The Big Bad Reductionist


I picked up a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker used for about $3 the other day. I like to think that the person who sold the book did so because this paperback addition has a horrendously ugly cover, not because of the content.

I’ve been interested in reading The Blind Watchmaker for some time, as it seems to be the most direct reponse to the “argument from design” out there. Of course, my father, who teaches design as it applies to human art and is therefore rather convinced by this apologetic, is the most vocal proponent I know, but I hear jabs about watches found on walking paths and Boeing 747’s found in deserts fairly often from others as well.

Dawkins’ answer is, no surprise, that the watchmaker that designed the complexity of life is a blind one: the “designer” is Darwinian evolution. For now I’ve only gotten to page 13, where he’s currently defending reductionism (or more specifically, the hierarchical variety):

For those that like ‘ism’ sorts of names, the aptest name for my approach to understanding how things work is probably ‘hierarchical reductionism’. If you read trendy intellectual magazines, you may have noticed that ‘reductionism’ is one of those things, like sin, that is only mentioned by people who are against it. To call oneself a reductionist will sound, in some circles, a bit like admitting to eating babies. But, just as nobody actually eats babies, so nobody is really a reductionist in any sense worth being against. The nonexistent reductionist–the sort that everybody against, but who exists only in their imaginations–tries to explain complicated things directly in terms of the smallest parts, even, in some extreme versions of the myth, as the sum of the parts! The hierarchical reductionist, on the other hand, explains a complex entity at any particular level in the hierarchy of organization, in terms of entities only one level down the hierarchy; entities which, themselves, are likely to be complex enough to need further reducing to their own component parts; and so on. It goes without say–though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this–that the kinds of explanations which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels… Reductionism, in this sense, is just another name for an honest desire to understand how things work.

On a similar note, here’s an article on PubMed about “Reductionism and Antireductionism,” and another on the “Search for organizing principles: understanding in systems biology.” (The latter seems to advocate principles of holism as opposed to reductionism as a means for understanding complex systems.)

Over at Meta-Library, a writer highlights a quote by Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA), that “The ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is in fact to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry.” The writer (evidently a Christian, a dualist, and not a big fan of reductionism based on his disagreements with Dawkins and Wilson) asks three questions to consider whether Crick’s attempt to reduce biology to physics and chemistry has or ever will succeed. The three questions are as follows:

  1. do the laws of physics and chemistry apply to the atoms and molecules of living things?
  2. are the interactions of atoms and molecules according to physics and chemistry sufficient to account for biological phenomena, or are other kinds of interaction needed?
  3. can biological theories be deduced logically from the theories of physics and chemistry?

The author, a certain Dr. Southgate, answers yes to the first two and no to the last. I think the answer appears to be yes to all three, or at least that yes, these are possible to be deduced– not that we necessarily already have.

Today, during the opening lecture of my physics course, the professor made the statement that electromagnetic forces are what make everything work, at least on the scale that we normally experience–the biological scale (he noted the existence of nuclear forces, which we don’t often experience clearly firsthand). If it weren’t for those electromagnetic forces, gravity would pull a dropped ball straight through the earth because none of the particles would hold together. None of chemistry would work (or at least be the same) if the nature of electromagnetic reactions were different, and biochemistry, biology, ecology, and on and on would each in turn be different.

While all the principles of biology–such as a thorough understanding of human consciousness or religious belief–may not be fully reducible yet, I see no epistemic or ontological limitations that should limit our pursuit of reductionism. So Dr. Southgate would have to justify his answer of “no” to statement number three. Reductionism works; postulating that it will fail in the future because it might explain realms normally coveted by other realms, like psychology or theology- requires an explanation.

One Response to The Big Bad Reductionist

  1. Darmok says:

    I agree; everything we’ve seen so far suggests that the biological properties arise from the chemical and physical processes in our cells. No élan vital needed!

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