A few brief thoughts on reductionism

Wednesday October 10, 2007


The discussion provoked by a previous post (my post on the Numskulls) has prompted me to think a bit more about the idea of reductionism. My first port of call was Chambers dictionary, which gave the following useful defintion:

reductionism noun the belief that complex data, phenomena, etc. can be explained in terms of something simpler

This is a good definition, I think, because it does not define reductionism in a particularly strong sense. Here reductionism is seen as being essentially about looking for levels of explanation. This gives reductionism a kind of heuristic role, rather than making it something more absolute and foundational. In this heuristic sense, I don’t think there is anything wrong with reductionism. However, I am less convinced by the value of a more foundational or ontological reductionism – that is, by the search for the ultimate building blocks of existence, and the explanation of everything else in terms of these blocks.

My argument in the earlier post was that one could conceivably account for the origins of all the clever stuff human minds do by looking at the evolution of simpler, more basic processes (processes which I dubbed “Dumskulls”), and that if we allow enough of them, it seems not unreasonable to suppose that we don’t necessarily need intelligent agents to build intelligence. This was not a reductionist argument in any strong (ontological) sense: that is, it was not saying that there isn’t any of this clever stuff. There really is a load of clever stuff that our brains do. Nor was an attempt to claim that Dumskulls are foundational entities that are somehow “real” whilst the clever stuff is somehow “unreal”. Rather it was an attempt to suggest that it is far from inconceivable (although, we should remember that what is conceivable or not is not a sure guide) that from lots of Dumskulls doing their thing we could have the arising of something like this particular Numskull, me, who is busy writing this thing… and to also suggest that such a model does not imply that I myself, as just such a Numskull, am necessarily dumb (or – stop sniggering you lot in the back row – not in the sense I mean it here).

The resistance to the idea of reductionism – heuristic, ontological or otherwise – is, I think, interesting. To call something reductionist is often to use the word as a term of disapprobation, particularly when it comes to the ticklish area of human life that we might call religion. In religious circles “reductionism” – along with “materialism” – is often seen as a Bad Thing, as if after the reductionist has been at work, we are left with a world stripped bare. But reductionism – at least heuristic reductionism – need not do this; and, indeed, can have a positive and enriching effect. And certainly this is the case in Buddhist thought, which is no stranger to reductionist approaches.

Mark Siderits has written a fair amount on the subject of Buddhist reductionism. In a paper on early Buddhist reductionism, Siderits characterises reductionism in the following (decidedly ontological) fashion:

[Reductionism] is widely held to be, first and foremost, a view about what belongs in our ontology. To be a reductionist about things of kind K is, on this view, to hold that while it is not wholly false to claim that there are Ks, the existence of Ks just consists in the existence of certain other sorts of things, things that can be described without asserting or presupposing that Ks exist. Thus a reductionist about mobs would maintain that while mobs may be said to exist in a sense, the existence of a mob is really nothing over and above the existence of certain particular persons behaving in certain ways at a certain place and time

Siderits goes on to pursue his exploration of the reductionist move in early Buddhism with impressive determination in his excellent Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy: Empty Persons. There, he characterises early Buddhist Abhidhamma philosophy as reductionist in a strong, ontological sense: that is, he claims that the Abhidhamma is concerned with enumerating the fundamental constituents of existence. In the second half of his book, he then goes on claim that such a model simply does not cut the mustard (apart from anything else, we should be suspicious of Abhidhammic claims to have found a fundamental ontology as different recensions of the Abhidhamma catalogue different sets of so-called “fundamental” events!); and he counters the Abhidhammic approach with an approach from the point of view of emptiness or non-foundationalism, which may or may not be ultimately a more satisfactory approach.

But this is not a reason to give up on reductionism. It is worth noting that the Abhidhamma – dry and technical as it can seem to be – may have arisen initially not as an attempt to provide a fundamental ontology, but out of a need for more precision in meditation practice. That is to say, the desire to exhaustively catalogue mental and physical events may, in the first instance, have had a heuristic rather than an ontological intent. And if we go back to the Pali Suttas, it seems that whilst reductionism is still very much in evidence, it is not at all the strong or ontological reductionism of the Abhidhamma. When the Buddha divided the human person into five khandhas or “aggregates” (see the link here), this is clearly a reductionist move; but it is also a move that seems much more concerned with heuristics than with providing any kind of fundamental ontology.

Reductionism, it seems to me, is not something to be dismissed in itself. There is, perhaps, useful reductionism and less useful reductionism; there are reductionist moves that can prove illuminating and those that can obscure. For most of our human purposes, we don’t need fundamental ontologies, and strong reductionism may be largely irrelevant to these human purposes; but for many of these purposes, heuristic reduction can be a useful and fertile strategy, one that should not be too hastily dismissed.

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#1 · Pubudu Udara

7 November 2007

good article.

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