An Examination of Reductionism
views have sometimes been used to write off religious
truth (see Richard Dawkins and E.O.Wilson against the
possibility of the truth of religion). But not all reductionism is
prejudicial to the science-religion debate. Indeed, a form of reductionism is
intrinsic to all scientific explanation. Arthur Peacocke writes:
The breaking-down of unintelligible, complex
wholes into their component units, the determination of the structures of those
pieces and what functions they can perform, and then the fitting of them
together as best one can, hypothetically at least, in order to see how they
function together in a complex whole, are such common ploys in experimental
science that most practising scientists would consider it scarcely worth
Again, science has made great progress through
assuming that for experimental purposes living things can be described in terms
of atoms and molecules - science need consider no extra fundamental ingredient
that makes them living, contrary to the thinking known as vitalism.
However, this very basic physicalist assumption is of strictly limited
importance. All human beings are made of the same sorts of atoms, indeed the
same sorts of chemicals. We do consist
of nothing but these constituents in the restricted sense that if those
chemicals were taken away there would be nothing left. Yet there is clearly
more to be said about different human beings than that.
When Francis Crick proclaimed that The
ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is in fact to explain all biology in terms of physics and
chemistryhe was seeking to replace one set of scientific descriptions by a more
fundamental set. [This is bottom-up thinking, which views higher-level
descriptions as special cases of more basic science. See the EPR Paradox to
note that bottom-up thinking runs into limitations at the smallest level of
things, in quantum theory, but this does not take away its attractiveness in
Three questions may be asked to discover
whether Cricks project has succeeded:
- do the laws of physics and chemistry apply to the atoms and
molecules of living things?
- are the interactions of atoms and molecules according to
physics and chemistry sufficient to account for biological phenomena, or
are other kinds of interaction needed?
- can biological theories be deduced logically from the theories
of physics and chemistry?
The answer to the first two is yes, but to
the third no. Although biology involves the same matter, and the same forces,
as physics and chemistry, new levels of description are needed to do justice to
biological systems. So the reduction has not succeeded.
Click on the concept of emergence to
explore what needs to be combined with reductionism in order to understand the
relation between different sciences.
Or click on the particular case of genetic
reductionism to examine some scientific
and ethical concerns which it raises.
Or see cross-explanatory reductionism to
understand reductionist claims at their most ambitious in respect of religion.
link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr.
Source: God, Humanity and the
Cosmos (T&T Clark, 1999)