gretandlin's blog

Reductionism and Emergence

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, October 4, 2015

Reduction is an analytical process, identifying the parts of something and examining their relationships to each other and to the whole thing in order to explain the thing’s characteristics.

But when someone puts forward an argument that sounds clear and logical, you may occasionally hear it dismissed with the words "that is just reductionist." The word reductionist is used in such cases to imply that the argument is unduly simplified or distorts the issue. And reductionist thinking, it is implied, leaves out something essential, perhaps some romantic or supernatural element. Reductionist thinking is integral to science. So doubt is sometimes cast on science because it is reductionist.

Another criticism of reductionist science is that it is not holistic: it deals with individual aspects of the world but ignores the overall unity. I agree that reductionist science looks at individual parts of the world, and that it looks only at identifiable evidence. But I think that reductionist science indeed deals with the whole, however large or small we might take the whole to be in any particular case.

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