Some philosophers never get tired of falsely portraying science, its methods or the interpretation of scientific results. Too often having little or no actual experience of scientific research, they sit in their armchairs and proclaim what they believe are profound and intellectually rigorous philosophical insights. In reality, their effort is merely a non-scientific combination of ignorance with arrogance.
Topics where this often happens are evolution, genetics, neuroscience, determinism and reductionism. Stephen Pinker, an experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist at Harvard University explains (Pinker, 2002, p. 10):
As I mentioned, most Americans continue to believe in an immortal soul, made of some nonphysical substance, which can part company with the body. But even those who do not avow that belief in so many words still imagine that somehow there must be more to us than electrical and chemical activity in the brain. Choice, dignity, and responsibility are gifts that set off human beings from everything else in the universe, and seem incompatible with the idea that we are mere collections of molecules. Attempts to explain behavior in mechanistic terms are commonly denounced as “reductionist” or “determinist.” No one really knows what these words mean, but everyone knows they reduce people to something inhuman and are bad.
Richard Polt, professor of philosophy at Xavier University, fits the description of such a denouncer. He has made two contributions to the Opinionator at New York Times, called Anything but Human and Reality Is Flat. (Or Is It?). They arguments laid out in these posts readily demonstrate that the valuable skills of Prof. Polt is better spent on typewriters and translating Heidegger.
Reductionism in science
Before we investigate the arguments laid out by Prof. Polt, let us first understand reductionism in contemporary science. In science, reductionism comes in the flavor known as hierarchical reductionism (Dawkins, 1986, p. 13; Dennett, 1995, pp. 81-82) or reductive emergence (Stenger, 2009, pp. 159). Here is how Dawkins explains it:
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 is 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; entities which themselves, are likely to be complex enough to need further reducing to their own component parts, and so on. It goes without saying – through 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. This was the point of explaining cars in terms of carburettors rather than quarks. But the hierarchical reductionist believes that carburettors are explained in terms of smaller units …, which are explained in terms of smaller units …, which are ultimately explained in terms of the smallest of fundamental particles. Reductionism, in this sense, is just another name for the honest desire to understand how things work.
Dennett lays out the difference between this kind of hierarchical reductionism from what he calls greedy reductionism:
We must distinguish reductionism [i.e. Hierarchical reductionism – E.K.], which in general a good thing, from greedy reductionism, which is not. The difference, in the context of Darwin’s theory, is simple: greedy reductionists think that everything can be explained without cranes, good reductionists think that everything can be explained without skyhooks. There is no reason to be compromising about what i call good reductionism. It is simply the commitment to non-question-begging science without any cheating by embracing mysteries or miracles at the outset.
By “crane”, Dennett means a bottom-up naturalistic explanation. By “skyhook” Dennet is referring to a religious of secular mysterious explanation.
Here is how Stenger argues:
Summarizing, in the case of reductive emergence we have new principles appearing as systems become more complex. These principles do not apply at the lower level of particle interactions. Yet they are fully reducible to particle mechanics and nothing more.
So to sum up, reductionism in science is about explaining any given feature by their interacting parts at the level of analysis just below. To be sure, this feature is structurally reducible to its smallest parts. A water molecule is structurally reducible to one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. This, however, does not mean that, when it comes to function, that the feature is itself functionally identical to its parts. A bunch of water molecules in a glass will have surface tension, even though none of the water molecules themselves have surface tension in isolation. Water and hydrogen peroxide consists of the same type of atoms (oxygen and hydrogen), but that does not mean that you should drink hydrogen peroxide instead of water when you are thirsty. That is because the way these molecules are put together matters.
A classical example of hierarchical reductionism can be found in behavioral ecology: a specific behavior of an animal can be analyzed on different levels of analysis: phylogeny, adaptive advantage, ontogeny and causation. Phylogeny tells you about the evolutionary history of a behavioral trait. Adaptive advantage tells you about the function of the trait and how it is selectively advantageous. Ontogeny tells you about the developmental mechanisms of how genes and environment has contributed to development of the behavior in the individual. Finally, causation tells you about the sensory-motor mechanisms that produce the given behavior (Alcock, 2009 pp. 8-9; Davies, Krebs and West, 2012, pp. 2). None of these explanations are “more right” than any other. They are all correct. They just analyze the situation from different levels of analysis. A complete picture needs to take into account all of them. This is what is regularly being done in sense and it looks nothing like the baby-eating greedy reductionism that some philosophers fear.
With those lessons in our baggage, let us pick apart these two articles, point-by-point.
Anything But Human
Wherever I turn, the popular media, scientists and even fellow philosophers are telling me that I’m a machine or a beast. My ethics can be illuminated by the behavior of termites. My brain is a sloppy computer with a flicker of consciousness and the illusion of free will. I’m anything but human.
Right of the bat, Prof. Polt confuses greedy reductionism with hierarchical reductionism. The existence of moral behavior can be informed by biological understandings of the evolution of moral behavior in other organisms. This does not mean that the vast literature of human moral and ethical philosophy can be reduced to “actually, your ethical theories are nothing but sophisticated rationalizations for evolved behavior and heuristics. Understanding the brain needs to be informed by the way it is built up, how it works and how it has changed during evolution. This does not mean that you are at the same level as a Commodore 62.
Take ethics and let us apply hierarchical reductionism. Why do you care about moral behavior? Is it only because the common ancestor of humans and termites benefited from it (greedy reductionism)? Of course not. The reason that you care about moral behavior have many different explanations that depend on levels of analysis: the evolutionary history of moral behavior, its adaptive value or function, the genetic contributions to behavior, the developmental processes that influences behavior, such as differentiation and learning and even culture. There are a multitude of different biological, psychological and environmental contributions to why you care about moral behavior. Explaining one of them does not negate or reduce the others.
Knowing how my selfish and altruistic feelings evolved doesn’t help me decide at all.
An understanding the biological origins and influences on your moral behavior, thoughts, intuitions and emotion does help you make moral decisions. In general, we care more about our relatives and close friends than people far away in a very distant country. In a cruel twist, we respond more strongly to a single person in need of help than many by donating much more money (Ariely, 2011, pp. 246-249).
As humans, we often use rules of thumb known as heuristics. These are cognitive shortcuts that may have served us well in our evolutionary history, but are unsuitable for intellectual examination, often leading us into predictable irrationality. To understand why we behave like this and what we can do about it, we need to be informed about evolution (Kahneman, 2011).
But since the human race has evolved to be capable of a wide range of both selfish and altruistic behavior, there is no reason to say that altruism is superior to selfishness in any biological sense.
Race is an invalid biological term when it comes to humans as human populations represent a cline (continuous geographical structure), not discrete races. Prof. Plot probably meant species.
Here Prof. Polt confuses two different definitions of altruism. In evolution and behavioral ecology, altruism is a label for a behavior that reduces the direct expected reproductive success (direct fitness) of the donor, but increases the direct expected reproductive success of the receiver. The most common evolutionary explanation for altruism is that the donor and receiver are either related to a strong degree, there is a by-product benefit, the behavior is enforced or they are in a reciprocal relationship (Davies, Krebs and West, 2012, p. 358). This means that although the behavior leads to a decrease in direct fitness for the donor, the evolutionary calculus is only about the inclusive fitness (i.e. sum of both direct and indirect changes in reproductive success), which is increased by the behavior. In the every day sense of the word, altruism means something like helping those less fortunate. These are not the same. Clearly, a billionaire who donates a million dollars to charity would be considered an altruist in the every-day sense of the term, but it would probably have a negligible impact on his reproductive success. Usually, as people achieve higher socio-economic status, they tend to have less children, so it is probably an inverse correlation.
It is also imperative that this provides an explanation as to why altruism exists in humans from the evolutionary level of analysis. It does not claim that humans would necessarily reap a selective advantage for behaving in a certain way today when the environment is radically different or that humans ought to be altruists. It just provides an partial evolutionary explanation for why organisms (including humans) can display altruism. There are many other partial explanations: you have been taught so by your parents, you accept philosophical arguments as to why altruism is moral, you feel empathy with those less fortunate etc.
In fact, the very idea of an “ought” is foreign to evolutionary theory. It makes no sense for a biologist to say that some particular animal should be more cooperative, much less to claim that an entire species ought to aim for some degree of altruism.
It is true that evolutionary biology is a descriptive explanation. It describes who animals behave and why. It should not be considered a prescriptive moral theory for humans to follow. However, a biologist can ask research questions like “why is this animal so uncooperative?” and try to find out what trade-offs and other factors that makes that species or that population deviate from evolutionary beneficial behavior. Maybe there is less predatory pressure on individuals that do not live in a group that ultimately outweigh the benefit of group living? These types of questions (e. g. this animal should based on what we know behave like this, but it does not. What is going on?) provide powerful approaches to research.
Likewise, from a biological perspective it has no significance to claim that Ishould be more generous than I usually am, or that a tyrant ought to be deposed and tried. In short, a purely evolutionary ethics makes ethical discourse meaningless.
But no rational person is advocating a pure evolutionary ethics. That is just a creationist or postmodern straw man assertion. What evolutionary ethics does is that it informed explanations of why humans display moral behavior.
Any understanding of human good and evil has to deal with phenomena that biology ignores or tries to explain away — such as decency, self-respect, integrity, honor, loyalty or justice. These matters are debatable and uncertain — maybe permanently so. But that’s a far cry from being meaningless.
No, providing evolutionary explanations of group behavior and moral emotions is not the same as ignoring them or trying to explain them away. That can only be believed by someone who thinks that science apply greedy reductionism. As we have seen, science does not.
So are you and I essentially no different from the machines on which I’m writing this essay and you may be reading it? Google’s servers can comb through billions of Web sites in a split second, but they’re indifferent to what those sites say, and can’t understand a word of them
No, Pinker is not claiming that your brain is a Google server. The claim that is being made is that the computer analogy provides a powerful tool for understanding the structure and function of the brain. It is not the ultimate explanation because we have a lot of things left to discover and it has its limitations, but it is not the naive claim that human brains are identical to the current level of computer technology.
The call to remember the lifeworld is part of the ancient Greek counsel: “Know yourself.” The same scientist who claims that behavior is a function of genes can’t give a genetic explanation of why she chose to become a scientist in the first place. The same philosopher who denies freedom freely chooses to present conference papers defending this view. People forget their own lifeworld every day. It’s only human — all too human.
This is of course totally wrong. There are genetic risk factors for human behavior and this can be argued by scientists who have or do not have those risk factors. It is possible to freely choose in a compatibilist sense to present a conference paper defending the view that contra-causal free will does not exists. There are no contradictions here, just the straw man assertion that science routinely practice greedy reductionism. It does not.
That was the first article. Let us move on to the second. Unfortunately, that does not better. It just continues to dig the hole that was started on in the previous article.
Reality is Flat (Or Is It)?
But reductionism is also afoot, often not within science itself but in the way scientific findings get interpreted. John Gray writes in his 2002 British best seller, “Straw Dogs,” “Humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals.”
Context matters. The claim here is that when humans believe that they have magical and contra-causal free will or a mysterious immaterial consciousness, they are deluding themselves. They are placing themselves in an inappropriately higher category. In reality, humans do not have these magical features, but is an taxonomic animal with a couple of unique features, such as opposable thumbs and a large brain size to body size ratio etc. It is an attack on supernaturalism, not an attempt at dehumanizing humans.
Now, what do I mean by reductionism, and what’s wrong with it? Every thinking person tries to reduce some things to others; if you attribute your cousin’s political outburst to his indigestion, you’ve reduced the rant to the reflux. But the reductionism that’s at stake here is a much broader habit of thinking that tries to flatten reality down and allow only certain kinds of explanations. Here I’ll provide a little historical perspective on this kind of thinking and explain why adopting it is a bad bargain: it wipes out the meaning of your own life.
To attribute a political outburst to indigestion, a rational person is merely making the claim that indigestion makes it statistically more likely for the person to make a political outburst. That’s it. It is not a form of greedy reductionism that “flattens reality” or “wipes out the meaning of your own life”. This argument against reductionism should not frighten us more than the argument that atheism means that life has no meaning.
Prof. Polt then explains Aristotle four causes before making the following claim:
You’ll notice that the first two kinds of cause sound more modern than the others. Since Galileo, we have increasingly been living in a post-Aristotelian world where talk of “natures” and “ends” strikes us as unscientific jargon — although it hasn’t disappeared altogether. Aristotle thought that final causality applied to all natural things, but many of his final-cause explanations now seem naïve — say, the idea that heavy things fall because their natural end is to reach the earth. Final cause plays no part in our physics. In biology and medicine, though, it’s still at least convenient to use final-cause language and say, for instance, that a function of the liver is to aid in digestion. As for formal cause, every science works with some notion of what kind of thing it studies — such as what an organism is, what an economy is, or what language is.
It is true that teleology is not really a part of science anymore, and without good reason (evolution). Aristotle’s four questions have been replaced by Tinbergen’s four questions (phylogeny, adaptive advantage or function, ontogeny and causation, as was discussed above). Notice that function is not final cause. It is about adaptive advantage. Final cause is about purpose, not function. For creationists, function and purpose are identical of course, because the creator deity had a purpose with every function, but in the post-darwinian world, function is by definition non-teleological. In biology and medicine, function just asks: “what does it do and how does this contribute to the existence and process of the organisms or reproductive success?”
But do things really come in a profusion of different kinds? For example, are living things irreducibly different from nonliving things? Reductionists would answer that a horse isn’t ultimately different in kind from a chunk of granite; the horse is just a more complicated effect of the moving and material causes that physics investigates. This view flattens life down to more general facts about patterns of matter and energy.
Here Prof. Plot confuses structural and functional reductionism (se quote by Stenger). A horse, just a like a human or a bacteria, is structurally reducible to its component parts. It contains nothing else. However, this does not mean that the functions and properties of the whole is necessarily identical to its parts. A bacteria can inject a toxin, even though as single carbon atom in a membrane protein cannot. A horse can gallop, even though a hoof by itself cannot. It is the different combinations of different amounts particles that gives us a horse instead of a human. With the different combinations comes different properties. This is not holism, but standard hierarchical reductionism: all the properties of a horse can in principle be understood by the interaction of parts on the level of analysis just below.
So think of the situation as flatten down layers in Photoshop, but rather like placing the different layers (or levels of analysis) on an imaginary ladder. At the bottom is quarks, then protons and neutrons, then atoms, then molecules, then cells, then tissues, then organs, then organ systems, then organism; each level being explained by interactions on the the level just below. Horses should be explained as interacting organ systems and not interacting quantum fields, even thought the horse is structurally made up out of just quantum fields. There is no mysterious horse essence or spirit in addition to quantum fields.
Likewise, reductionists will say that human beings aren’t irreducibly different from horses: politics, music, money and romance are just complex effects of biological phenomena, and these are just effects of the phenomena we observe in nonliving things. Humans get flattened down along with the rest of nature.
That is the straw man of greedy reductionism again. Politics and romance are complex biological phenomena, influences by psychology and culture (themselves influences by biology and each other). But that does not mean that the explanations for the properties of politics and romance come in terms of atoms mindlessly colliding, even though the structure of humans are just atoms (no magical soul). Again, separate structure and property.
Reductionism, then, tries to limit reality to as few kinds as possible. For reductionists, as things combine into more complicated structures, they don’t turn into something that they really weren’t before, or reach any qualitatively new level. In this sense, reality is flat.
That is like claiming that chemists think that hydrogen peroxide is indistinguishable from water just because their constituent particles are of the same type (oxygen and hydrogen). Of course it is the case that the combination matters. The properties of water depends on the interactions among its constituents. That is why you drink it instead of hydrogen peroxide when you are thirsty. But that does not mean that water consists of anything else than one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms!
Reality is only flat for those non-existent greedy reductionists. From the perspective of hierarchical reductionism, reality is hierarchical, in all its glory and complexity.
Notice that in this world view, since modern physics doesn’t use final causes and physics is the master science, ends or purposes play no role in reality, although talk of such things may be a convenient figure of speech. The questions “How did we get here?” and “What are we made of?” make sense for a reductionist, but questions such as “What is human nature?” and “How should we live?”— if they have any meaning at all — have to be reframed as questions about moving or material physical causes.
Prof. Polt seems that it is something bad to scientifically rephrase philosophical questions that are framed in terms of superstition. That is probably a reaction to the increasing turf-war between science and philosophy. Things that previously were in the real of philosophy has been examined and taken over by science. This is a good thing. Yes, we should be talking about human nature and morality in scientific terms. We should investigate the relative merits of biological, psychological and environmental explanations for human nature and behavior. We should put our moral intuitions to scientific test. More often than not, we will see that they are incomplete, contradictory or based on false empirical premises.
The predictable response by certain philosophers is to spout the accusation of “scientism”, as if the opposition to scientific encroachment into philosophy is not itself an irrational ideology. The accusation of “scientism” is probably just the embodiment of fear of losing funding or respect for the field. To be sure, philosophy is important for things like argumentation theory etc. but it seems more productive to emphasize the benefits of philosophy for the 21th century, than to resist the coming scientific encroachment.
The alternative to “reductionism” is, according to Prof. Polt, is emergentism. This seems suspiciously similar to hierarchical reductionism. In the end, we have to ask ourselves if emergentism contains any explanations for the whole that is not due to the interactions of parts and other naturalistic processes. If it does, it is mysterian and should be rejected. If it does not, it is just hierarchical reductionism and the entire exercise is irrelevant, since this is the dominating perspective within science already. In other words, Prof. Plot is stuck in the distant past, before this debate was resolved in the scientific community. Maybe he should write an article about how the earth really revolves around the sun, not the other way around?
But make no mistake, reductionism comes at a very steep price: it asks you to hammer your own life flat. If you believe that love, freedom, reason and human purpose have no distinctive nature of their own, you’ll have to regard many of your own pursuits as phantasms and view yourself as a “deluded animal.”
Everything you feel that you’re choosing because you affirm it as good — your career, your marriage, reading The New York Times today, or even espousing reductionism — you’ll have to regard intellectually as just an effect of moving and material causes. You’ll have to abandon trust in your own experience for the sake of trust in the metaphysical principle of reductionism.
A thinly veiled variation on the creationist Plantiga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism or Victor Reppert’s argument from reason. There were not convincing in their original formulations and they are not convincing when deployed by Prof. Plot. The problem, of course, is that Prof. Plot is stating a tautology as if it were a dichotomy. The reliability of our experience is the regularity of adaptive brain processes. To say this is merely the result of regularity of adaptive brain processes and not really about the reliability of our experience would be a contradiction. It is like saying that “I did not do it, it was my brain”, when you are your brain.
Prof. Polt makes the straw man assertion (debunked as early as 1986) that science uses greedy reductionism when it actually uses hierarchical reductionism. He then goes on to criticize greedy reductionism as if it counted at all against hierarchical reductionism.
References and further reading
Alcock, J. (2009). Animal Behavior. MA, USA. Sinauer Associates.
Ariely, D. (2011). The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. Lonndon: HarperCollins.
Davies, N. B., Krebs, J. R., & West, S. A. (2012). An Introduction to Behavioral Ecology (4th ed.). West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Dawkins, R. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dennett, D. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.
Stenger, V. (2009). Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness. New York: Prometheus Books.