Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Reductionism in philosophy describes a number of related, contentious theories that hold, very roughly, that the nature of complex things can always be reduced to (explained by) simpler or more fundamental things. This is said of objects, phenomena, explanations, theories, and meanings.

Roughly, this means that chemistry is based on physics, biology is based on chemistry, psychology and sociology are based on biology. The first two of these reductions are commonly accepted but the last step is controversial and therefore the frontier of reductionism: evolutionary psychology and sociobiology versus those who claim that such special sciences are inherently irreducible. Reductionists believe that the behavioral sciences should become a "genuine" scientific discipline by being based exclusively on genetic biology.

In the painting (right) by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), titled "The Lovers," painted in 1923, we see that the two figures are rendered realistically and that they have the appearance of being a loving couple. But, the hands and the faces have been innately simplified and are presented as simple lines rather than circumspectly imitated models.

We still read them as hands and faces, but they have been simplified from the natural forms. This simplification of the image allows Picasso freedom with line and paint, rather than to be entirely involved in painting reality.

A very typical reductionistic book is The Selfish Gene by atheist and self-proclaimed secular humanist, sceptic, "scientific" rationalist, supporter of the Brights movement, and critic of creationism and intelligent design, Richard Dawkins. It argues that because genes are the fundamental elements of life, all life and all natural behavior can best be understood by studying genetic mechanisms. This way all life is best regarded as temporary accommodation and a reproduction device for the genes.

In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins introduced the term "hierarchic reductionism". This means that reductionism can only work when it is used one level at a time. For example: when you throw Stephen Jay Gould out of a window, his fall can be explained by classical mechanics. But you should not try to understand his work from such elementary principles.


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