Reductionism non absurdum

In one way or another, skipping along the surface or lurking in the shadows, reductionism was part of last week’s series on consciousness, not to mention any number of other postings, recent and not so recent.

To some non-materialists, especially when it comes to the study of consciousness, “reductionism” is an evil methodology that takes the human out of humanity.

But there is reductionism, and then there is reductionism.

This distinction is central to “Reductionism Redux,” a 1995 essay republished in physicist Steven Weinberg’s 2001 collection, Facing Up: Science and its Cultural Adversaries. The book may be hard to find locally. Thanks to an online reseller, I managed to acquire a copy, a discard from the public library in Princeton, New Jersey.

In “Reductionism Redux,” Weinberg writes that “many science kibitzers and some scientists today speak of reductionism with a sneer, like postmodernists talking about modernism or historians about Whig historiography.” Considering the success of reductionism in creating the Standard Model in particle physics, Weinberg asks, “How has one of the great themes in intellectual history become so disreputable?”

His answer is that reductionism is misunderstood. There is what he calls “grand reductionism,” which seeks to explain nature in terms of “simple universal laws, to which all other scientific laws may in some sense be reduced.” And there is “petty reductionism,” the “much less interesting doctrine that things behave the way they do because of the properties of their constituents.”

In other words, Weinberg argues that “grand reductionism” is the search for the fundamental principles underlying everything in nature, while “petty reductionism” is the mechanistic view that if you know how something works, you know that thing entirely. In his view, the tendency to condemn all reductionism is a result of the erroneous conflation of the two kinds of reductionism.

Weinberg writes that “petty reductionism is not worth a fierce defense. Sometimes things can be explained by studying their constituents — sometimes not.” Just as it doesn’t make sense to talk about the hardness or temperature or the intelligence of “elementary” particles, it is also not possible to give a precise meaning to statements about particles being composed of other particles.

Weinberg asserts that “there is another distinction, one that almost no one mentions, between reductionism as a program for scientific research and reductionism as a view of nature.” The second kind of reductionism is the kind that Weinberg defends as “the search for the common source of all explanations.” He writes that “much of the criticism of reductionism is really only criticism of reductionism as a program for research.”

With this distinction clearly in place, Weinberg asserts the importance of “emergence,” the generation of new qualities and behaviours from the interaction of the elementary components of dynamic systems. I have argued before for this insight as the basis of an understanding of how something as complex and apparently personal as human consciousness can arise from “mere” matter. It is this insight that makes an entirely material yet not-just-materials mind possible. Without this insight, only the sterility of mere description or the fantasies of classical dualism remain. Weinberg acknowledges, and I agree, that consciousness is perhaps the most complex of the complex systems that can’t be described into full understanding.

Weinberg explains the emergence of consciousness with such admirable clarity that an unusually long citation is justified:

As we deal with more and more complicated systems, we see phenomena emerge from them that are much more interesting than a mountain of computer printout describing the motion of each particle in the system ever could be. Mind is a phenomenon that emerges from the biology of complicated animals, just as life is a phenomenon that emerges from the chemistry of complicated molecules. We are interested in whether George is happy to be out of jail in a way that is different from our interest in his nerve cells, and we are interested in his nerve cells in a way that is different from our interest in the electrons and protons and neutrons of which they are composed. But phenomena like mind and life do emerge. The rules they obey are not independent truths, but follow from scientific principles at a deeper level; apart from historical accidents that by definition cannot be explained, the nervous systems of George and his friends have evolved to what they are entirely because of the principles of macroscopic physics and chemistry, which in turn are what they are entirely because of the principles of the Standard Model of elementary particles.

I wish that I’d said that. I’ve tried to say that, but I’ve never managed to put the case for emergent complexity even half this well.

Consciousness is not a thing, like a drop of water. Consciousness is an event, like a flowing river. The brain is not consciousness. Consciousness is not the brain. Consciousness is an emergent property of the brain — and, for that matter, of the rest of the body, and of some of the environment.

Enough said.

9 thoughts on “Reductionism non absurdum

  1. Ron, I haven’t posted here in a while because I think our views are too different on this reductionist thing – I will try here again to bridge that gap. According to Weinberg, consciousness emerges “ENTIRELY because of the principles of macroscopic physics and chemistry, which in turn are what they are ENTIRELY because of the principles of the Standard Model of elementary particles” – this seems to be a dubious claim. Even more so if he thinks we can explain that consciousness by investigating the physiology. I have written a post on this topic recently:; as someone who is sympathetic to reductionism, I would love to hear your thoughts.

    • Hi, Brad. Glad to hear from you. I’ve certainly noticed your recent silence, and I suspected that this, or something like it, was the reason.

      Some part of your objection to the ideas in the current posting may be due to my short article being an incomplete representation of Weinberg’s thoughts. For just one example, in another part of the article, he writes that morality and value are entirely outside the realm of descriptive science.

      I’m looking forward to reading your article.

    • Brad:

      First, let me say that your article is another example of how well and how clearly you write. It is always a pleasure to read your too infrequent postings.

      Second, there is very little in your article with which I would disagree. Does this surprise you?

      I think that with regard to consciousness most of our apparent differences can be attributed to three factors.

      (1) My primary intent has been to distance cognition and self-awareness from classical dualism, so that when I talk about the mind being the product of the brain, I mean by that something different from the computational or methodologically reductionist approaches that you rightly criticize. Much more on this, below.
      (2) My blog is a popularization, due both to my own amateur status in the fields about which I write and to the equally nonspecialist status of my intended and typical audience. I am well aware that, as a result, I use terms rather more loosely and explain concepts rather more incompletely than is done in the professional papers you prefer (papers which I also read, although I’m sure not as many).
      (3) My own thoughts about consciousness are stated incompletely and scattered piecemeal throughout a large number of short articles, the primary purpose of which is to summarize others’ ideas. I’m sure that this makes it harder to collect and judge what I think. This is also partly a fault of the short article, “book report” format I often use.

      I believe that we agree on the substantive issues far more than we disagree.

      Among others, here are some of the things you say with which I am in complete agreement:

      It would appear that our brains were shaped, and are continuously being shaped, by our interpersonal experiences and the sociocultural worlds that we inhabit.

      It makes sense that much of the time our psychological flexibility can be explained by our abundant neuroplasticity – not its being hard-wired or innate.

      Cognition and behavior emerge from the bodily interaction of an organism with its environment… cognitive states are best explained by a physical system of interacting components, where the brain is only one such component.

      And here are some of the points I have made in recent blog articles with which I believe that you would agree:

      Consciousness is an emergent property of the brain — and, for that matter, of the rest of the body, and of some of the environment.

      As much as I believe that there’s nothing more than physical that generates consciousness, I don’t therefore believe that consciousness is a mechanical or completely reducible phenomenon.

      The best explanation of consciousness I can offer is that consciousness is our perception of the interactions of physical body and brain systems operating in dynamic relationships in changing environments.

      While I have written that the mind is the brain, I have really meant that the mind takes place in the brain. This is obvious to me, and it’s on this basis and this basis only that I am a “reductionist.” Again, in my own writing my intention has been constantly to defend that our mental processes are entirely physical, that there are no non-material components to the brain, the mind, consciousness, or the “I” of the self. This does not mean that I believe that by mapping or otherwise identifying all of the neurochemical events in the brain we have “explained” or “understood” anything other than the mechanics, the parts of a dynamic system which is in no useful way made meaningful merely by that act of mapping or identification.

      Yet it seems clear to me that mind is, in one narrow and perhaps idiosyncratic sense, nothing (no thing) other than brain. No matter what homeostatic, sensory, or socio-environmental inputs shape the brain’s physical circuits or determine the contents of thought; no matter how much socially-determined concepts or shared language give us our understanding of what we’re thinking, and of what we’re doing when we think; no matter how much interactive complexity (plasticity, or dynamic systems, or “embodied and engaged” operations, or a global neuron workspace, or any other of the many ways of expressing the idea of complex interaction as the basis of consciousness) – consciousness takes place nowhere else than in the brain.

      It is entirely possible that given this narrowing clarification you may decide that I’m not a reductionist at all. In other words, it may be little more than my imprecise or inappropriate use of the word that separates us. I’ll wait for your assessment of that.

      Finally, there are two minor points in your essay on which I would like to comment briefly.

      Classical psychobiological reductionism assumes that ‘the mind is what the brain does.’

      This may be the heart of our semantic problem. There are at least two, quite different ways of parsing this assertion. (1) The mind is the same thing as the brain (2) The mind is produced in the brain.

      (1) is simplistic “hard” reductionism.
      (2) is one way of saying what I have been saying above.

      I know that we both reject (1), and I believe that we can substantially agree on (2), as limited above.

      You will not find these folks in your pop-science books… look instead to the peer reviewed journals that discuss issues related to theoretical psychology.

      Not all of us have easy access to journals, nor would all of us benefit from that access. And while there certainly are a lot of “pop-science” books out there – just look at the Best-Seller Lists on Amazon – there also are a number of well-written, content-rich “popular” books that are scientifically sound and worth reading. Prominent researchers – including Gazzaniga, Damasio, and Ramachandran, to name just a few whose efforts I have read recently –have written this kind of book.

      This reply has turned out to be longer than I had originally intended. But I don’t think that any of it could be cut without reducing the evidence for my belief that we are in essential agreement on the origins, nature, and content of consciousness.

      Once again, thank you for your very informative essay.

      • Thanks Ron. I enjoy your blog precisely because of your ‘book report’ format – something interesting to think about a couple times a week. I am a bit surprised (pleasantly), that we agree on more things here than not. Yet, when you say that you really meant that “the mind takes place in the brain,” “our mental processes are entirely physical,” I think we find a point of disagreement again (and something I believe I addressed in my article). Perhaps it is a language barrier – you say that “consciousness takes place nowhere else than in the brain” – yet, when you look “in the brain,” you will not find consciousness. I believe we are back to describing mechanism (i.e. the brain) versus meaning (i.e. the mind). In addition, you say that the environment, culture, social relationships, and so on, are more-or-less ‘inputs.’ The implication of your position is that you see the brain as some thing that does the ‘processing’ – but where do these necessary ‘processors’ come from? Some are genetically pre-specified, yet others are shaped by other experiences, which means they must have (at some time) been an ‘output’ of some other process. So what was doing the processing? Well, I dunno, because I try not to talk in this kind of language, but it seems to be the result of some emergent/extended/embodied process, and not the result of a computational input (environment) – processing (brain) – output (thought, action, feeling), that we so often use in computational language. In short, I find the information-processing model limiting and the language they use makes it extremely likely that they will confuse mechanism with meaning and make certain assumptions about the direction of causation (if we can even determine what that is). I think we are still divided. You would seem to say that “the mind is produced in the brain,” whereas I would not. I would say the mind is equally produced by culture, history, experience, relationships, and so on – you will not find them in the brain or its mechanisms. Therefore, it does not make sense to say that “the mind is produced in the brain.” The most you can say, and perhaps you would agree, is that “the mind requires and is in part dependent on the brain.” It may seem like we are playing a game of semantics, but I think the implications are very important.

      • Yes, we are at some risk of playing a game of duelling definitions. I am not being clear enough yet. I’ll try again. The mind I have now is not the brain with which I started. I agree that the mind is clearly a “product” of the complex interactions among the brain, the body, and the external world (sensation, experiences, language, etc.). Yet “The mind is produced in the brain” is literally true, if only in the sense that there is no other physical place in which these endless interchanges occur, or could occur. This point is so obvious, so primary, that I think that you may be giving me credit for trying to assert something more complicated. In arguing against a supernatural self, I have given the impression that I see the mind as an algorithm, when in fact I agree that it is an environment. Where is the mind? In the brain. What is the mind? Stuff that happens when the brain interacts with the body, with the outside world — and with its ever-changing self. Neurons have a single, universal chemistry, but that’s as reductionist — “grand reductionism” in Weinberg’s terminology — as I get. I hope that I am being a bit clearer.

      • February 8th, 2012 at 3:59 pm
        I do not know if I can explain my position without describing a complete theory for how it all works (maybe I will be brave enough to try in a future post or publication), but I will leave you with one question to ponder: What if you stopped looking for a single specific ‘place’ to tether the mind?

  2. Ron,
    Very interesting, Ron. Have you read the article in Saturday’s SUN, C5. It’s what I thought is a clear presentation of some of the ideas expressed in your blog. Patricia Churchland postulates that morality is determined by hormones. I would be interested in your opinion of this article. By the way, it’s by D. Todd. P.

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