Tag Archives: ontology

Scientism: Part 4: Reductionism

This is the Fourth Part of a review of Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism, edited by Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci. See also Part 1: Pseudoscience, Part 2: The Humanities, and Part 3: Philosophy.

Reductionism is a big, bad, bogey word, usually uttered by those accusing others of holding naive and simplistic notions. The dominant opinion among philosophers is that reductionism does not work, whereas scientists use reductionist methods all the time and see nothing wrong with doing so.

That paradox is resolved by realising that “reductionism” means very different things to different people. To scientists it is an ontological thesis. It says that if one exactly replicates all the low-level ontology of a complex system, then all of the high-level behaviour would be entailed. Thus there cannot be a difference in high-level behaviour without there being a low-level difference (if someone is thinking “I fancy coffee” instead of “I fancy tea”, then there must be a difference in patterns of electrical signals swirling around their neurons).

To philosophers, however, “reductionism” is about explanations and theories. It asserts something along the lines that high-level explanations can always be translated into low-level explanations, and that the low-level explanations are more important or more proper, and that ideally the high-level explanations could be dispensed with. I say “something along the lines” because this sort of eliminative reductionism is pretty much a strawman in that no-one (sensible) advocates it. And philosophers are right, in general it does not work.

But the scientific notion of ontological reductionism does work. At least, all of science assumes that thesis, and science works very well, producing unarguable and unmatched mastery of technology and engineering. Since adopting that thesis works so well we can be pretty sure that ontological reductionism (which philosophers may instead refer to as “supervenience physicalism”) is a true feature of the real world.

But the different meanings lead to miscommunication. “Scientism” is supposed to include a naive faith in reductionism, which the accuser would take to be the philosophers’ inter-theoretic reductionism. But those defending scientism are likely to think like scientists, and so hold only to ontological reductionism but not defend ideas of inter-theoretic reductionism. The latter might work in limited instances, but does not work in general.

Most physicists would agree. In his Reductionism Redux essay, Stephen Weinberg refers to inter-theoretic reductionism as “petty” reductionism, saying that it usually doesn’t work, while he regards ontological reductionism as a “grand” reductionism that underpins all of science. Similarly Sean Carroll defines reductionism as the idea that “objects are completely defined by the states of their components”, and says: “I could imagine hypothetical worlds in which reductionism failed … It’s just not our world”.

Carroll also says that one can “object to the claim that ‘the best way to understand complex systems is to analyze their component parts, ignoring higher-level structures’, but only if you can find someone who actually makes that claim”, and adds that: “nobody thinks that the right approach is to break a giraffe down to quarks and leptons and start cranking out the Feynman diagrams”.

So let’s see what the philosophers in Boudry and Pigliucci’s book make of the concept. Filip Buekens accepts Alex Rosenberg’s claim that “physics fixes all the facts” (by which Rosenberg means the supervenience thesis that the state of a complex system is completely specified if all its low-level physical properties are specified), but he demurs about the “much stronger claim” that “all other facts are ultimately explained by physics”.

He continues: “conceptual anti-reductionism holds that explanations employing psychological concepts cannot be replaced by explanatory strategies relying on physical concepts”. So one could not translate the concept “fear” into language about electrons and protons and their motions.

He’s right on the latter point, but it’s important to realise that explanations are not mutually exclusive. Explanations are always commentaries about some aspect of a system. They never describe the entirety of a system. And that means that multiple different explanations can be true at the same time.

The doctrine of supervenience says that one could — given an advanced Star Trek transporter device — exactly replicate a system from an exhaustive listing of every particle it contains (and the replicated system would manifest the same high-level properties including “fear”). But an “explanation”, being a commentary about aspects of a system, never contains enough information to do this. You could not feed “Tom was afraid of the dog” into the transporter and exactly replicate Tom and the dog from that alone.

The same holds for explanations used in physics. They also are reduced-information commentaries; physicists no more work with exhaustive listings of particles than psychologists do — they are too unwieldly and so impractical as to be useless. Thus, even in physics there are multiple higher-level concepts (such as “temperature”, “entropy”, “elasticity”, “ductility”, “conductivity”) that are properties of an ensemble, and which are not even defined at the lower level of single particles.

Since, for any system, there will always be many mutually-consistent and equally-true explanations, it follows that even if one develops explanations of high-level properties in terms of lower-level properties, these will never replace and do-away with high-level explanations, they will only add to and complement them.

Richard Feynman said that any good theoretical physicist knows six different ways of thinking about the same thing. Explanations at different levels of description are complementary ways of thinking about the same thing. They don’t replace or abolish other explanations, instead they must all be simultaneously true. And the different explanations are held together, coherently, not by the philosophers’ notion of inter-theoretical reductionism — not by translations between different explanations — but by the doctrine of ontological reductionism or supervenience.

As an aside here, philosophers use the weird term “special science” for sciences where inter-theoretic reductionism is held not to work, and by doing that they imply that it does work for at least some sciences, by which they usually mean physics or perhaps fundamental physics; they are wrong, it does not work even there, there are no “special” sciences since they are all “special”.

I can’t help thinking that much philosophical travail against inter-theoretic reductionism is misplaced, in the sense of attacking doctrines that no-one holds. Stephen Pinker’s essay on the humanities aroused fears of a hostile take over that reduces the humanities to a mere adjunct of science. But, as Russell Blackford explains in his contribution to the volume, that is a mis-reading of Pinker, who is instead arguing for a consilience in which different styles of approach complement each other.

Similarly, Taner Edis expounds a scientism that “highlights continuities in the various ways we produce knowledge, and weaves the products of our knowledge-seeking enterprises into a naturalistic overall picture”, saying that: “this scientism is harmless: it seeks connections and coherence, not intellectual conquest”.

The most direct condemnation of reductionism in the book is by Mariam Thalos. Declaring reductionism “the enemy”, she argues against sociobiology and the claim that, because human brains have evolved “therefore biology explains human behaviour too, utilizing principles of natural selection”. But that’s true, it does!

Thalos, however, suggests that accepting this idea “would with one stroke sweep away all competing models of human behaviour”. Interpreting that narrowly, yes it would sweep away competing models — those that are incompatible with the sociobiology perspective. But it would not sweep away complementary models and explanations — those that are different from but compatible with the evolutionary perspective, and which are equally true.

Thalos generalises her argument: physics explains the behaviour of physical bodies, humans are made of physical stuff, therefore physics explains human behaviour. “Whence, biology, as such, is made irrelevant.”

To this she adds that if we accept that “physics explains human behaviour, utilizing physical principles”, then “we are explicitly denying the need for biological theory as independently valuable in the enterprise of scientific explanation”. Thus, to Thalos, only one type of explanation can be valid. Physical systems can only be explained in physical terms; biological systems can only be explained in biological terms.

No! This is a rejection of the “grand reductionism” that is the very soul of science. Complex systems (such as humans) need explanations at all levels of analysis. We should develop explanations of humans in physical terms, and in chemical terms, and in bio-chemical terms, and in biological terms, and in evolutionary terms, and in psychological terms, and in sociological terms, and in the languages of the humanities. All such explanations complement each other and mesh into a grand, consilient picture. The different explanations don’t compete with or displace each other, they complement each other. They must all be mutually compatible and mutually build to an overall grand picture in which they are all true.

That follows from the doctrine of scientific or ontological reductionism, which holds everything together because it tells us that all these different explanations are about the same ontological stuff; they are reporting different aspects of the same ensemble. And that is the consilient grand picture of science and of scientism.

This is not a merely philosophical point, it is eminently practical. Given multiple explanations about the same stuff, we then need to ensure that they are fully compatibile, and investigating that is the central driving force of science. Ensuring that the explanations in physical terms mesh seamlessly with the explanations in chemical terms, and with the bio-chemical explanations, the biological explanations, and the evolutionary and psychological explanations, is exactly how science makes progress.

Any field that wants to stand aside from that process risks turning itself into a parochial fiefdom prey to fads and ideologies (a current example being areas of sociology that totally ignore the genetic underpinnings of human behaviour), and deprives itself of the best tool that science has.

Fundamental ontology: what is the universe actually made of?

In his classic “Feynman lectures on physics”, Richard Feynman starts by saying:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

Of course atoms are not the basic unit, they are composed of nuclei surrounded by electrons. The nuclei are then composed of protons and neutrons (and short-lived virtual particles such as pions), and the protons and neutrons are themselves composed of quarks and gluons.

But what is the ultimate level? What, when one goes down to the most fundamental level, are things made of? While there are lots of opinions there is no accepted answer, and mulling it over for myself I realised that none of the options are attractive in the sense of aligning with intuition about what “physical stuff” would be made of. Here are some of the possibilities: Continue reading

Reductionism and Unity in Science

One problem encountered when physicists talk to philosophers of science is that we are, to quote George Bernard Shaw out of context, divided by a common language. A prime example concerns the word “reductionism”, which means different things to the two communities.

In the 20th Century the Logical Positivist philosophers were engaged in a highly normative program of specifying how they thought academic enquiry and science should be conducted. In 1961, Ernest Nagel published “The Structure of Science”, in which he discussed how high-level explanatory concepts (those applying to complex ensembles, and thus as used in biology or the social sciences) should be related to lower-level concepts (as used in physics). He proposed that theories at the different levels should be closely related and linked by explicit and tightly specified “bridge laws”. This idea is what philosophers call “inter-theoretic reductionism”, or just “reductionism”. It is a rather strong thesis about linkages between different levels of explanation in science.

To cut a long story short, Nagel’s conception does not work; nature is not like that. Amongst philosophers, Jerry Fodor has been influential in refuting Nagel’s reductionism as applied to many sciences. He called the sciences that cannot be Nagel-style reduced to lower-level descriptions the “special sciences”. This is a rather weird term to use since all sciences turn out to be “special sciences” (Nagel-style bridge-law reductionism does not always work even within fundamental particle physics, for which see below), but the term is a relic of the original presumption that a failure of Nagel-style reductionism would be the exception rather than the rule.

For the above reasons, philosophers of science generally maintain that “reductionism” (by which they mean the Nagel’s strong thesis) does not work, and on that they are right. They thus hold that physicists (who generally do espouse and defend a doctrine of reductionism) are naive in not realising that.

“The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known, and the difficulty is only that the exact application of these laws leads to equations much too complicated to be soluble.”     — Paul Dirac, 1929 [1]

The problem is, the physicists’ conception of reductionism is very different. Physicists are, for the most part, blithely unaware of the above debate within philosophy, since the ethos of Nagel-style reductionism did not come from physics and was never a live issue within physics. Physicists have always been pragmatic and have adopted whatever works, whatever nature leads them to. Thus, where nature leads them to Nagel-style bridge laws physicists will readily adopt them, but on the whole nature is not like that.

The physicists’ conception of “reductionism” is instead what philosophers would call “supervenience physicalism”. This is a vastly weaker thesis than Nagel-style inter-theoretic reduction. The physicists’ thesis is ontological (about how the world is) in contrast to Nagel’s thesis which is epistemological (about how our ideas about the world should be). Continue reading