On Reductionism


Dr. ChurchlandWay back in the sixties, that is over half a century ago, it was quite common to hear many spiritual teachers in India, haranguing to large audience how science was analytic and philosophy was synthetic in approach.  The strength of the ancient Indian wisdom, according to them, lived in its spirit of synthesis. So people were exhorted by these speakers to cultivate a habit of developing a conjoined view of diverse systems, rather than decompose them through a rigor of analysis. A current joke at the time was that a specialist was one who knew more and more about less and less until he knew almost everything of nothing.

Perhaps that approach was the need of the hour in India which had attained the status of an independent sovereign republic only a decade earlier through the coming together of many differently administered provincial units. But to extend that political logic based on the social needs of integration to the realms of philosophy and more so to Vedanta and pushing the spirit of questioning, almost derisively, to the bottom was an unfortunate development. How can I say so?

Well, see the result.  What type of mindset do many of the senior citizens of today in India  carry? These were, after all, the twenty somethings  – the most impressionist age group – of that time. Talk to any of them who are learned in Vedanta.  Though they are themselves highly proficient in science and well-learned in Vedanta, they would like to keep the two streams at arm’s length from one another!  They limit their Vedanta knowledge to the holy precincts of a temple or home and their scientific thinking to their office or lab. They seem to be able to cheerfully transcend the mundane dichotomy inherent in the thought processes of the two systems and exhibit themselves as shining stars who can co-exist with contradictions – never mind if some of their practices look hilarious to others at times!

An oft heard complaint of the Vedantins about science is that it is too reductionist. They forget that reductionism is only one of the several of its tools in demystifying nature. Its tool-box is multifarious.  If need be, science does approach a problem from a synoptic perspective. Many major discoveries have been made adopting such a process. The theories of continental drift, evolution, cosmogenesis immediately come to mind. Public health scientists, epidemiologists, and many others routinely follow a synthetic approach in deciphering causes in the spread of viral diseases. If hydrologists are to study a river valley turbulence, they do not go to reduce the stream water into its molecules and atomic components.

On the other hand, we find many Upanishadkars accepting a reductionist approach in guiding the seeker to brahman. The technique of apavAda (sublation) is a classic example of reductionism.

Yet, the scientist often faces the comment, “You reductionist,” from the philosophers – and more so from the Vedantins. The epithet gets thrown with a knot in the brow and a constriction in the nose as “though the word reductionist is in the same league as gestapo or arsonist or hired assassin,” as Prof. Patricia Churchland, herself a philosopher, bemoans the attitude of her ilk.

In a highly readable book, (Touching A Nerve – The Self as Brain) ***, that she has just published, Prof. Churchland has this to say on “Reductionism.”

Churchland says:  Reductionism is often equated with go-away-ism – with claiming that some high-level phenomenon does not really exist. But wait. When we learn that fire really is rapid oxidation – that is the real underlying nature of fire – we do not conclude that fire does not exist. Rather, we understand a macrolevel thing in terms of microlevel parts and their organization.  That is a reduction. If we understand that epilepsy is owed to the sudden synchronous firing of a group of neurons, which in turn triggers similar synchronous firing in other areas of the cortex, this is an explanation of a phenomenon; it is not denial of the existence of a phenomenon. It is a reduction. True enough, this brain-based explanation of epilepsy does supplant the earlier explanations in terms of supernatural sources. But its success is owed to its having vastly greater evidential support.

Some things people have thought actually exist probably do not – like mermaids, vaginal teeth, demonic possessions, and animal spirits.  Finding out the nature of things sometimes results in discoveries about what does exist or what does not. Some things that humans did not suspect exist do in fact exist. The existence of so many extinct species is surely even more amazing than finding out that there are no leprechauns.

Scientism is the label sometimes slapped on those of us who look to evidence when we seek an explanation.  This label, too, is meant to be insulting and is apt to be followed up with the accusation that we stupidly assume that science is the only important thing in life, that nothing but science matters.

Woe is me. Of course, there is much in life.  Of course, science is not the be-all and end-all.  Science is an extension of common sense. It is commonsense gone systematic. Einstein put it well:  “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” Slamming that comment as scientism would be nothing short of silly.

Bertrand Russell, philosopher and mathematician, has the last word:

“Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing  myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.” BR in 1925 in his essay, “What I Believe.”


*** Touching A Nerve – The Self as Brain by Patricia S. Churchland, W.W. Norton, 2013, pp: 304,  ISBN 978-0-393-05832-1 (Facsimile at top left)

2 thoughts on “On Reductionism

  1. I think that the pejorative meaning of ‘scientism’ is justified as it applies not to science per se but to the attitude and beliefs of many scientists and a majority (?) of people nowadays, seduced by the triumphs of science and technology.

    Scientism: the uncritical application of scientific or quasi-scientific methods to inappropriate fields of study or investigation – From World English Dictionary

    *the belief that the assumptions, methods of research, etc., of the physical and biological sciences are equally appropriate and essential to all other disciplines, including the humanities and the social sciences [and philosophy; philosophy has become the hand-maiden of science in the Western world].

    “Scientism” describes the practice of making wildly inflated claims for what modern science is able to explain, while denigrating other modes of understanding. For instance, popularisers of neuroscience who claim that it can solve the mystery of who we really are have no scientific basis for such claims. They are overreaching and indulging in false advertising. That is what I and others have called “neuroscientism”, a discipline-specific subset of scientism in general.(Steven Poole in ‘theguardian’

    In the same way that academic philosophy has substituted itself for ancient wisdom, modern psychology and science have usurped the place of religion among the “educated”.
    Scientism – not science – is the opium of the educated multitudes.
    Since Truth (or Being) is infinite, no finite conceptions of it can ever be final. (From my blog)

    As Michael Rea has shown in his incisive book World without Design (Clarendon Press, 2002), the only defensible form of epistemological naturalism (a.k.a. scientism) is that it is a methodological decision to follow a research program which takes the physical sciences to be the only basic source of knowledge. As such it cannot be justified. (W.L. Craig)

    (No time now to comment on ‘reductionism’, showing the other side of the coin as presented by Churchland)

  2. Thank you Martin for your time and thoughts.

    Discussions on issues like Scientism are, as you are well-aware, many nuanced and hard to dispose off in a couple of paragraphs. While I may not be taking a position anywhere akin to that of Steven Pinker or Sam Harris, I admit I have a soft corner for scientific approach in word, deed and action. It is because the philosophical principle that underlies such a method is to try to be free of any sort of bias or prejudice in what we speak or write, implement or perform, think and do. Unlike any unverifiable or falsifiable belief systems that are handed down in the name of tradition or an unknown authority, science has the unique characteristic of tolerance to questioning. Further, it has necessary systems in place for an orderly appraisal, as Pinker said in his article of Aug, 6, 2013: “[T}he defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists.”

    Of course, Pinker’s essay attracted much comment. This is not the place to take a comprehensive review of the total matter. But what I would like to emphasize is the fact that generally the community of scientists are conscious of their own limitations and would hesitate to make their own scientific approach a dogma. If and when science becomes a dogma, it will not be different from any other religious “-isms.”

    While the coinage of the word “Neuroscientism”, humorous as it is. may serve the purpose of cautioning the people from placing too much faith on the recent findings from the young field of research in Neuroscience, it is patently unfair to push it into the realms of such studies that would deserve our derision. Again, as characteristic as it is in the case of any newly developing field, Neuroscience has invited quite a bit of for- and against- press in the USA with leading Newspapers publishing Opinionator articles. Undoubtedly the overkill by the marketing teams in promoting their sales using enticing images of brain and half truths from fMRI studies contributed to the bad image. The fact that a pair of experts (a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist) published a book a couple of months back on this theme stands as shining evidence of in-built correction mechanisms available to Science. As scientists, perhaps, we can take a more balanced view as expressed in a recent article by Laura Sanders in The Scientist magazine.

    Reference 1: Science is not your enemy: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities

    Reference 2: Brainwashed – Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, 2013, p:288

    Referece 3: Calling neuroscience pointless misses the point: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/352764/description/Calling_neuroscience_pointless_misses_the_point


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