The Other I

August 6, 2010

The destructiveness of reductionism

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:20 pm

I can hear the sighs of boredom as I say I’m writing yet another post about reductionism in science.

So I’m going to defend myself by trying to explain why it matters so much.

Basically reductionism mechanized the universe.  Everything – everything – happens automatically in the same way a ball rolls down a hill or water turns into ice when it reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  Essentially a plant, a couple in love, a dog protecting a child, a man climbing Mt. Everest are also all operating on these same basic mechanistic principles.  The feeling that each of us has of being self-propelled, and the sense that others and all other living things are too, is an illusion.

So if reductionism is right, we not only live in a huge machine.  We are merely cogs in a huge machine over whose direction and operation we have no control and for which we have no responsibility.

Personally, I think if reductionism is right,  kicking and screaming like a two-year-old isn’t going to change things.  It won’t change things if we elect politicians who agree with us and are willing to make laws that force everyone else to live as if they agree with us either.  If this is the way the universe is, either because God created it that way or because there isn’t a God at all, then the honest, courageous act of integrity is to accept it.

And so it is an important question to ask not as a religious believer but as a scientist if reductionism really describes the universe as we observe it.

As a scientist I myself am convinced that reductionism is an incomplete description of the universe.  I’ve indicated earlier some of the evidence I find convincing, and I suspect I will write at least one more post on the problems arising in physics today with a purely reductionist view.

But not being a reductionist doesn’t make me a believer in god or in a supernatural world.  I personally am committed to the view that all laws are “natural.”  It’s just that I think the “natural” world is a whole lot more mysterious than the traditional reductionist may think.

In that sense, reductionism did a violent disservice to life.  For centuries, it convinced people that animals are no more capable of suffering than a car engine is.  Human thoughts and feelings were not really real, nor were we responsible for anything – good or bad – that we did or for any consequences of our choices.  Even today, insights we may gain through the arts – poetry, literature, music – are somehow evaluated as “soft,” not quite as valuable as “facts” we can prove scientifically.  We don’t know how scientifically to evaluate beauty or the value of wild land or the pleasure of a hug for their own sakes, and so if they do not contribute some countable economic gain, we feel free to destroy them or pollute them or build on them.

I think these things all represent a great loss.

And that’s why I’ve been banging on about reductionism for weeks.  It’s not a defense of religious belief, it’s not an argument against the scientific method.

It’s an argument for that approach to science that doesn’t level the world to a single dimension.  Whatever else the universe is, I don’t believe it is reducible to a mega-machine.  We live in a much more mysterious, overwhelming, astonishing  place than that.


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