The Oxford Companion to Philosophy suggests that "reductionism" is
"one of the
most used and abused terms in the philosophical lexicon".
One of the cardinal intellectual sins is that of reductionism.
In this author's opinion, we are drowning in a soupy morass of it.
Let’s try to recognize and learn to avoid that.
What is reductionism in general?
The practice of analyzing and describing a complex
phenomenon in terms of phenomena that are held to represent
a simpler or more fundamental level, especially when this is
said to provide a sufficient explanation.
What is the problem with reductionism?
One problem with reductionism, at least as naively applied,
is that it misses emergent
properties of the system.[*] Reductionism says that
emergent properties are nothing more than the sum of the
reduced properties applied over a very large scale. Another, greater
problems is that it ignores or denies higher-level and more meaningful and
rewarding realities, usually but not entirely, spiritual realities.
What are examples of reductionism?
Examples of reductionism in psychology include: Behaviorism.
This assumes that all behavior is broken down into just two components
of stimulus and response. Biopsychology as a discipline is reductionist. Existentialism,
evolutionism, and scientism are
decidedly reductionist philosophies.
New World Dictionary: Reductionism n any method or
theory reducing data, processes or statements to seeming equivalents
that are less complex or developed; usually a disparaging term.
Reductionism, the theory that every complex phenomenon, especially in biology or
psychology, can be explained by analyzing the simplest, most basic physical
mechanisms that are in operation during the phenomenon.
Merriam-Webster: Reductionism is - explanation of complex
life-science processes and phenomena in terms of the laws of physics and
chemistry; also : a theory or doctrine that complete reductionism is
Britannica: Reductionism, in philosophy, a view that asserts that entities
of a given kind are identical to, or are collections or combinations of,
entities of another (often simpler or more basic) kind or that
expressions denoting such
entities are definable in
terms of expressions denoting other
The Free Dictionary:
An attempt or tendency to explain a complex set of facts,
or structures by another, simpler set:
"Science requires some degree of reductionism, some picking apart and
focusing on one or two variables at a time". - Natalie Angier
The Oxford Dictionary:
The practice of analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of
its simple or fundamental constituents, especially when this is said to
provide a sufficient explanation.
Material world-view in which complex phenomenon is broken down into
conceptual chunks small enough to be analyzed or measured. The basis of all
analysis, reductionism is useful in understanding inanimate things or simple
systems. This philosophy (specially when taken to extreme), however,
dismisses environment as merely a set of resources to be consumed, and human
beings as tools to be manipulated and exploited. It is opposite of holism
based on the philosophy that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts,
and that the nature of a thing or a complex system cannot be understood by
breaking it apart but by looking at in its totality.
Open Education Sociology Dictionary:
Definitions of Reductionism; (noun)
The principle that the whole can be best understood by examining its
parts. (noun) Reducing the complex into fundamental parts for
analysis. Examples of
Reductionism, Reducing the behavior of women and men into biological
expressions of genes and hormones.
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy suggests that reductionism is "one of the
most used and abused terms in the philosophical lexicon" and suggests a
three part division:
1. Ontological: a belief that the whole of reality consists of a minimal
number of parts
2. Methodological: the scientific attempt to provide explanation in terms of ever smaller
3. Theory Reductionism.
"Philosophy can be intriguing--and at times baffling. It
deals with the central problems of
the human condition
with important questions of free will, morality, life
death, the limits of logic and reason." - Ted Honderich
I find it interesting and noteworthy that the best definition of
reductionism comes from the Business Dictionary. What is obvious from the above dictionary definitions is that they are
widely divergent, which give us a certain liberty to combine, refine and
generalize a more useful understanding.
“Reductionism” can be described as being simplistic, not looking for or not seeing the
larger, more important or meaningful picture. It is a failure to demand that
everything of which we are aware be integrated into a sensible and meaningful
whole. It also subtly implies a willingness to remain victims of the human
I tried to explain “Reductionism” and its effect to a reductionist with
the following parable:
An intrepid explorer loses his revolver in the remote jungle. A
primitive native stumbles across the pistol one day. He has never seen a gun before. He picks it
up, and it seems to fit nicely in his hand. He finds his
finger naturally going around the trigger. Gripping the object tightly he
squeezes it. Blam!
Of course he feels the kick and is startled. Ignoring the recoil, he is
amazed and fascinated by the sound. He focuses on that because he is pleased
that he has found a noisemaker that has now
simulated the sky gods' loudness. He squeezes the trigger again, with the
same result of explosive sound. He is now satisfied that he has
found a repeating noisemaker. He runs
to find his friend. When he locates him, he
points the gun at his friend and excitedly
says, “Listen to this!”
In the above example, the primitive native is the reductionist. Of course
that the revolver is a lethal weapons system designed to main or kill, where
sound is not only incidental but usually an undesired aspect. The native ignores the
recoil, which strongly implies, if not requires, that a projectile be
violently expelled from the barrel at high velocity. Being so unaware, he misinterprets the
whole purpose of the system, not acknowledging it to be a dangerous weapon.
Thus the UNDESIRED effect of otherwise needlessly wounding his friend.
The philosophical point is that after this tragic result, you would think
that a wiser person would wake up and look for greater understanding and a
larger truth. But, what is the chance of that with us psychologically
traumatized homo sapiens? Brings to mind the despot's motivational approach:
The beatings will continue until morale improves.
* The whole concept of "emergent
properties" may be
invalid and upside down. In the false thinking, a garden is an "emergent
property" of the soil and climatic elements, whereas we know that it is the
product of intelligence and will USING them for a purpose.