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The Oxford Companion to Philosophy suggests that "reductionism" is
"one of the most used and abused terms in the philosophical lexicon".

Updated: 10/14/2020

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.

Dictionary definitions:

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.

Dictionary.com: 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 possible.

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 entities.

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.

Business Dictionary:  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 entities.
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 after
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 condition.

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 WE know that the revolver is a lethal weapons system designed to main or kill, where the 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.

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