Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality

Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality

Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality

Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality

Synopsis

Reductionism's approach brings together many of the most interesting questions today in philosophy (consciousness and computers) and in science (issues of complexity and self-organization). It also presents a brief history of how reductionism has developed in Western philosophy and religion, with reference to Indian philosophy on certain issues.

Excerpt

The philosopher Robert Nozick points out that ours can truly be labeled the Age of Reductionism. We want to understand the world and what goes on in it, and we are not fully satisfied with any suggested explanation of a phenomenon unless it is explained in terms of something we deem to be a basic reality. We search for what is “really real,” and this is where a reduction comes in. If a phenomenon is not deemed fully real, we must get down to the reality that is the source or substance of the phenomenon. We take it apart to see what makes it tick, or we retrace (from the Latin reducere, “to lead back”) the development of the phenomenon to its roots. A reduction thus proposes what in the final analysis is real in the phenomenon and in terms of which we must understand it. With such a reduction, we find that what is apparently real is ultimately “nothing but” something else—either its parts or something that is more basic. Thereby, one apparent reality is “reduced” to another. And so our desire for understanding at least the reduced phenomenon is satisfied.

In science, a familiar example of a reduction is the explanation of heat. When we explain why one object is hot simply by pointing out that it is being heated by another hot object, we only explain why that one particular object is hot—we have not explained the phenomenon of heat itself. At best, this sort of explanation would lead only to a chain of hot objects, one heating another. To avoid an infinite regress, and thus to explain heat itself, we have to refer to something which itself is not hot—that is, something neither hot nor cold but something to which the concept of “heat” does not apply. For gases, scientists have advanced such an explanation in terms of the movement of molecules: the molecules themselves are not hot entities, but their movement generates heat. The temperature of a gas is reduced to the average kinetic energy of its molecules. The temperature rises when energy causes greater molecular motion. Heat is not caused by molecular movement but rather is simply nothing but the movement of molecules. There is nothing left to explain about heat after its reduction to phenomena (molecules in motion) that are not themselves hot. In short, heat is completely explained by reduction.

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