Talk:Scientific reductionism

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I removed this:

Sir John Eccles wrote, I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition. . . . we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world. --Evolution of the Brain, Creation of the Self, p. 241

Ed, please start your articles with a definition and aim for neutrality, like the rest of us. AxelBoldt, Monday, April 15, 2002

Thanks for the reminder, Axel. My next contribution will be on U.S. income taxes, and I assure you that it will be entirely neutral: it's on objective fact that EVERY American hates the IRS! Ed Poor


The question of whether all phenonomena are explainable in terms of science is a much less heated controversial. Although one can find scientists who believe that everything is explainable in natural terms and those who do not, the consensus seems to be that one should *attempt* to explain everything in natural terms and whether or not this is successful remains for experiment to resolve.

I question the wording here, though I think I agree with the intent. Perhaps "all physical phenomena"? Science doesn't address subjective terms like "goodness," or human-created systems like poetry... -- April


There's also something wrong about the last "anthropic principle" paragraph. First of all, there are several quite different anthropic principles. Second, even if we buy that there is a large number of possible physical laws, and the existence of conciousness limits the number of possible physical laws to a very small number, it is still true that the currently observed set physical laws caused conciousness, not the other way around. AxelBoldt, Saturday, April 20, 2002


Some physicists argue that large structures undergo collective behaviors which are not most usefully described in terms of the behavior of their constituents (see for example emergence) and therefore there is no reason to label the lower level behaviors as more fundamental.

Can someone please name some physicists with these views, and give examples of phenomena they think are best explained at something besides the lowest level? The emergence page is not helpful on these counts. If nobody can, this sentence may need to be removed. --Ryguasu 00:45 Jan 24, 2003 (UTC)

You might look at some back issues of Physics Today. The question of reductionism comes up, and it's actually a hot political topic between solid-state physicists and particle physicists. There aren't any specific names which I can associate with the beliefs, but the notion of emergence or hierarchical truth is very common among solid-state physicists - Roadrunner
Philip Anderson, for one, was an influential proponent of this view.

Rlowry, I'm worried your new skyhooks/cranes addition confuses more than it enlightens. I think we should either include a full-blown explanation of his contrast between skyhooks and cranes or remove the reference to them. I admit the distinction is interesting, although I'm on the fence about whether or not it merits discussion in this particular article. I guess you feel it merits inclusion? --Ryguasu 05:45 Mar 5, 2003 (UTC)


Ryguasu, I added the skyhooks / cranes sentence because I felt it gave a balance to the anti-reductionist quote from Eccles earlier in the article. I personally find Dennett's useage of the terms fairly straightforward and not requiring much in the way of explanation, but have added a few words to try to help clarify a little.

I'm not passionately attached to keeping it, though, if people feel that it gets in the way. --Rlowry


I removed the NPOV tag, since I don't think that Nectarflowed's claim that the "[a]rticle appears to be biased against mainstream scientific opinion" is accurate. The article balances a critique of scientific "reductionism" with a critique the "slippery" use of the word "reductionist", and offers useful clarification about "greedy reductionism" and "skyhooks vs cranes" by two noted science writers.

I have kept the cleanup tag, though - the article needs a somewhat "cleaner" format - first an NPOV definition of reductionism and its role in science, then philosophical critiques of reductionism in science and responses to those critiques. The section on "Alternatives to Reductionism" is barely a stub - it really needs work. --Peter G Werner 19:20, 14 August 2005 (UTC)

This article isn't very good.[edit]

"These ideas can often be conflicting." This is patently false.

The explaination is not good. Reductionism should be explained as should Holism.

This sentence "it is incorrect to regard the laws which govern the components of structures to be more fundamental than the laws which govern the structures" is very misleading. Those scientists still regard reductionism as true, just not as most important. You have to be careful because reductionism as a truth isn't incompatible with holism as an outlook. This is why a good definition of terms is needed and citations should be used.

"it has been argued that a traffic jam contains patterns of behavior which cannot be reduced to the behavior of an individual car" needs a citation. I find this claim hard to believe, because such a proof would be almost impossible. You would have to prove that no possible model of car behavior can explain certain traffic jams.

I don't think strong anthropic principle should even be mentioned here. If this is a scientific article, then nonscientific ideas shouldn't be introduced with equal weight as counter points. That would be like mentioning flatearther beliefs in the Earth wikipedia article. The strong anthropic principle has no support as a scientific idea, it is not on equal footing against reductionism.

The paragraph on Bennett and Dawkins is good. As is the paragraph on Pinker.

"In many cases (such as the kinetic theory of gases), given a good understanding of the components of the system, one can predict all the important properties of the system as a whole. In other cases, trying to do this leads to a fallacy of composition. In those systems, emergent properties of the system are almost impossible to predict from knowledge of the parts of the system. Complexity theory studies such systems."

Complexity is not the same as a composition fallacy. Complexity implies that reductionism becomes difficult (maybe even impossible), NOT false.

There should be some mention on the measurement problem in Quantum Mechanics and thoughts of how if the SE doesn't explain the classical world, it could be the failure of reductionism. This should be done with a citation from a physicist!

Lots of false and misleading statements in this article. It would be better for people to rely on citations. CHF 10:36, 16 May 2006 (UTC)

I think the statement above, "Complexity is not the same as a composition fallacy. Complexity implies that reductionism becomes difficult (maybe even impossible), NOT false", is the most important way to look at rewriting this article. Reductionists don't say that it's not advantageous to look at higher systems for explanitory purposes. But no matter how often you use chemestry to explain a reaction, at the end of the day it comes down to 4 fundamental forces and a handfull of fundamental particles. Now this problem may not be soveable, given our understanding, our computing power, not to mention it's probably downright stupid to solve an oxidation reaction with string theory. But that doesn't mean that said reation may not be reduced (epistemologically if not ontologically) to our fundamental laws and particles.

As for SE, I'm not sure what you mean. SE by itself may not explain the classical world, but that's not to say that the quantum mechanics (with the full Copenhagen interpreation) doesn't explain the classical world. All this talk about chaos, or sensitive dependence on initial conditions is moot. If you had a supercomputer or gods-eye view of the world, you could predict (probabilistically via quantum mechanics) anything classical. There are two things that you might be worried about, a chaotic nature, an unpredictability, of stochastic processes that you get classically, that is completely determined and reduceable in theory, but not in practice, and then there is the inherent unpredictability of quantum meachanics. But that doesn't mean that we couldn't predict everything classical using quantum mechanics given enough brain power, ingenuity, and time. --Jabin1979 14:58, 7 July 2006 (JST)

There is a growing consensus that reductionism has limited usefulness as a paradigm for approaching questions in certain areas of science. Whether or not reductionism is "true" is kind of an irrelevant question to ask from a scientific standpoint, although it has some interest for philosophers. Everything in science is a theory; it doesn't make sense to talk about whether or not it's "true" except in reference to other things. What makes sense in the scientific viewpoint is whether your theory is consistent with empirical data, consistent with other accepted theories, and useful for various practical purposes (including extrapolating beyond observed data). The statement made above "at the end of the day it comes down to 4 fundamental forces and a handful of fundamental particles" is a philosophical statement, not a scientific one. The big problem is a phrase like "comes down to". This is a claim about explanation or causality. This gets into metaphysics and ontology rather than science. Metaphysics and ontology influence science but they are certainly not themselves science! Does holism deny the microscopic-level laws of physics? Not at all...rather a holistic perspective claims that there is something at the higher levels of organization that cannot be explained in terms of the smaller ones. I think this article needs to clarify these points.

I also think there's another issue here (think about the sentence "given enough brain power..."), which is the treatment of information as an epiphenomenon rather than something fundamental. Not all scientists or philosophers would agree with this, and some would even go so far as to argue the exact opposite. Some interesting results in science provoke deep thought on this topic, such as the findings that the maximum information content that can be stored in a region of space is a function of the surface-area of that region, not its volume. Cazort (talk) 01:33, 19 November 2007 (UTC)

Propose Merge with Reductionism[edit]

I propose to merge this article with reductionism. Much of what is on this page is already duplicated there. Why do I think we should merge the pages? I very rarely argue in favor of merges and this is one of those few cases: I think that there is simply too much interplay between science and philosophy to cleanly separate a "scientific" reductionism and "non-scientific" one. Also, as this page acknowledges, "scientific reductionism" is not a term which has an agreed upon definition...it is used to mean many different things by different authors--and perhaps more importantly, many people who talk about reductionism's role in science don't use the phrase "scientific reductionism" but simply refer to "reductionism". Thoughts? Cazort 23:19, 12 November 2007 (UTC)

Also...I realized after the fact...perhaps as an alternative to merging we should entertain the possibility of renaming this article to "Reductionism in science". I am not quite sure there's enough material yet to warrant those two separate articles though. Cazort 23:30, 12 November 2007 (UTC)

I say merge. This article is in pretty sorry shape, whereas the general reductionism article (as stated by Cazort) has this info, and is much more clearly written. Mash them up! CharacterZero | Speak 13:38, 23 December 2007 (UTC)