or doctrines assign supernatural original causes to phenomena. In this
context, even if a given system appears to operate by causes and
effects that can be explained within a strict reductionist framework,
belief or doctrine might hold that its true genesis and placement
within larger (and typically unknown) systems is bound up with an
intelligence or consciousness that is beyond normal or uninvited human
perception. Some such beliefs constitute a form of teleology, a perspective which is generally in conflict with reductionism.

Benefits of reduction

An ontological reduction reduces the number of ontological primitives that exist within our ontology.
Philosophers welcome this, because every ontological primitive demands
a special explanation for its existence. If we maintain that life is
not a physical property, for example, then we must give a separate
explanation of why some objects possess it and why others do not. This
is more often than not a daunting task, and such explanations often
have the flavor of ad hoc contrivances or deus ex machina.
Also, since every ontological primitive must be acknowledged as one of
the fundamental principles of the natural world, we must also account
for why this element in particular should be considered one of those
underlying principles. (To return to an earlier example, it would be
extremely difficult to explain why planets are so fundamental that
special laws of motion should apply to them.) This is often extremely
hard to do, especially in the face of our strong preference for simple
explanations. Pursuing ontological reduction thus serves to unify and
simplify our ontology, while guarding against needless multiplication of entities in the process.

At the same time, the requirements for satisfactorily showing that
one thing is reducible to another are extremely steep. First and
foremost, all features of the original property or object must be
accounted for. For example, lightning would not be reducible to the electrical activity of air molecules
if the reduction explained why lightning is deadly, but not why it
always seeks the highest point to strike. Our preference for simple and
unified explanations is a strong force for reductionism, but our demand
that all relevant phenomena be accounted for is at least as strong a
force against it.

Alternatives to reductionism

In recent years, the development of systems thinking has provided methods for tackling issues in a holistic rather than a reductionist way, and many scientists approach their work in a holistic paradigm. When the terms are used in a scientific context, holism and reductionism refer primarily to what sorts of models
or theories offer valid explanations of the natural world; the
scientific method of falsifying hypotheses, checking empirical data
against theory, is largely unchanged, but the approach guides which
theories are considered. The conflict between reductionism and holism
in science is not universal–it usually centers on whether or not a
holistic or reductionist approach is appropriate in the context of
studying a specific system or phenomenon.

In many cases (such as the kinetic theory
of gases), given a good understanding of the components of the system,
one can predict all the important properties of the system as a whole.
In other cases, trying to do this leads to a fallacy of composition. In those systems, emergent properties of the system are almost impossible to predict from knowledge of the parts of the system. Complexity theory studies such systems.


  1. ^ see eg Reductionism in the Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science
  2. ^ Burns, Tony (2000), "Materialism in Ancient Greek Philosophy and in the Writings of the Young Marx", Historical Materialism 7: 3, doi:10.1163/156920600100414623 
  3. ^ "[]" Interview with Third Way magazine in which Richard Dawkins discusses reductionism and religion, February 28, 1995
  4. ^ R.E. Ulanowicz, Ecology: The Ascendant Perspective, Columbia University Press (1997) (ISBN 0231108281)
  5. ^ TITLE
  6. ^ [1] R. Gregory Taylor, "Zermelo, Reductionism, and the Philosophy of Mathematics". Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Fall 1993)
  7. ^ [2] Michael Silberstein, John McGeever, "The Search for Ontological Emergence", The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 195 (April 1999), (ISSN: 0031-8094).
  8. ^ [3] Michael Ruse, "Do Organisms Exist?", Amer. Zool., 29:1061-1066 (1989)
  9. ^ P.B. Andersen, C. Emmeche, N.O. Finnemann, P.V. Christiansen, Downward Causation: Minds, Bodies and Matter, Aarhus University Press (ISBN 8772888148) (2001)
  10. ^ – A. Juarrero, Causality as Constraint
  11. ^ Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman
  12. ^ A. Scott, Reductionism Revisited, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11, No. 2, 2004 pp. 51-68
  13. ^ Anderson, P.W. (1972). "More is Different". Science 177 (4047): 393396. doi:10.1126/science.177.4047.393. PMID 17796623. 
  14. ^ S. E. Jrgensen, Integration of Ecosystem Theories: A Pattern, 3rd ed. Kluwer Academic Publishers, (ISBN 1-4020-0651-9) (2002) Chapters 1 & 2.
  15. ^ Downward Causation
  16. ^ J.O. Berger, Statistical Decision Theory and Bayesian Analysis. Springer-Verlag 2nd ed. (1985) ch. 2. (ISBN 3540960988)

Further reading

  • Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press; 2nd edition, December 1989 ISBN 0-19-217773-7.
  • Descartes (1637) Discourses Part V
  • Dupre, J. (1993) The Disorder of Things. Harvard University Press.
  • Jones, Richard H. Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality. Bucknell University Press. (For the general reader.)
  • Nagel, E. (1961) The Structure of Science. New York.
  • Ruse, M. (1988) Philosophy of Biology. Albany, NY.
  • Dennett, Daniel. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-82471-X.
  • Fritjof Capra. (1982) The Turning Point.
  • Alexander Rosenberg (2006) Darwinian Reductionism or How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology. University of Chicago Press.
  • Steven Pinker (2002) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature . Viking Penguin.
  • Steven Weinberg (2002) describes what he terms the culture war among physicists in his review of A New Kind of Science
  • Eric Scerri
    The reduction of chemistry to physics has become a central aspect of
    the philosophy of chemistry. See several articles by this author.

External links

10x to this project, wonderfull


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