Not exactly “Against” Reductionism, but… (A reply to Martin)

(The below is a reply to Martin’s thoughtful post defending Reductionism, itself a product of an earlier twitter conversation. I tried to leave it on Martin’s blog but it borked. Didn’t seem to brook any contest from alternative points of view 😉 So I am posting it here, but really, really, REALLY not trying to ignite any sort of debate. I’m also not trying to shut one down. It’s just increasingly less important to me to solely convince anyone with words. That ain’t teaching or learning.)

Martin, so your thoughtful post set me off writing (5000 words and counting) and I expect I may keep working on that, but rather than post it, which I fear at this point will simply reveal my own tortured relations with power and control (because really, that is what is at issue here, I think) I’ll just try a much shorter stab at a few of the things that bug me about “reductionism.” At a gross level, these amount to two – that science isn’t honest with us or itself in its relationship to those pieces that reductionism doesn’t address, and that science is not simply “science as practiced by scientists following a pure method” but in fact has many different material relations – to investment, to education, to knowledge, to politics, to society, to general intellect – and it is in these places where science as gross reductionism is most easily seen, in the vast Scientism that currently envelops us, and far from being a simple education issue is actually a natural result of the way science (and reductionism) attempt to not simply “understand” but actually Dominate the world. (Sheesh, I did say shorter, didn’t I?)

So, to the first point – I actually am willing to agree with you about the obvious value of reductionism (and won’t even bother problematizing the “value” part of that, which I think deserves at least a book.) And agree with Dennett that many, scientists and others, do not hold this naive view of “preposterous reductionism,” that indeed since the 30’s it has been implausible to hold this view. Though he makes the mistake of conflating “materialist” with “reductionist” when he says “everybody should be a reductionist in the bland sense.”  This is very much my issue with the bracketing of reductionism as simply an “approach” that co-exists with newer understandings of emergence and complexity (and I’d remind us that while to name is to try to gain power over, it is not the same as explaining.) Because underneath many of the concessions to emergence, complexity and self-organization I hear a muttering “if only we had faster computers, better algorithms, better sampling, if only, we could reduce those problems too.” I see very little willingness to engage with the idea that the “how” we go about investigating things is as important as the “what” – that things that resist reductionism aren’t instead pointing at a different way of approaching our engagements with the world, aren’t heralding very loudly the need to factor US into our investigations. I am NOT saying that the answers derived by reductive methods are “incorrect” – but adding 1 and 1 is not the only way to get 2. In my longer piece I go into much deeper explanation of this, but part of the violence in reductionism is exactly in seeking essences at the expense of accidentals, that style (and with it read “culture,” read “individuals” and so on) and method are not important, only the result, the reproductive fidelity of reality of the result, or at least that it’s ok to bracket these other considerations for the sake of a result. And we can. We do, all the time. But then – why are we surprised with the larger results of those results? Like you say – look around you, the evidence is plenty. Taking a reductive approach to understanding “works” but also clearly, in my eyes, unsurprisingly leads to a DOMINANT culture that has a hard time co-existing with the discomfort of difference.

So on this first point I try to engage science and reductionism somewhat on its own ground, but that is unlikely to get a lot of purchase; I believe it’s turtles all the way down and while generous scientific listeners might try to engage ultimately when we fall back to “results” as the adjudicator, this isn’t really going to get far.

I think the other point is more damning (but also far more difficult to engage, runs a serious risk of being dismissed as “name calling” which I don’t intend it as.)

If I read both you and Dennett correctly, at base the argument is – science isn’t simply or only just reductionist, that is but one, if albeit a major, tactic, that it has room for these other phenomenon that we acknowledge can’t be reduced, and what’s more, we’re not “greedy reductionists” who think everything is or should be reduced, at least not right now. And by and large, within the specific discourse of the philosophy of science and the practice of science by thoughtful people, I actually can somewhat agree with this. I am not simplistically “anti-science.” But this is a rarefied view of science indeed (one I understand scientists are keen to keep upholding, as some sort of “pure” science, but eh, life’s a dirty business.)

Because “Science” is NOT, demonstrably, empirically demonstrably, a pure “thing” or “practice” – “Science” is  embedded in specific material conditions: some stuff gets funded, other stuff doesn’t, NOT based solely on “pure” reasons; “Science” and its results influence (increasingly so) not just the “what” of education but the “how,” across ALL disciplines, not just the clearly scientific ones; “Science” and “scientific reasoning” clearly (increasingly) effect how we run governments, general discourse in society and general intellect. All of which a supporter of Science as the only way might say “Good.”

But to say so is Scientism, which I take not to be a belief simply in “Science” but a belief in the reductive power of science to explain (and ultimately control) everything. But clearly, in your post, you are advocating for a broader view, a more reasoned view, of Science, right? Except…

Except you forget the very discussion on Twitter which brought this up. Remember the context in which I made the dismissal around reductionism. It was in the context of you contesting Marx as not being worthy of the name Science. It wasn’t ME who made the conflation between Science and Reductionism, it was YOU. Accidentally, uncritically, but without a doubt in my mind. Because in throwing out the term “reductionist” I wasn’t seeking to discredit Science (though in my longer piece I go WAY further to trying to put it back in its place, alongside other ways of being in the world and knowing the world, a place that for all his protest Dennett and his brethren Dawkins would surely not like to stay.) I was countering YOUR reaction as being a reductionist view of Science. Which is also why I tossed out Popper’s name, because his is the same rabbit hole, just maybe in less obvious form.

And here’s the thing – I am NOT trying to caricature your understanding – your entry above clearly demonstrates you do not actually think about these things in a simple way. But your reaction to another approach to understanding the world (in this case Marxism) using the word “Scientific” does belie a bias to a reductionist conception of Science. And this is really, really common place, indeed I would suggest that the majority of our K-12 education systems completely perpetuate this bias, and that it is endemic in the non-specialist discourse in society when the word “science” or “scientific” is invoked.

Is it fair to lay all of this on “Science” and “Reductionism.” Probably not. But in as much as the practice and discourse of Scientism perpetuates purely reductionist relations, I am happy to lay it at its feet and contest it. And in my longer piece I try to go way further to explain that, indeed, reductionism, for all of its efficacy and evident value, is in fact part of the root cause, that as a way of relating and understanding it breeds its own ineluctable logic of how to relate to the world, but more importantly, IS NOT THE ONLY WAY TO BE OR UNDERSTAND. It IS a choice. Which is why, far from a flippant comment, the appeal to human nature (we all know children ask why?) is extremely dangerous.

So I said a “shorter piece” and, believe it or not, this is. Much. This is a deep issue, I appreciate your own thoughtfulness on this, and for all of my obvious passion I hope you can see that I am not trying to invoke the supernatural nor argue that the world that we are in currently hasn’t largely resulted in the effects of reductionism. And indeed, were it not YOU who wrote this, I wouldn’t be writing this at all. Because to be consistent with where I am going with my ideas ultimately looks like a lot less talking, a lot more being. I don’t actually need to convince you, though I will contest, in self-defense, this ideology where and when it impacts me to the extent that is possible and reasonable.

Much love, Scott

P.S. I tweeted this the other day but it bears linking to here. This strikes me as a very deep talk by a scientist that is acknowledging some (not all) of what I am trying to get across – It is worth listening to all the way through. And even he, for all his awareness, dips once or twice back into a fully reductionist view of science, and he’s quite actively not trying to.

6 thoughts on “Not exactly “Against” Reductionism, but… (A reply to Martin)”

  1. Hi Scott, and thanks for the thoughtful response (and sorry for ‘making’ you do it). Just to clarify – it wasn’t your twitter comment that I was responding to, I took that in jest. I’ve been thinking about this post for a while. It was in response to a very dismissive argument I hear frequently that whenever someone is trying to offer an explanation that looks at component elements, someone will say ‘ah, but that’s a reductionist argument’. And what they mean by this is something like: ‘there, we all know reductionism is wrong so I don’t need to state my case any further.’ So, I wanted to get at why this was so. In many ways I think a kind of woolly anti-reductionism is the dominant form in society (I’m thinking of say, radio phone-in shows, where the kind of lazy supernatural/mystical explanations are offered).
    I think there are two takes on reductionism from those who don’t completely dismiss it – one is that it can explain nearly everything but we just don’t have models of sufficient complexity (as you say this is a solution always postponed ‘we just need a more powerful computer’) and the second is that it can’t and we need different models, for some things. I suspect it may be a case of one being true in some domains and the other for different probelms. If the second one is true a further question is that is this because these things cannot be broken down into constituent elements or because the explanation level (like the work I mentioned) is better served as a whole? Again, I’m not sure.
    I wonder if it is analogous to physics – Newtonian physics works well for most of the time, but when you look at certain conditions, namely the very big or the very small, it begins to break down and quantum physics is required.
    AS for the socio-political context, I kind of agree – all research is embedded within its culture. But we also know that non-capitalist states have a very strong scientific culture (the Soviet Union saw it as great collective endeavour) and employ reductionist methodology, so I think that raises questions about whether it is inherently capitalist. Rather it is the case that every ideology or state bends science to its own will. I think that might be what you were saying anyway, but I’m a bit on dodgy ground with the more political interpretations.
    What this discussion has illustrated to me is that there are interdisciplinary differences – I’d been reading about these but couldn’t really think of examples. As a scientist reductionism to me is a common sense approach to trying to offer an explanation. I am aware of its limitations but it seems a good place to start to look at the constituent elements. But for those in the arts and humanities it carries much more significance in terms of control and politicisation. I think ‘reductionism’ would be a good starting debate if we wanted to see if CP Snow’s two cultures were still alive and well.
    I agree my appeal to human nature was a bit lazy. It would be interesting to find some anthropological research to see if reductionist type explanations to everyday problems are more prevalent in one society than another. If they were found in all cultures we might argue that it is a universal – an innate way of finding explanations, but if they were not it would lead us to believe that they are a product of the society we are in.
    On the whole though I take all your arguments here – if the next time someone dismisses an argument as ‘reductionist’ they can give this kind of justification as to why that means it is not valid, then I’d be satisfied.

  2. Well pheew! Seems like this shorter piece sufficed and saved me from writing another 5000 words and revealing myself as the true nutter I am.

    Thanks Martin; that visit and the few longish talks we had when I came to Cardiff were very special for me, they were the start of a process that has gone on since then of trying to become more coherent about some of these ideas, and having you engage with them seriously, both then and now, was a big part of helping make them more clear.

  3. And another thing 😉 No, seriously – am just starting to read the free online book “Engaging Emergence” from Peggy Holman ( and early on she makes the important point that “Complexity increases as more diversity, connectivity, interdependence, or interactions become part of a system.” There is absolutely room for reductionist thinking in specific contexts, but if your experience is like mine, the world we living in *is* increasing in complexity, and so the extent to which naive views of causality keep getting enforced through a simplistic view of science as solely reductionist, this is not helping any of us address the change (and the change in change) around us.


  4. and…and…and… (I’d promise this was the last one, but who am I kidding!)

    Came across this piece today which I think is another good attempt at addressing reductionism without leaving the frame of reference of Science. I think we can go much much further in our critique, but to the extent to which people already immersed in this world view find it easier to engage with analysis that doesn’t require abadoning entire value sets, this is a good approach and starting point, I think.

  5. One aspect that I want to add is that as policy, cultural, and cultural products and systems are made up of reductionist ideas. That the idea of reductionism inspires systems of power through policy that are reductionist in nature and that reduce reality into a reductionist dream. That ecosystems simply don’t exist but as a part of our reductionist view of them. Like take a park for instance, what the hell is it? What is its relationship to the rest of the system? It just stands there as an island of life, transformed to serve our desires of a certain spectacle in the middle of a city. It is not a natural construct, but an artificial one. And we wish to reduce everything in our environment to this form.

    Where the Church claimed ignorance, the modern type of Science claims domain over all things; it is in effect God manifest. It produces and sustains the spectacle which is continuously created and destroyed in its name as a testament to its power. It has the power to create and destroy and hold providence over the entire planet. Over all things. Over the lives of the inferior people that still hold to idiotic superstitions, that do not recognize the power of our instruments, of our weapons, of our rhetoric.

    Our systems are totalitarian; as totalitarian as any instrument of religion. The control of the system over our live completely usurps it. We realize this, but at the same time there is need for “reason” and “sanity” in a belief that everything is okay. That everything is fine. That though I know that there are machines out there encroaching on everything, that somehow this new God will save us. And that we can not possibly abandon it, for anything else would lead us stray from the true path. A path that has no vision but that of consumerism. No meaning but of the spectacle which is continuously created and destroy, therefore no real sustained meaning. Just a show…

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