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Refutation of reductionism (excerpt from The Fabric of Reality, by David Deutsch)

  1. Jul 21, 2003 #1


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    Refutation of reductionism (excerpt from "The Fabric of Reality," by David Deutsch)

    The whole title of this thread should read "Refutation of reductionism as a fundamental explanatory framework (excerpt from The Fabric of Reality, by David Deutsch)" but there wasn't enough room for that.

    Anyway, I'm posting this as a general topic of discussion as well as to directly address arguments that hold that, for instance, an emotion like love is best, or most scientifically, viewed as "merely" the result of chemical reactions in the brain. With further ado:

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 21, 2003 #2
    I agree pretty much with everything that is said here. Good piece.
  4. Jul 21, 2003 #3
    Some Rorty to Elaborate on the Issue

    I think it is important, when discussing the achievements of the scientific revolution, to make a distinction... between particle physics, together with those microstructural parts of natural science that can be easily linked to partical physics, and all of the rest of natural science. Particle physics, unfortunately, fascinates many contemporary philosophers... Quine once said that the reason the indeterminacy of translation was distinct from the indeterminacy of theory was that the differences in psychological explainations, unlike those in biological explainations, made no difference to the motion of elementary particles. David Lewis thinks that all objects in the universe are gerrymandered artifacts except those elementary particles. Sellers himself was all too inclined to describe nature in Democritean terms as "atoms and void" and to invert pseudo-problems about how to reconcile the "scientific" with the "manifest" image of human beings.

    To guard against this simpleminded and reductionistic way of thinking of nonhuman nature, it is useful to remember the form of intelligibility shared by Newton's primitive corpulscluarianism and contemporary particle physics has no counterpart in, for example, the geology of plate tectonics or in Darwin's and Mendal's accounts of heredity and evolution. What we get in those areas of natural science are narratives, natural histories, rather than the subsumption of events under laws....

    If we are trying to give philosophy Wittgensteinian peace, we should do what Dewey did: try to make all the traditional philosophical "dichotmoies" look like overdramatizations of the banal fact that different tools serve different purposes. We should treat the fact that you cannot use intentional talk and particle talk simultaneously as just as philosophically sterile as the fact that you cannot play baseball and jai alai simultaneously....

    Richard Rorty, "John Mcdowell's Version of Empericism"
  5. Jul 21, 2003 #4


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    There is one problem with any argument such as this;

    If you don't yet completely understand something, how do you know how a complete understanding should look?
  6. Jul 21, 2003 #5

    Les Sleeth

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    Re: Refutation of reductionism (excerpt from "The Fabric of Reality," by David Deutsc

    I'd like to hear more about how you see the article as relevant to what I assume you are pointing at -- the gap between structure and emergent phenomenon.

    Without hearing your opinion, I could say that I think Deutsch makes good points, but I don't know how far the he takes his reasoning.

    If he is critiquing "-ists" in general, whether it be reductionists, or creationists, or logical positivists or, my favorite, pragmatists, then I like it. But if he is singling out one "-ist" as inferior to other "-ists" then I think more needs to be said.

    Reductionism works perfectly well for getting at component parts, and understanding the base structure of things. But if one comes to believe that all understanding can be derived from this single mental process, that is when it becomes a problem. In that sense, any sort of "'ist" is bound to be lacking in those mental disciplines he is ignoring in order to exclusively apply what he has chosen as his own.

    So why single out reductionists? I'd rather see him point the finger at all "-ists." But maybe he is doing that . . . it's just that I can't tell from your excerpt.
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2003
  7. Jul 21, 2003 #6
    So what's the point in breaking things down to their basic component level without having a higher capacity of intelligence to do so? Does it even begin to convey the nature of that higher intelligence?

    What's the difference between building a radio receiver and listening to the music that it broadcasts?
  8. Jul 21, 2003 #7

    Les Sleeth

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    I don't know who you are asking, but I would answer you that there is no competition between understanding components and the abilities of intelligence overall. The first gives us the ability to create, and the second gives the ability to appreciate what's been created.

    So there is a big difference between building that radio and listening. If not for what reduction reveals, there would be no radio to listen to; if not for the ability to appreciate music, no one would try to build a radio!
  9. Jul 21, 2003 #8


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    Re: Refutation of reductionism (excerpt from "The Fabric of Reality," by David Deutsch)

    Greetings !

    hypnagogue, what exactly is your point ?
    You did not as I see it, fortunately - 'cause this would just
    require this thread to be moved into God and Religion,
    directly refute what you call reductionism. So what is
    it that you're saying ?

    There are many different scientific ways of viewing things.
    However, science's primary tool is mathematics and what
    we call today - logic, to discribe a phenomenon in FULL one
    has to start from its most basic known components known.
    To deny this basic way of scientific discription and explanation
    and to say that science can just deal with the Universe on
    different levels WITHOUT making the abvious connections WHEN
    it is technicly possible is just a bunch of crap - probably
    religion inpired crap. No offense.:wink:

    "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
    Leonardo Da Vinci

    Live long and prosper.
  10. Jul 21, 2003 #9
    But what if the radio were already there? (i.e., our brain). And we're still trying to figure out how it's put together? Does it really speak about the nature of the intelligence behind what's functional or complete? (i.e., consciousness itself). In fact we can pick up a lot of things over the radio other than that which tells us how the radio goes together. And like I say, we're still uncertain how it goes together.
  11. Jul 21, 2003 #10


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    Re: Re: Refutation of reductionism (excerpt from "The Fabric of Reality," by David Deutsc

    This passage is excerpted from the first chapter of the book, in which Deutsch is concerned with, among other things, distinguishing between knowledge and understanding. He is concerned in this particular passage with debunking the reductionist attitude that, as you put it, all understanding can be derived from reductionism-- or rather, that the understanding of nature afforded us by reductionism is somehow more fundamental than or (when you get down to it) superior to more higher-level understandings. It goes back to knowledge and understanding. Reductionism-- analysis of the most basic component parts of nature and the simple mathematical laws they follow-- gives us great predictive power (knowledge), in theory enough predictive power to anticipate the existence all the higher-level phenomena that the atomic world underlies. But Deutsch's point is that knowing is not understanding, specifically that simply knowing/being able to predict the behavior of atomic particles is a poor basis for actually understanding many macroscopic phenomena.

    So he's not so much singling out reductionists as he is asserting that there is no 'privileged' level of analysis of reality that, for all cases, will give you a fundamentally superior vantage point than any other. In fact, he gives a similar (though much briefer) treatment to holism as he does to reductionism, on the same objection-- it assumes a static and privileged level of analysis (the whole).

    This is the sense in which I find the excerpt relevant to many reductionist arguments. For example, speaking in terms of neurotransmitters or evolution is a pretty crummy way to come about a really good understanding of the nature of love. Or rather-- they are only complementary pieces to a much larger puzzle, and they're not even the biggest pieces. Here the appropriate paradigm shift is not from one scale of objective reality to another, but rather the more radical shift of the objective to the subjective.
  12. Jul 21, 2003 #11


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    Re: Re: Refutation of reductionism (excerpt from "The Fabric of Reality," by David Deutsch

    My apologies if the thread title is a little unclear (the text limit for title lengths is pretty restrictive). Hopefully my last post will clarify what I meant to get across.

    Again, what Deutsch argues-- and what I agree with-- is not the validity of reductionism as a scientific method. It is only the attitude that, because we can decompose the world in to atomic components whose behavior we can predict very well, that that atomic level of analysis is somehow the 'best' or most fundamental for deriving an understanding of nature. To use Deutsch's example, we understand the behavior of the bear eating honey better if we explain that it is hungry than if we try to explain the peculiar motion of billions of molecules in its brain.
  13. Jul 22, 2003 #12


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    Re: Re: Re: Refutation of reductionism (excerpt from "The Fabric of Reality," by David Deu

    Greetings !
    It does more or less. Thanks ! :smile:
    I agree.

    However, I want to understand the basis of the objection
    contained here, from your perspective. As I see it the only reason for using the other type of explanations is if they provide a more
    precise explanation. For such a perspective the only problem
    is technical - if we COULD do this by using the reductionist
    way then it would certainly be the most accurate and precise explanation possible and that's the one we should use
    in science (IF it's technicly possible) and in general for
    best effectivity. What I want to understand is - Is that also
    the way you see it or are you implying some other reasons ?

    "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
    Leonardo Da Vinci

    Live long and prosper.
  14. Jul 22, 2003 #13


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    I don't think anyone said anything about a complete understanding in the first place.

    But anyway, I'll let Deutsch speak for himself on this one... I'm pulling these a little out of context, but it's not hard to figure out what he considers to be factors that comprise a better understanding, relative to older theories:

    "...modern theories are far fewer, and their explanatory power gives them other properties such as beauty, inner logic and connections with other subjects that makes them easier to learn."

    and again

    "That is, new ideas often do more than just supercede, simply or unify existing ones. They also extend human understanding into areas that were previously not understood at all-- or whose very existence was not guessed at. They may open up new opportunities, new problems, new specializations and even new subjects."

    Don't take this as the end-all, I just can't be bothered for now to fish up any excerpts that might be more directly relevant..

    There's also the issue of complexity-- the more compact and elegant a theory is (in general) the better the understanding it gives you.
  15. Jul 22, 2003 #14
    Yes, but did we have a brain before science said it was okay to "believe" we had a brain? And how on earth did people ever get along when they didn't know they had them? Yes, it's because of "our brains" that the wonders of science have opened up to us, and yet before that time (within the past few hundred years), would it be fair to say that our brains were fully dysfunctional? That doesn't make the least bit of sense.

    We need to understand one thing, that this miraculous thing we call the human mind has been processing information for thousands of years. And to insist that it hasn't been functioning properly until recently, sounds the epitome of foolishness indeed.
  16. Jul 22, 2003 #15
    I may be reading it wrong but it seems to me to be Aristotlism vs Platoism again but in modern terms.
    If nature or the universe were perfectly deterministic and we had the brain or computer power to do it, then reductionism possibly could indeed explain and predict everything physical or objective. However, it would never explain beauty or love or why that statue was built and erected in the first place. Sure given the circumstances and human nature, culture and psychology it might predict that a memorial would be built for Churchill but where and what kind? Why a statue and why bronze. I don't think that we are that predictable or the universe that deterministic.
    Objectivity or reductionism is only part of the universe. I don't think we could deduct or predict the universe from studying sub-atomic particles. Nor could we know what a mouse is by studying one of its cells.
  17. Jul 22, 2003 #16


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    Re: Re: Re: Re: Refutation of reductionism (excerpt from "The Fabric of Reality," by David

    In general, that's not the way I see it. To use Deutsch's example of the atom of copper in the Churchill statue-- I suppose the purely atomic explanation is the most precise (assuming we are able to do it) but it's not the best way of looking at the question posed. The question, even in theory, is better answered using higher level concepts such as war and leadership. You may then inquire as to the nature of war and leadership, and so on, and eventually the best explanation in the chain of questioning might get back down to the atomic level.

    But I think the point, more generally, is this. If we picture a flow chart encompassing all scales of reality, then to explain a phenomenon at any given level, the reductionist assumes that the best understanding is given by what we might call an explanatory arrow that always points downward, deeper and deeper down the chart until it reaches the atomic realm. Deutsch argues-- and I agree-- that the best direction for this explanatory arrow is not always straight down. Sometimes it is lateral, staying within a given scale, and sometimes it also points upward toward higher scales that impose structure on the lower ones.

    Another analogy we might want to consider is linear algebra. Sometimes you get the best understanding of a given problem by analyzing the mathematical behavior of the components of the given vectors and matrices; other times, you get a better understanding when you treat the matrices and vectors as variables themselves (for instance, something like Ax = B). Perhaps there is some way in which your understanding is more precise if you always approach linear algebra by analyzing the components of vectors and matrices, but it is easy to think of any number of examples where you simply understand the problem at hand better if you analyze it at a higher level of abstraction; it is easier for you to see why certain relationships should exist, derive new ones, etc.
  18. Jul 22, 2003 #17

    Les Sleeth

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    Re: Re: Re: Refutation of reductionism (excerpt from "The Fabric of Reality," by Davi

    Yes, we've debated these exact issues here. People do tend to zero in on one particular analytical perspective as the "Way," and when it fails to reveal what another analytical approach does, they say what the other perspective claims must be false (e.g., demostrate love exists empirically; if you can't then most likely doesn't exist). It's like that old bit of wisdom, "if the only tool you have is a hammer, you go around treating everything like a nail."

    In this very thread you can see people who only want to look at things holistically, and resist parts analysis at every turn; and reductionists who don't want to rise up out of part complexity to look at the whole thing.

    I really think this is one of the most important issues of developing one's consciousness.

    Yes, another important area of consciousness development. I would add that there are important issues to be decided about what subjective experiences are most developmental. One debate that goes on at PF is the untrustworthiness of subjectivity in the pursuit of knowledge. l've said I think subjectivity has gotten a bad rap because of those who practice it poorly; and, just as there is effective and ineffective objectivity, the same is true for subjectivity.

    By the way, welcome to PF . . . it's good to see another thinker has joined the group.
  19. Jul 22, 2003 #18


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    Greetings !
    In other words you are religious, right ?

    Determinism has little to do with this. It doesn't matter whether
    there is quantum uncertainty or not - STILL the most basic
    scientific discription that's possible is the MOST accurate and
    precise (if it is technicly possible). Of course it can explain
    love, beauty and bronze statues of Churchill in the most
    accurate and basic of ways but would that be required ?
    Why would we need to explain such things at all ?
    These things are just approximations that we make. If we could
    make the most precise and accurate calculations possible
    than we would have no need for such approximations at all.
    To claim otherwise, again, clearly means that you believe
    in "special" Universal laws that have to do with "intellegent"
    creatures like soul and all that stuff, and if you do - then
    you clearly disagree with modern science which has no
    real evidence for these things.

    Live long and prosper.
  20. Jul 22, 2003 #19


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    What ? I don't get it, what's this got to do with anything ?

    Peace and long life.
  21. Jul 23, 2003 #20


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    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Refutation of reductionism (excerpt from "The Fabric of Reality," by D

    Greetings !
    Hmm... possibly I'm begining to see the problem here.

    My question is then:
    What does BEST explanation mean to you ?

    I interpret it as BEST = MOST PRECISE. In this case it is
    abvious why only the explanation using the most basic
    scientificly known components will do - because higher
    level components are approximations and thus can not in general
    with higher statistical probability result in better general
    statistical predictions (UNLESS there are other unknown
    laws at work).

    However, if I were to think of the "best" explanation as, for
    example, the shortest one - then it's abvious that approximations
    would ussualy be better. This is the direct result of the fact
    that approximations are also, ussualy, simplifications because
    they are, in the first place, used to explain complex stuff.

    Other ways of thinking of the "best" explanations may include
    the whole philosophical perspective. That is, if we consider
    the whole philosophical perspective of the Universe (that only
    some people have, unfortunately :wink:) then we realize of course
    that things are not certain. As a conclusion, we can not blindly
    totally trust science or anything else for that matter. So,
    perhaps the "best" explanation in these terms is then the
    "closest to our perception of reality" in which case love, for
    example, would indeed be the best way to describe a part of
    our perception rather than using science and thus introducing
    more assumptions (not that Science has assumptions but it itself
    is a philosophical assumption) to the "explanation"
    (not that it's much of an explanation but then again any
    type of "explanation" we are aware of so far, including scientific, would use some basic and self-referential components, so the
    point is that in this case we only have one such component
    rather than many - particles, laws etc.).

    Live long and prosper.
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