Philosophy Word of the Day – Reductionism

Reductionists are those who take one theory or phenomenon to be reducible to some other theory or phenomenon. For example, a reductionist regarding mathematics might take any given mathematical theory to be reducible to logic or set theory. Or, a reductionist about biological entities like cells might take such entities to be reducible to collections of physico-chemical entities like atoms and molecules. 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. This is usually taken to entail that all phenomena (including mental phenomena like consciousness) are identical to physical phenomena. (continue article)

(Via Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

If everything about us as humans is reducible to matter and physical laws, we seem to lose some important characteristics that we normally take for granted.  For example, that I am an “I,” some kind of persisting, conscious entity.  But there’s no way to describe an “I” in terms of physics or chemistry.  We seem to lose our personal identity on this account.

Beyond that difficulty, we also seem to be wholly determined in our behavior, since whatever we do is just one reaction in a causal chain of events determined by movements of atoms and molecules.  On a more macro level, as Richard Dawkins says, we merely dance to our genes.  But if that’s true, it appears we lose all moral accountability.  Nothing we do is either morally praiseworthy or blameworthy, since it’s strictly determined by factors outside of our control.

Those seem to me major drawbacks of reducing mind to matter.  However, these are not issues if we possess an immaterial soul that persists through time and grounds our personal identity – and survives death.

What think ye?

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One thought on “Philosophy Word of the Day – Reductionism

  1. “On a more macro level, as Richard Dawkins says, we merely dance to our genes. But if that’s true, it appears we lose all moral accountability. Nothing we do is either morally praiseworthy or blameworthy, since it’s strictly determined by factors outside of our control.”

    I’ve heard this characterization before and it strikes me as somewhat disingenuous. Although I have not studied deeply the arguments of those who hold the view, I don’t think that any of them would accept that reduction to purely physical causes necessitates a deterministic outcome. That is, though they may claim there is no non-physical aspect (ie. soul) within a person and that all aspects of our personality can be explained in physical phenomena, they don’t seem to accept that this means we have no control over our actions. How do rational, clear thinking reductionists clear this hurdle? Your objection just seems a little too easy. As though you are knocking down a straw man rather than their real argument.

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