The Other I

July 20, 2010

The basics of reductionism

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:42 pm

Newton’s theory of gravity was revolutionary.  With its strong mathematical foundation and stunning accuracy in predicting the movement of the stars and planets and in explaining why some objects seem to fall to earth while others don’t, it was a major influence in the development of reductionism.

Essentially Newton’s theory sees the universe as a giant machine which runs according to the laws of physics.   As a result of this simple set of assumptions, scientists believed it would be theoretically possible to predict exactly where every single particle, atom, and molecule in the universe had ever been in the past and how it would move forever into the future.  The universe and everything in it was like a gigantic and complex clock.

The first thing the assumptions of reductionism did, backed by the success of Newton’s theory, was to eliminate the need for a vital force in natural events.  Explanations not only no longer needed a supernatural world with God and angels and saints, humans did not require souls, we did not even need human intention or mind .   The laws of physics ultimately explain absolutely everything we see and experience and are.

This mechanistic model was therefore also totally deterministic.   Save for the possibility of God’s initial act of creating it, nothing that happened in the universe required deliberate intent.  Intention was a chimera, an illusion that we or other living organisms are the cause of any changes whatsoever, however small.  This eliminated both sin and virtue as causes of natural events.  Prayers of petition were without power, and the supposed wrath of God reflected in natural disasters were a conceit, making us, even in our sinfulness, far more important than we are.

Newton’s theory also seemed to show that the laws of physics, once they were understood, were predictive of what was going to happen in the future.  In relation to any event, it should be possible to state the conditions under which that event would happen.  As surely as the chemist can predict that two hydrogen atoms will combine with one oxygen atom to create water, everything else in the universe could ultimately be subject to absolute predictability.

These assumptions of reductionism have been hugely productive for the three and a half centuries since Newton lived.  It produced electricity and telecommunications, cars and rocket ships, it eliminated small pox from the face of the earth and produced vaccines that can eliminate polio, measles, whooping-cough, and chicken pox.  It is the approach that got us to the moon, and given us sight of the beginnings of the universe.

Religious believers have always had a fundamental problem with a reductionism that eliminates the need for God, for free will and human choice, and reduces all life to mere bio-chemistry.

But after three and a half centuries, problems are emerging from within science itself.  They began with psychology.  These will be the topic of the next post on the subject of reductionism.


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