• Pneumenon
    321
    A bunch of billiard balls are bouncing around on a table in a classically cliched example of Newtonian whatever. Two theses:

    • The motion of any one ball can only be fully explained with reference to the other ones.
    • Trends in the motion of the billiards are best understood by understanding the movements of the individuals.

    Fix that image in your head and convince yourself that it's related to reducibility. I'll be here when you get back.

    Back? Okay. Now, let's say we have an ecosystem. Mr. Reductionist claims that said ecosystem can be explained in purely physical terms. Mr. Irreductionist claims that it can't. Mr. Reductionist says that the actions and behaviors of anything in that ecosystem can be explained by the motions of its constituent particles, since it's all made of matter anyway. Mr. Irreductionist claims that it can't, because explaining the actions of any particular particle fully will require an account of its interactions with other particles, so the whole thing telescopes out. Mr. Reductionist says that, even after "telescoping out," the whole business will still just be a bunch of particles. Mr. Irreductionist then asks what, exactly, Mr. Reductionist is trying to explain.

    Do these two have a substantial disagreement at all?

    Actual responses are appreciated, as are sincere requests for clarification. Wiseass clever-me attempts to deconstruct the question for no good reason will be ignored. At the same time, though, this is meant to be open-ended; if you end up with too many "What does he mean?" questions, then just make the most obvious assumptions, list those assumptions, and tell me what you think.
    1. What is the nature of this disagreement? (14 votes)
        Substantive: they are disagreeing over the existence of something
        64%
        Methodological: they are disgreeing over approach
        21%
        Confused: they are talking past each other and pursuing different goals
        14%
  • Mariner
    200
    Mr. Reductionist thinks, mistakenly, that a description is an explanation. But this is a serious definitional issue, which is why I voted for methodological rather than just confused.
  • Michael
    4k
    You can explain why A punched B by describing the movement of particles (including the particles of the brain) or you can explain why A punched B by describing A's anger with B.

    Even if we accept that (meta-)physically A's anger with B can be reduced to brain states, and eventually to the movement of particles, conceptually these are very different things.

    So I think by-and-large the reductionist and the antireductionist talk past each other.
  • unenlightened
    1.5k
    I voted substantive mainly because you seem to have ruled it out by setting up the idea that an ecosystem is equivalent to a bunch of billiard balls. So the image you provoke in my mind is of a deterministic system, such as life-game. In such a world, glider guns, gliders, and all the myriad more complex constructions are strictly reducible to the deterministic laws. In such a world, Mr Irreductionist is simply wrong, and the disagreement is substantial.

    On the other hand, if the world is not deterministic, Mr reductionist is simply wrong.
  • apokrisis
    2k
    It is a substantive difference as the reductionist is claiming that a system is simply constituted of its events while the holist adds that, collectively, those events result in a generalised state of constraint. A global property emerges that restricts those events by becoming their history, their context.

    And then the holist will go further in arguing that emergent constraints can actually shape the identity of the events themselves. So collective causality is making the parts which are producing the functional whole. The parts turn out to be emergent too. Holism claims the dependent co-origination of parts and wholes, in the big scheme of things.

    Of course the reductionist always chooses examples of systems that do the best job of disguising the holism of nature. Hence billiard balls.

    The holism can't be seen easily because we are asked to imagine a set of parts that some person shaped - smooth hard balls and a flat baize table, then the smack with the cue that set the balls in motion, all bounded both by the table having edges and a world with fixed physical laws enforcing energy conservation principles.

    A holist is happier with an ecosystem where the collective, emergent, contextual nature of the organisation is now more obvious. The irreducible complexity of a system - the reality of two directions of causality in action - constraints and degrees of freedom - becomes the thing.
  • Galuchat
    234
    What is the nature of this disagreement? — Pneumenon

    Lower levels of description always underdetermine higher levels.
    Newell, A. (1990). Unified theories of cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Hence, the nature of the disagreement is substantive.
  • Wayfarer
    4k
    Wiseass clever-me attempts to deconstruct the question for no good reason will be ignored.Pneumenon

    In mitigation, I hope that the below deconstruction is for good reason.

    I think the choice of 'billiard balls' as the illustrative metaphor is significant, because of the implication of the fundamental role of Newtonian mechanics. The motion of billiard balls can, after all, be satisfactorily described solely in terms of Newtonian mechanics. So I suggest that the kind of reductionism that this example supposedly illustrates, actually became recognised as untenable a long time ago, because it has long been recognised that Newtonian mechanics has limited scope, and that such a simplified model or abstraction couldn't account for many phenomena in nature. This is so even amongst advocates of reductionism.

    So alternative models have emerged, for example 'complexity science', which examines systems with many parts that interact to produce global behaviour that cannot easily be explained in terms of interactions between the individual constituent elements. 'Complexity science' resembles the second of your two examples, although it may still be reductionist - perhaps some degree of reductionism is necessary for any kind of science. But on the other hand, holism thinks in terms of the relationship between systems or environments, and their constituent elements, hence is 'top down', and anti-reductionist in that sense.

    (Just happened upon this video preview on the life of Gregory Bateson, who was one of the pioneers of this kind of analysis, for anyone interested.)
  • andrewk
    721
    Mr. Irreductionist claims that it can't, because explaining the actions of any particular particle fully will require an account of its interactions with other particles, so the whole thing telescopes out.Pneumenon
    I don't think that's an accurate characterisation of the Irreductionist view. It implies that the irreductionist believes that everything is explained by the interactions of particles, but that one has to take ALL the particles, and all of the myriad interactions, into account. This person believes that the difficulty is the tractability of the problem (as you say, it 'telescopes out'). I don't think that's Irreductionism, it's just Laplacean Reductionism combined with an acknowledgement that the problem of collecting the data of every particle's position and momentum and solving the gigantic system of simulaneous differential equations is not practically possible.

    On my understanding, a true Irreductionist (of whom I'd say I am one, except that I resist accepting labels, especially 'ism' ones) denies that, even in theory, our experiences could be explained solely in terms of interactions of particles.
  • Janus
    3.5k
    On my understanding, a true Irreductionist (of whom I'd say I am one, except that I resist accepting labels, especially 'ism' ones) denies that, even in theory, our experiences could be explained solely in terms of interactions of particles.andrewk

    But does the true irreductionist deny that all out experiences (and for that matter all our explanations) could be the result of interactions of particles?
  • andrewk
    721
    I think that most people that think of themselves as irreductionists would answer Yes to that question. I would answer yes. I think maybe @Wayfarer thinks of himself as an Irreductionist, so it would be informative to know what his answer is.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    2.4k
    Do these two have a substantial disagreement at all?Pneumenon

    Do any of the billiard balls have a mind of their own, and the capacity to move one's own body in the way it wants? If not, then your "ecosystem" is not a proper representation of the real world in which we live in, which has living things that can do this. If so, then both Mr. Reductionist and Mr. Irreductionist are of track.
  • Pneumenon
    321
    It is a substantive difference as the reductionist is claiming that a system is simply constituted of its events while the holist adds that, collectively, those events result in a generalised state of constraint. A global property emerges that restricts those events by becoming their history, their context.apokrisis

    Yes. This is very close to, or the same as, a view that I've often held implicitly, so thanks for fleshing it out. This is also the reason that Mr. Irreductionist responds the way he does, by appealing to the history of each particle and its interactions with others.

    I voted substantive mainly because you seem to have ruled it out by setting up the idea that an ecosystem is equivalent to a bunch of billiard balls.unenlightened

    Granted, but notice Mr. Irreductionist's counter: "What, exactly, are you explaining?" If you want to, you could pursue that line and say that viewing the whole system as a bunch of particles just doesn't do what you need it to do. Whether that makes it into a methodological disagreement is up to you. 's comment is also along the lines of Mr. Irreductionist's counter.

    On my understanding, a true Irreductionist (of whom I'd say I am one, except that I resist accepting labels, especially 'ism' ones) denies that, even in theory, our experiences could be explained solely in terms of interactions of particles.andrewk

    Right. I think it may be helpful - for you and other people - to view the exchange in the OP dialectically. Mr. Irreductionist's counter that the whole thing telescopes out is a means of trying for a reductio against Mr. Reductionist, while accepting some of his premises, and occurs at the point in the dialectic where you would expect such a thing. Mr. Irreductionist's final counter, that Mr. Reductionist is no longer explaining the same thing, is a case of following this line of reasoning toward something like what you say here.

    But does the true irreductionist deny that all out experiences (and for that matter all our explanations) could be the result of interactions of particles?Janus

    This is an interesting question. I would ask what is meant by result here. It seems odd to say that our experiences are "caused" by the interactions of particles. That looks like it would lead to epiphenomenalism, because if particles are the cause and experiences are the effect, then particles and experiences aren't the same thing, but one is caused and determined wholly by the other. Perhaps you can reply that this misses the point, because you're just saying that the particles must be there for the experiences to be there. But is that reductionism?

    Thanks for the responses, everyone. Digging this discussion so far.
  • StreetlightX
    1.1k
    I think part of the problem is that neither phenomena nor the explanations that account for them are unitary things: different aspects of any one phenomena may involve different explanatory schemes/levels. That is, any 'explanation' must be coupled with the question - explain what? Thus while an 'explanation' for a system may be furnished in purely reductionist terms, such an explanation may not exhaust the range of things to be explained about that system.

    So with respect to the scenario in the OP, I think the reductionist is both right and wrong: yes of course the ecosystem can be 'explained' in purely physical terms - any system can be explained in purely physical terms. But would such an explanation exhaust what there is to be explained about that system? I don't think so. Thus I think even the irreductionist ought to answer 'yes' to Janus's question: yes of course all our experiences are the result of interactions of particles. The question is whether explanations furnished at the level of those interactions exhaust what there is to be explained about experiences. Again, here is where the divergence between the reductionist and the irreductionist really ought to be situated.
  • Pneumenon
    321
    I think part of the problem is that neither phenomena nor the explanations that account for them are unitary things: different aspects of any one phenomena may involve different explanatory schemes/levels.StreetlightX

    Can I get an example of something that is unitary?
  • StreetlightX
    1.1k
    I guess any situation in which all environmental variables are kept stable - ceteris paribus conditions. Such conditions by definition force unitary explanations insofar as they are engineered to isolate context and exclude anything else that would influence the phenomenon under investigation.

    Incidentally, 'reduction', as I understand it, means nothing else but context-invariance.
  • SophistiCat
    216
    Can I get an example of something that is unitary?Pneumenon

    That would be something like the problem as you framed it in the OP: "A bunch of billiard balls are bouncing around on a table in a classically cliched example of Newtonian whatever."

    This formulation explicitly admits of only one account, and so there isn't anything to be reductionist or irreductionist about. As others have noted (and I think @StreetlightX has been spot-on), the situation that you outlined does not really set up a reductionist/irreductionist conflict. Granted, "reductionist" is a nebulous and loaded term, more often used as a derogatory adjective than actually explained.

    So what is reductionism? Reductionism implies different accounts, different explanatory schemes, different theories. Often people talk about levels of explanation. So, not just alternative accounts, but accounts organized in a kind of hierarchy, with the one at the bottom being - on the reductionist view - the most fundamental and the most veridical, the others being merely convenient approximations. This is a view that is common among scientists and some philosophers of science*.

    Reductionism is sometimes described as taking a thing apart in order to explain the working of the whole in terms of its parts. This is probably what you were trying to get at with your example, except that from the start both your Mr. Reductionist and Mr. Irreductionist are already looking at an atomized picture, with no intimation of there being a whole (irreducible?) thing that these atoms constitute. (And by the way, the expression "irreducible complexity" was coined by an "intelligent design" (creationism) proponent, and denotes a different idea.)

    There is some truth to the part/whole account of reductionism - the truth being that the hierarchy of explanations that I mentioned earlier roughly corresponds to a hierarchy of spacial scales. When, as scientists, we attempt to provide a better, more accurate account of something, oftentimes we get out our microscope and examine it at a finer scale. And since matter tends to clump into more-or-less sharp-edged objects at many different scales (particles, atoms, molecules, cells, chairs, planets, etc.), this is where we get the idea of breaking a thing into parts to understand it better. But I think this part/whole view does not entirely capture the idea of reductionism. Quantum mechanics, with its universal wavefunction and entangled particles, is as "wholistic" as anything, and yet it comfortably fits into many a reductionist worldview as perhaps the most fundamental level of reality.

    * Philosopher of physics David Wallace opens this lecture about quantum mechanics by confidently proclaiming the sort of view that I outlined above as the consensus view of physics! I think he is rather overstating the case, even if we only ask physicists.
  • SophistiCat
    216
    It would be helpful to start with what is probably the minimal commitment of reductionism, which is supervenience. Supervenience can be summed up with the slogan: "No A differences without B differences." Suppose A and B are alternative accounts of the same phenomena (e.g. cognition). Let P' and P" be distinct phenomenal states, A' and A" - their accounts in theory A (e.g. psychological states), and B' and B" - their accounts in theory B (e.g. neural states). We say that theory A supervenes on theory B if for A' and A" to be distinct, B' and B" must also be distinct, but the reverse is not necessarily true. Thus, the relationship between A and B could also be described as coarse-graining.

    The connection with reductionism is that for theory A to reduce to theory B it must, at a minimum, supervene on B. And some would stop at that. But others attempt to go further in elucidating dependent relationships between different levels of explanation. The most ambitious view would probably be one that claims that high-level accounts - "special" sciences and psychology - as well as their specific theoretical entities can be analytically deduced from more fundamental accounts and entities (type-type reduction). A more modest claim is that any particular finding described by a higher-level theory could be traced to some configuration described by a lower-level theory, if only we knew all the relevant facts and possessed the necessary computational resources - but not necessarily according to some fixed bridge law (token-token reduction).
  • noAxioms
    321
    Mr. Reductionist says that the actions and behaviors of anything in that ecosystem can be explained by the motions of its constituent particles, since it's all made of matter anyway.Pneumenon
    While I do think the situation can be reduced to particle physics, at no point in that view is there a 'thing' which does an 'action'. There is never a definition of a fist or the anger that drives it. I voted for talking past each other.

    I voted substantive mainly because you seem to have ruled it out by setting up the idea that an ecosystem is equivalent to a bunch of billiard balls. So the image you provoke in my mind is of a deterministic system, such as life-game. In such a world, glider guns, gliders, and all the myriad more complex constructions are strictly reducible to the deterministic laws. In such a world, Mr Irreductionist is simply wrong, and the disagreement is substantial.

    On the other hand, if the world is not deterministic, Mr reductionist is simply wrong.
    unenlightened
    The lack of determinism seems to have little impact on reductionist particle descriptions of an ecosystem. OK, in neither the reductionist nor the holistic view can future states be determined, but absent agency from outside the ecosystem (which would be information actually leveraged from the dice rolling), behavioral states seem to follow the classic predictable rules of billiard balls. The only quantum amplifiers I know about are those in physics labs.
  • Mr Bee
    112
    Now, let's say we have an ecosystem. Mr. Reductionist claims that said ecosystem can be explained in purely physical terms. Mr. Irreductionist claims that it can't. Mr. Reduction anything in that ecosystem can be explained by the motions of its constituent particles, since it's all made of matter anyway. Mr. Irreductionist claims that it can't, because explaining the actions of any particular particle fully will require an account of its interactions with other particles, so the whole thing telescopes out. Mr. Reductionist says that, even after "telescoping out," the whole business will still just be a bunch of particles. Mr. Irreductionist then asks what, exactly, Mr. Reductionist is trying to explain.Pneumenon

    If Mr. Irreductionist's objection to Mr. Reductionist's picture amounts to a merely pointing out that the individual motions of the particles requires taking into account the other particles, then it seems like there is no substantive disagreement between them. It would seem like Mr. Irreductionist would still ultimately agree that the ecosystem can in theory be described by a system of interacting particles, so it seems like the dispute is methodological. However, if Mr. Irreductionist's claim requires that there exist something over and above the particles themselves and their interactions, then there would be a substantive disagreement because we are now talking about an ontological dispute.
  • Harry Hindu
    597
    That's the way I read it. I think Mr. Irreductionist would need to clearly explain what it is that is missing from Mr Reductionists explanation.

    Many emergent properties are the result of our perspective. As we zoom in, we can see an emergent property splitting into it's individual parts and their interactions, and as we zoom out we can observe the emergent property forming out of the individual parts and their interactions. Emergent properties are the result of how the brain handles sensory information at different size scales.
  • javra
    211
    An example once given to me that I find helpful is that of a beach’s being. A beach is composed of sand particles (residing along a large collection of water drops, etc.). Mr/Ms Reductionist would insist that to understand what a beach is we must more closely study the individual sand particles it is composed of, such as by means of a microscope. Mr/Ms Irreductionist will insist that to understand what a beach is we must study the holistic totality of sand particles in its own right. This can touch upon what some may term gestalt being - something that, as an identity, is other than the sum of its parts. (I speculate that there will be some who’ll argue that, because no gestalts exist, no such thing as beaches exist either.)

    I’ve opted for substantive disagreement on grounds of disagreement concerning what causal processes in truth exist. For example, all bottom up causation might be upheld by the reductionist as compared with the irreductionist upholding that at least some gestalts, or holons, can hold their own causal abilities (e.g., a beach, as a gestalt thing, can have an effect on the type of waves that manifest).

    On a somewhat related note, in line with SophistiCat’s comments, I’d be grateful for further clarification on what reductionism entails. So far it seems to me that we all inevitably reduce the nature of being to something primitive: QM particles, or holons (be these objects, ecosystems, aware beings, etc.), or some set of abstract relations (be these dyadic, triadic, etc.), or processes of becoming, and so forth. Hence, so far, to me there seems to be something in addition to “reducing things to basic givens” that would need to be made explicit so as to demarcate the reductionist from the irreductionist. While I currently uphold this to be linked to the types of causation upheld to be ontic—an underlying belief through which explanations emerge—alternatives to this perspective would be appreciated.
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