The Other I

July 27, 2010

Reductionism in original context

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:33 pm

I’ve read an argument recently that scientific reductionism was framed the way it was because of the predominant religious view from which it was separating itself.

That view was the dualism of Roman Catholicism of the Middle Ages.  Adopted from Plato’s world of perfect forms, Catholic theology made God the vital force which informed matter with souls, giving it life and making is capable of thought and decision-making.

Most of the early scientists continued to believe in God and thought that they were studying his work as they unfolded the marvels of the universe.  But they believed that although God had created the world, it was now controlled by purely natural laws undirected by forces from a supernatural world.

Reductionism, therefore, eliminated God as an explanation of dynamism and vitality.  Or more precisely, they eliminated dynamism and vitality as scientific forces.  Without the supernatural, matter itself became inert.  So convincing was this view that it was adopted by almost everybody.

Of course, changes were seen to occur in the universe, but those changes were the result of purely mechanical mechanisms.  They were never self-propelled, save for the laws of physics which determined the interactions first of particles, then atoms and molecules, and finally the complexity of life.

With quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, the absolute determinism assumed by the reductionists was abandoned.   But this did not usher in an acceptance of free will.  The commitment to the adequacy of the laws of physics to explain everything that happens in the universe remains.

Except it is being undermined from two fronts.  The first is a religious argument, which, frankly, I regret.  Many religious people believe that reductionism and God are incompatible, and depending on one’s particular theology, they may be.  I think, though, that it is unfortunate that scientific doubts about the adequacy of the reductionist view should be confused with religion.

God can neither be proved nor disproved through science.  Believers who cling to their beliefs on the grounds that X or Y cannot be explained scientifically are inevitably destined to be disappointed as our understanding of the universe continues to expand.  “God” as the answer to questions that we cannot yet answer is based on a flimsy faith.

The second assault on reductionism is coming from within science itself, and this, I believe, is a valid battlefront.  Some scientists, looking at the evidence, now doubt that we can explain the phenomena of our amazing universe within the reductionist assumptions.  They believe that the original assumption that matter is inert in itself is no longer scientifically viable.  Einstein has shown us that matter and energy – that dynamic vitality pervading the universe – are two forms of the same thing.

The increasing organization of the universe, therefore, springs from an intrinsic dynamism of matter.  It is no longer only Gestalt theorists who are arguing  new level of organization are governed by new laws appropriate to that level.  They are joined by physicists and biologists from below, by psychologists and social scientists from above.

I’m going to take a break on the subject of reductionism now until I’ve done more reading on contemporary thought.  I don’t know how great my need is to actually understand the research that has started a whole new dialogue on the subject among physicists and biologists, but it is provocative and fascinating.

But not because it has anything to do with the possible existence – or otherwise – of God.

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