Mailbag: Richard Polt Responds (Reductionism in Science)

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

For most scientists, the term “reductionism” represents a profoundly successful way of understanding features of our world as composed of smaller parts and a fuller investigation of those features involves a detailed understanding of their parts and how their interaction with each other and the environment cause higher-level properties. A classic example is surface tension: pure water consists of nothing but molecules of H20 and their complex interaction creates the feature we know as surface tension. Yet surface tension does not exist on the level of individual water molecules, but a feature that occurs on a higher level of analysis without there being anything “magical” with water in addition to those individual water molecules.

For sophisticated mysterians and proponents of pseudoscience, the term “reductionism” has the power to turn warm smiles into distorted snarls. The practice, according to these critics, amounts to turning conscious humans with moral character, free will and an appreciation for art to nothing but amoral and ugly meat machines who are callously manipulated by brain chemicals and a deterministic universe, like puppeteers controlling their marionettes.

One such sophisticated mysterian is Richard Polt, a professor of philosophy at Xavier University, and Debunking Denialism previously published a critical analysis of his opposition to reductionism. In summary, Polt confused hierarchical reductionism (the reductionism used by mainstream science as described in the first paragraph) with greedy reductionism (the faulty version of reductionism described in the second paragraph). Greedy reductionism is thus nothing but (no pun intended) a false caricature and does nothing refute hierarchical reductionism.

Polt recently wrote a short response to that piece:

Hello, I happened to run across your blog, belatedly. Thanks for your detailed critique of my two NY Times essays (I can’t leave a comment on that old post anymore). Your distinction between greedy and hierarchical reductionism is helpful. There are certainly many questions about reductionism and emergence that I did not touch on in my essays, and you bring many of them out.

In my defense I would say that (a) greedy reductionists are not non-existent; I see “greedy” claims quite often, not in science but in the way scientific findings are interpreted—by some scientists, by some philosophers, and by many in the media. My essays were not intended to be anti-scientific. (b) We agree that different principles and explanations are appropriate at different levels, but at one point you seem to say that the question “How should we live?” is “framed in terms of superstition” and should be restated in terms of moving and material causes. It still seems to me that such a restatement eliminates the very concepts of “should” and “ought,” and yet we need those concepts in order to make sense of what we’re doing (e.g. to hold that people “should” be scientific and not irrational). These kinds of principles (teleological ones, for lack of a better word) become appropriate at the human level—which is not to deny evolution, assert creationism, or anything of the sort.

My apologies if I’ve misunderstood, and best wishes for your blog.

The first point that Polt makes is that greedy reductionism is common. In one sense, this is undoubtedly true. People misunderstand science all of the time, but so do sophisticated mysterians with their knee-jerk reaction to all things reductionism. If given some time to think about it (by e. g. considering the surface tension example above), most greedy reductionists would probably understand their cognitive error.

The second point is more subtle. Throughout history, morality has often been framed in terms of superstitious beliefs based on religious dogma. However, if moral arguments have any relevance to human existence, they have to be based on some kind of rational argument on top of empirical premises. After all, we can easily dethrone any senseless moral argument in a non-trivial way by exposing logical fallacies or false empirical premises in those arguments. In other words, there has to be some connection between morality on the one hand and rationality and empirical evidence on the other if there is anything to morality at all. Polt implies that this is a form of greedy reductionism (since it allegedly “eliminates” the concepts of “should” and “ought”), but we now know better: hierarchical reductionism allows us to make rational and empirically informed moral arguments without making everything “flat” as Polt fears. That does not mean we can deductively “prove” moral statements as logically true statements, but it leaves us in considerably better shape than religious-based “morality”.


Debunker of pseudoscience.

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