Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Nature of Language and Thought in an Argument Against Reductionism

More rough notes.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts: if you lay two planks of wood on top of each other, and they can hold more weight than the combination of what they could individually hold. Together you get more than you had separately, therefore reductionism is wrong.

That argument is flawed, because it is confusing petty reductionism for reductionism. Are any laws of physics violated by the result of putting two planks of wood together? Obviously not. The result of putting the two planks of wood together is fully explainable at a lower-level of the laws of physics.

While that might be the reason why the argument is flawed, I don't think it'll always convince people. We arrive at conclusions through chains of reasoning, and even if our conclusion is shown to be wrong, if we still think our chain of reasoning is valid there's a good chance we'll still think the conclusion is right, too. I think there is one such chain of reasoning for this matter, and that this flawed reasoning comes about because of the nature of language and thought. I'll talk about it now.

It really can seem that we have something here that is 'greater than the sum of the parts' because we have something, the 'strength' of the pieces of wood, that is some amount when the pieces are wood are separate, and yet is more than twice this amount when they are combined. Doesn't it seem that we have in fact gained something here which wasn't there before?

The problem is that in thinking this we are reifying the 'strength'. But wait a moment, doesn't reifying mean "to regard (something abstract) as a material or concrete thing", and isn't the strength of the planks a real thing? It is a real thing, but we must be careful with what we mean by 'real'.

The strength is real, but it is not a substance, such that we have created some new amount of this substance when we put the planks together. Strength is a real property, but it is not a "thing" in itself, and you might describe it as being both "real" and "abstract". It is the product of a number of factors, such as the type of material, the structural arrangement of the item, etc. Quantity of the property (strength) is not simply a function of the quantity of the things making it up.

So what exactly is causing the problem here? Seeing 'strength' as a "real" thing, and thus that we have more of a "real" thing when the planks are combined, and thus that reductionism is violated. The root problem here is in considering that "real" can only mean a real "thing".

The "strength" of something is simply a conssequence of the brute physical details of that thing -- there is no thing that is "strength" over and above those details. Those details have real consequences - such as how much weight it can carry before it breaks, but to say there is some actual extra thing called 'strength' resonsible for those properties is a mistake. It is confusing a label in our heads for a thing in reality -- whereas that thing in our heads is really a description of reality.

Clarifying Reductionism

More rough notes, written more for my benefit, as an aid to organising my thinking, than as a geninue attempt to convince anyone of anything. It's all for me me me -- it's not for you *.

As Richard Dawkins has noted, reductionism is uncool. Even the name has a negative tinge: it's reducing things to something less than the original.


It is one of those concepts that everyone thinks they understand, because it seems so simple and self-evident: reducing things to their parts. Except, this self-evident view is wrong.

It's describing what Stephen Weinberg has called petty reductionism. Reductionism proper, what Weinberg has called, grand reductionism (he has borrowed both 'petty' and 'grand' from the language of criminal law) is the view that reality is the result of fundamental, universal laws, and that all the systems and apparent 'layers' that we see are simply the results of the operations of these laws.

The following is a short list of the reasons, it seems, people make flawed arguments against reductionism:


  • equating reductionism with -- the obviously wrong -- petty reductionsim

    • this is why people think that "emergence" and the "whole is greater than the sum of the parts" stuff shows reductionism is wrong. Note that unless you think that these things violate the laws of physics, then you don't think these things violate reductionism proper.

  • equating reductionism with a methodology of trying to understand something by understanding its parts, and then using a failure in achieving this as evidence that reductionism (that is, 'grand reductionism') is false. Daniel Dennett has used the term "Greedy Reductionism" for when people use a reductionist methodology and paint an oversimplified picture of a phenomena.

  • assuming that reductionism must mean reducing to some specific thing, and that if you can't reduce it to that, this shows that reductionism is wrong. There is, for example, a very prevalent belief that if reductionism were true then this would mean that human behaviour would simply be reducable to DNA.

  • assuming that the explanation of a phenomena must have the same properties as the phenomena itself. that is, life must be living because it has some life force. or that water molecules must have 'wetness'. this makes it hard to see how something could have an explanation on a lower-level because this invariably seems to involve things that don't have these properties.

  • similar line, thinking that because something seems very complex, that it couldn't possibly have a reductionistic explanation because you can't see how that'd be possible. Why should people expect that they could forsee one?




[*] which I came across via Scott McCloud (to find the specific spot on this page, search within the page for "Penny Arcade")

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Film Version of Ian McEwan's "Enduring Love"

I just discovered there's a soon-to-be-released film version of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, one of my favourite books. I hope they do a good job...