Organs Are Explained by Organisms

And not the reverse. Livers don't go around detoxifying on their own, and occasionally bump into a heart and lungs and decide to make an organism. No, we only understand what organs do by seeing their role in the entire organism.

I mention this as part of the campaign to make the "mouth of truth" your anti-reductionist blog of choice. (Although Ed Feser is not bad either.) One interesting thing that has emerged is that some people are ready to deeply defend reductionism without apparently having any idea what it is. One commenter offered thermodynamics and Darwinian evolution as examples of successful reductionist theories, when, in fact, they are two prime examples of theories resisting reduction for over a century. For example, convection in thermodynamics is an excellent example of a theory which cannot possibly be reduced to the action of isolated molecules: what would it even mean for a single molecule to be undergoing convection?! It is a solid, scientific concept, but which has no meaning if taken below the level of a volume of a fluid.

In evolutionary theory, the reductionist program attempted to reduce evolution to genes and then hopefully genes to DNA. But that genes don't reduce to DNA has been know for a while, and the failure of the attempt to reduce inheritance to genes is becoming obvious.

Some commenters actually seem to think that if there is no reductionist explanation for something, there is no scientific explanation for it at all, and "magic" must be involved. Again, this is simply a failure of familiarity with the idea being so vigorously defended. Let me offer an example of a perfectly good scientific explanation which, I suggest, not only stands in no need of reduction to anything else, but also can't be reduced further without losing site of the phenomenon of interest.

Imagine that tensions between Israel and Iran rise to the point that war looks certain. As that rise occurs, oil prices soar, doubling in a couple of weeks. To explain this, economists say that the demand curve shifted rightward, in anticipation of coming shortages. This, I claim, is a perfectly sound scientific explanation.

Let us say that, in protest, Alex Rosenberg appears on the news and says this explanation is nonsense, and to really understand what is going on we need to trace the actions of all the subatomic particles involved. (I leave it to a reductionist to explain just how we determine which particles are "involved"!) And let us say that, miraculously, he has a vast database charting the momentum and position of all of those particles, within Heisenbergian limits. (I tip my hat to Michael Polanyi here.)

Does anyone really think that surveying that database, or watching simulations of various portions of it, or whatever else a reductionist imagines doing with it to "explain" the rise in oil prices is actually going to provide any explanation at all for that fact, let alone a superior one? In reality, what will happen is that Israel, Iran, speculators, oil companies, gas station owners, and so on -- all of them items that go into a valid explanation of the phenomenon -- will disappear from view. As the philosopher Donald Davidson would put it, we would merely have changed the subject, and certainly not have explained the original topic better!


  1. The trouble with talking about things like "the reductionist program in evolutionary theory" is that it's a bit like the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. There is clearly some behavior out there that is inspiring you to think in terms of a "reductionist program", but that's about all there is to it.

    Now, are there people who think that genes play a pivotal, primary role in evolution? Sure. Might they be wrong, underestimating processes at other levels? Sure. Definitely. But is there anything necessarily reductionist about putting the idea out there? Of course not. The discussion is about the appropriate level of analysis, and if you say it's X and they say it's X-1 then in a very trivial sense they have made a "reductionist" claim, but that trivial sense is different from seeing reductionism as a guiding principle.

    Actually the rest of the post anticipates what I had been planning to say next about the alleged "reductionist program" in evolutionary theory. If these are REALLY reductionists why stop at genes? Why not go deeper? Perhaps because reductionism really has nothing to do with what's going on here.

    This talk about reductionism (or when Ryan brings up essentialism) always reminds me of how people accuse others of relativism. Each of these things - reductionism, essentialism, and relativism - are blindspots that we should look out for and maybe comment on every once in a while. But it is almost always over-diagnosed as an argumentative short-cut.

    Perhaps there are some eccentrics out there that are real members of the Vast Reductionist Conspiracy... err... ummm... the "reductionist program". You know the lay of the land on that one better than I do. But it's going to be very few people, and they're likely to be philosophers working on philosophical problems rather than people actually working on a non-philosophical problem like evolutionary biology or oil prices.

    1. "There is clearly some behavior out there that is inspiring you to think in terms of a "reductionist program", but that's about all there is to it."

      No, you're dead wrong about this. Reductionism was a very well stated doctrine of how science should proceed through most of the 20th century. The idea that I have made up some reductionist bogeyman is frankly ridiculous

  2. And this is coming from a guy that sympathizes with you on reductionism and Ryan on essentialism on a lot of practical points.

    The strict "methodological individualists" that toss out any aggregate analysis bother me to no end. But they're clearly not doing it out of a sense of reductionism. If they were they wouldn't be economists, they'd be neuroscientists. And then once they switched to neuroscience they'd realize that actually they should be doing chemistry. And then...

    etc. etc.

    No, these frustrating methodological individualists don't bother me because they are reductionists. They bother me because they've made a bad call on what level of analysis it would be useful to do economic analysis. And actually they're not even THAT bad. They've actually made a good bet on methodological individualism. There's excellent reason to pay attention to individuals. The real problem is that they're so down on other levels of aggregation.

    (and honestly most of them aren't all that sincere... they'll quote Hayek the methodological individualist out one side of their mouth but then praise ABCT, which is chock full of aggregates, out the other)

  3. It's all so very Voegelin-esque.

  4. And putting "reductionist program" in scare quotes, like I had just invented the idea, is just a sign of not knowing the field: the term is standard.

    1. Yes, thanks for the education. I have Schrodinger's little book on my shelf too actually. But this is precisely my point. But you are the one that is making the leap from (1.) wanting to explain systems in terms of more fundamental constituents and (2.) talking about livers going around detoxifying on their own, which of course was never Schrodinger's point.

      Look at the way he uses the word "reduction" in the post you link: "The book's overriding contention was that all of biology could be reduced into chemical and physical laws, a statement that most biologists today will agree with."

      This is not how you are using it. Yes, as instruments get more powerful we do try to understand smaller (and for that matter bigger) things than we did before and there is a drive to do that. A natural word choice is "reductionist". But you are freighting it with a lot of additional philosophical baggage and that is my point.

      There's a big difference between trying to understand something's component parts (which scientists do do and which is referred to as reductionism) and what you are describing here which is some crazy idea that all causal concepts must make sense for fundamental parts without any reference to other parts.

    2. "The type of reductionism that is currently of most interest in metaphysics and philosophy of mind involves the claim that all sciences are reducible to physics." -- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

      I.e., just the "strawman" I am attacking.

      Read Alex Rosenberg's latest book, Daniel. He is not some Internet crank, but a tenured philosopher at a top research university. He states quite explicitly that there really are no such things as ideas or beliefs or preferences.

      Of course, many people use the word in some half-hearted sense. But this was the original reductionist program, and it is still alive.

  5. "Livers don't go around detoxifying on their own, and occasionally bump into a heart and lungs and decide to make an organism." Wow--the contradiction of that is the beginning of a great science fiction story! There's plenty of precedent on Earth: early, tiny creatures have fused in permanent marriage and made us what we are. It's a question of the level of complexity at which it happens.