A NOTE ON REDUCTIONISM
Thoughts suggested by John Dupré’s review of Alex Rosenberg’s Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology (American Scientist online, May-June, 2007: http://www.americanscientist.org/template/BookReviewTypeDetail/assetid/55122 )
Prefatory Note: Reductionism is a subject that has often provoked me to strong comment, and the first part of the following note was an almost involuntary reflex to the title of Professor Dupré’s review of Alex Rosenberg’s book, which I jotted down before I had read a single word beyond the title. The tone of the note is perhaps somewhat irritated and whimsical. Further, at least the first paragraph must sound enigmatic. If what I have just said sends the reader off, neither s/he nor I will have lost anything of much value.
Reductionism is always right and, at the same time, always wrong. Yet advocates and opponents of reductionism are not thereby reconciled. Those who find satisfaction in reductionist ‘explanations’ normally fail to see how those ‘explanations’ are the wrong answer to a certain type of question while those who see the wrongness of reductionist answers for a specific kind of question tend to ignore the validity and value of those same reductionist answers to a different kind of question. The failure of understanding between reductionists and their opponents may be partly congenital – we are all born into the one category or the other – but it is compounded by the failure of mainline philosophy to acknowledge that philosophy and science are radically distinct approaches. This is the heterodoxy I have been trying to advance in all my writings, from Let Us Philosophize in 1998 to “Explaining Explanation” quite recently: http://www.philosophos.com/philosophy_article_135.html .
Since everything that comes into being in the natural world has an ancestry of other beings in the natural world, it is always possible to break down what has become into what it had been and in a sense it is right to equate the new and the old. But when the scientist says that the flower is earth and water and energy from the sun, the fool says: No, it is not; and the fool is not always wrong. Kant said that 5+7 = 12 is a synthetic, not an analytic, judgement, and Plato had said the same thing, using the very same figures 5, 7, and 12. Why? Plato says that 12 is an instance of auto to on and, on Plato’s behalf, I would venture to say that the flower also is an instance of auto to on.
Perhaps this does not seem like so much after all. Well, it may not seem like much to say that the idea of 12 is something over and above the ideas of 5 and 7. It may even not seem like much to say that the flower is something over and above the components and processes that went into its flowering. But perhaps it begins to like something when we say that the mind is something over and above the brain and all its neuronal doings and happenings. And perhaps it begins to look like something when we say that life is something over and above all that biochemistry has it in its ken. And it begins to look like very much to say that the mind is not only a reality but is the only reality of which we have immediate and self-evident knowledge and that life is a reality and is the most precious thing we know. This is Platonism as I understand it.
Now theologians come and, in opposition to reductionists who tell us that life is nothing but so-and-so and that the mind is nothing but so-and-so, want us to believe that life and mind are mysterious entities introduced by or from some supernatural source. They make life and mind alien intruders in our world. Instead of holding that life and mind are something over and above the physical elements that go into their making, they make life and mind into something foreign to nature and opposed to natural processes. And the battle rages between those who tell us that there is nothing real beyond, apart from, or other than the elements and processes of the natural world, and those who assure us that the account given of life and mind in terms of the elements and processes of nature is false and that the truth comes from a source outside the natural world.
What is the relevance to all of this of the radical distinction I said we have to draw between science and philosophy? And what did I mean when I said at the beginning of this note that reductionism is always right and always wrong? It is this: Science, with its reductionist approach and reductionist methods, will tell us how things come to be. That is its work. That is the only way we can have knowledge of things – all things – as they are. But science will not give us understanding of the meaning, the inner essence, of anything. It is the business of philosophy, of poetry, of art, to explore the meaning and reveal the essence of things. Science can tell us how a flower comes to be, but only a poet, an artist, will put us in possession of the meaning, in communion with the essence, of a flower, or, as Socrates would say, it is by the idea of beauty – a pure creation of the mind that you can find nowhere but in the mind – that a beautiful thing is beautiful for us. The danger of failing to make this radical distinction between the proper spheres of science and philosophy is that otherwise we find ourselves pressed between the claims of a supernatural source for all value and meaning, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, an exclusive reliance on natural explanation, which, to say the least, tends to enfeeble our awareness of the inner realities of life and the mind.
This is what I tried to bring out in all my books and in such essays as “On What is Real”, “God or Nature?”, “Must Values be Objective?”, “The Need for Spirituality”, etc., etc.
Coming now to the review article, Professor Dupré states that Alex Rosenberg “believes that everything is ultimately determined by what happened at the physical level — and that this entails that the mind is ‘nothing but’ the brain.” I see the first part of this statement as a serviceable working hypothesis for science, but it is with the ‘nothing but’ section that things start to go awry. To put it strongly, perhaps rather offensively, I believe that Professor Rosenberg, as a scientist, has no business with the mind. Well, I’ll be told that Professor Rosenberg is a philosopher of biology, which, to me, has an incongruous ring: I believe that mixing science and philosophy inevitably leads to confusion. I would prefer to speak of theoretical biology, a discipline which should concern itself with general, basic principles of the phenomena of life but which should keep clear of any question of meaning, purpose, or essence.
Since I make no claim to any specialized scientific knowledge, I am not qualified to comment on Dupré’s criticism of Rosenberg’s position. I have no problem with supposing that, whatever the state of the theory of biology may be at present, some day a complete reduction of biological phenomena to what happens at the physical level may be achieved. That will not, in my view, mean that such a theory will be in a position to provide answers to the philosophical questions about the meaning and value of life. These can only be answered in terms of ideas and ideals generated by and in the mind.
But, marginally, I will allow myself to say that the paragraph quoted by Dupré fom Rosenerg on Dobzhansky sounds as stolid as the most extreme of theological dogmatisms. It is a pity that the absurdities of Creationists and Intelligent-Designists practically discourage rational criticism of the over-confident claims of Darwinists. They also keep in check a needed distinction between Darwinian theory and the more general theory or principle of evolution.
Professor Dupré seems to be justified in referring to Rosenberg’s “implausible position” and “reactionary argument”. Perhaps Professor Rosenberg’s reductionism is of a kind that effectively falsifies my opening contention that reductionism is always right and, at the same time, always wrong. His seems to be very little in the right and very much in the wrong. But I confess this is a personal impression on the part of a confessed ignoramus and on very meagre evidence to boot.
D. R. Khashaba