From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Descartes held that non-human animals could be reductively explained as automata — De homine, 1662.

Reductionism is a philosophical position which holds that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents.[1] This can be said of objects, phenomena, explanation, theories, and meanings.[2]

Reductionism strongly reflects a certain perspective on causality. In a reductionist framework, the phenomena that can be explained completely in terms of relations between other more fundamental phenomena, are called epiphenomena. Often there is an implication that the epiphenomenon exerts no causal agency on the fundamental phenomena that explain it.

Reductionism does not preclude the existence of what might be called emergent phenomena, but it does imply the ability to understand those phenomena completely in terms of the processes from which they are composed. This reductionist understanding is very different from that usually implied by the term 'emergence', which typically intends that what emerges is more than the sum of the processes from which it emerges.

Religious reductionism generally attempts to explain religion by boiling it down to certain nonreligious causes. A few examples of reductionistic explanations for the presence of religion are: that religion can be reduced to humanity's conceptions of right and wrong, that religion is fundamentally a primitive attempt at controlling our environments, that religion is a way to explain the existence of a physical world, and that religion confers an enhanced survivability for members of a group and so is reinforced by natural selection.[3] Anthropologists Edward Burnett Tylor and James George Frazer employed some religious reductionist arguments.[4] Sigmund Freud held that religion is nothing more than an illusion, or even a mental illness, and Marx claimed that religion is "the sigh of the oppressed," and the opium of the people providing only "the illusory happiness of the people," thus providing two influential examples of reductionistic views against the idea of religion.


Richard H. Jones delineates five types of reductionism and antireductionism (emergence): substantive, structural (i.e. causes), theoretical, conceptual, and methodological.[5] Most philosophers delineate three:[citation needed]

Theoretical reductionism[edit]

Theoretical reduction is the process by which one theory absorbs another. For example, both Kepler's laws of the motion of the planets and Galileo's theories of motion worked out for terrestrial objects are reducible to Newtonian theories of mechanics, because all the explanatory power of the former are contained within the latter. Furthermore, the reduction is considered to be beneficial because Newtonian mechanics is a more general theory—that is, it explains more events than Galileo's or Kepler's. Theoretical reduction, therefore, is the reduction of one explanation or theory to another—that is, it is the absorption of one of our ideas about a particular thing into another idea.

Methodological reductionism[edit]

Methodological reductionism is the position that the best scientific strategy is to attempt to reduce explanations to the smallest possible entities. Methodological reductionism would thus hold that the atomic explanation of a substance's boiling point is preferable to the chemical explanation, and that an explanation based on even smaller particles (quarks and leptons, perhaps) would be even better.[citation needed]

Methodological reductionism, therefore, is the position that all scientific theories either can or should be reduced to a single super~theory through the process of theoretical reduction.

Ontological reductionism[edit]

Ontological reductionism is the belief that reality is composed of a minimum number of kinds of entities or substances. This claim is usually metaphysical, and is most commonly a form of monism, in effect claiming that all objects, properties and events are reducible to a single substance. (A dualist who is an ontological reductionist would believe that everything is reducible to two substances — as one possible example, a dualist might claim that reality is composed of "matter" and "spirit".)

Nancey Murphy has claimed that there are two species of ontological reductionism: one that denies that wholes are anything more than their parts; and the stronger thesis of atomist reductionism that wholes are not "really real". She admits that the phrase "really real" is apparently senseless but nonetheless has tried to explicate the supposed difference between the two.[citation needed]

Reductionism and science[edit]

Reductionist thinking and methods form the basis for many of the well-developed areas of modern science, including much of physics, chemistry and cell biology. Classical mechanics in particular is seen as a reductionist framework, and statistical mechanics can be viewed as a reconciliation of macroscopic thermodynamic laws with the reductionist approach of explaining macroscopic properties in terms of microscopic components.

In science, reductionism implies that certain fields of study are based on areas that study smaller spatial scales or organizational units. While it is commonly accepted that the foundations of chemistry are based in physics, and molecular biology is rooted in chemistry, similar statements become controversial when one considers less rigorously defined intellectual pursuits. For example, claims that sociology is based on psychology, or that economics is based on sociology and psychology would be met with reservations. These claims are difficult to substantiate even though there are clear connections between these fields (for instance, most would agree that psychology can affect and inform economics). The limit of reductionism's usefulness stems from emergent properties of complex systems, which are more common at certain levels of organization. For example, certain aspects of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are rejected by some who claim that complex systems are inherently irreducible and that a holistic approach is needed to understand them.

Some strong reductionists believe that the behavioral sciences should become "genuine" scientific disciplines based on genetic biology, and on the systematic study of culture (see Richard Dawkins's concept of memes). In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins introduced the term "hierarchical reductionism"[6] to describe the view that complex systems can be described with a hierarchy of organizations, each of which is only described in terms of objects one level down in the hierarchy. He provides the example of a computer, which under hierarchical reductionism is explained in terms of the operation of hard drives, processors, and memory, but not on the level of AND OR gates, or on the even lower level of electrons in a semiconductor medium.

Others argue that inappropriate use of reductionism limits our understanding of complex systems. In particular, ecologist Robert Ulanowicz says that science must develop techniques to study ways in which larger scales of organization influence smaller ones, and also ways in which feedback loops create structure at a given level, independently of details at a lower level of organization. He advocates (and uses) information theory as a framework to study propensities in natural systems.[7] Ulanowicz attributes these criticisms of reductionism to the philosopher Karl Popper and biologist Robert Rosen.[8]

In mathematics[edit]

In mathematics, reductionism can be interpreted as the philosophy that all mathematics can (or ought to) be built on a common foundation, which is usually axiomatic set theory. Ernst Zermelo was one of the major advocates of such a view; he also developed much of axiomatic set theory. It has been argued that the generally accepted method of justifying mathematical axioms by their usefulness in common practice can potentially undermine Zermelo's reductionist program.[9]

As an alternative to set theory, Jouko Väänänen has argued for second-order logic as a foundation for mathematics instead of set theory,[10] whereas others have argued for category theory as a foundation for certain aspects of mathematics.[11][12]

The incompleteness theorems of Kurt Gödel, published in 1931, raised doubts about the attainability of an axiomatic foundation for all of mathematics. Any such foundation would have to include axioms powerful enough to describe the arithmetic of the natural numbers (a subset of all mathematics). Yet Gödel proved that for any self-consistent recursive axiomatic system powerful enough to describe the arithmetic of the natural numbers, there are true propositions about the natural numbers that cannot be proved from the axioms. (Such propositions are known as formally undecidable propositions.)

Ontological reductionism[edit]

Ontological reductionism is the claim that everything that exists is made from a small number of basic substances that behave in regular ways (compare to monism). Ontological reductionism denies the idea of ontological emergence, and claims that emergence is an epistemological phenomenon that only exists through analysis or description of a system, and does not exist on a fundamental level.[13]

Ontological reductionism takes two different forms: token ontological reductionism and type ontological reductionism. Token ontological reductionism is the idea that every item that exists is a sum item. For perceivable items, it says that every perceivable item is a sum of items at a smaller level of complexity. Token ontological reduction of biological things to chemical things is generally accepted.

Type ontological reductionism is the idea that every type of item is a sum type of item, and that every perceivable type of item is a sum of types of items at a lower level of complexity. Type ontological reduction of biological things to chemical things is often rejected.[14]

Michael Ruse has criticized ontological reductionism as an improper argument against vitalism.[15]

In linguistics[edit]

Linguistic reductionism is the idea that everything can be described or explained in a language with a limited number of core concepts, and combinations of those concepts.


A contrast to the reductionist approach is holism or emergentism. Holism is the idea that things can have properties, (emergent properties), as a whole that are not explainable from the sum of their parts. The principle of holism was concisely summarized by Aristotle in the Metaphysics: "The whole is more than the sum of its parts".

The term greedy reductionism, coined by Daniel Dennett, is used to criticize inappropriate use of reductionism.

In philosophy[edit]

The concept of downward causation poses an alternative to reductionism within philosophy. This view is developed and explored by Peter Bøgh Andersen, Claus Emmeche, Niels Ole Finnemann, and Peder Voetmann Christiansen, among others. These philosophers explore ways in which one can talk about phenomena at a larger-scale level of organization exerting causal influence on a smaller-scale level, and find that some, but not all proposed types of downward causation are compatible with science. In particular, they find that constraint is one way in which downward causation can operate.[16] The notion of causality as constraint has also been explored as a way to shed light on scientific concepts such as self-organization, natural selection, adaptation, and control.[17]

In science[edit]

The idea that phenomena such as emergence and work within the field of complex systems theory pose limits to reductionism has been advocated by Stuart Kauffman.[18] Emergence is strongly related to nonlinearity.[19] The limits of the application of reductionism are claimed to be especially evident at levels of organization with higher amounts of complexity, including living cells,[20] neural networks, ecosystems, society, and other systems formed from assemblies of large numbers of diverse components linked by multiple feedback loops.[20][21]

Nobel laureate P.W.Anderson used the idea that symmetry breaking is an example of an emergent phenomenon in his 1972 Science paper 'More is different' to make an argument about the limitations of reductionism.[22] One observation he made was that the sciences can be arranged roughly in a linear hierarchy — particle physics, many body physics, chemistry, molecular biology, cellular biology, physiology, psychology, social sciences — in that the elementary entities of one science obeys the laws of the science that precedes it in the hierarchy; yet this does not imply that one science is just an applied version of the science that precedes it. He writes that "At each stage, entirely new laws, concepts and generalizations are necessary, requiring inspiration and creativity to just as great a degree as in the previous one. Psychology is not applied biology nor is biology applied chemistry."

Disciplines such as cybernetics and systems theory embrace a non-reductionist view of science, sometimes going as far as explaining phenomena at a given level of hierarchy in terms of phenomena at a higher level, in a sense, the opposite of a reductionist approach.[23]

Free will and religion[edit]

Philosophers of the Enlightenment worked to insulate human free will from reductionism. Descartes separated the material world of mechanical necessity from the world of mental free will. German philosophers introduced the concept of the "noumenal" realm that is not governed by the deterministic laws of "phenomenal" nature, where every event is completely determined by chains of causality.[24] The most influential formulation was by Immanuel Kant, who distinguished between the causal deterministic framework the mind imposes on the world—the phenomenal realm—and the world as it exists for itself, the noumenal realm, which included free will. To insulate theology from reductionism, 19th century post-Enlightenment German theologians moved in a new direction, led by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl. They took the Romantic approach of rooting religion in the inner world of the human spirit, so that it is a person's feeling or sensibility about spiritual matters that comprises religion.[25]

The anti-reductionist takes this position as a minimum requirement upon the reductionist: "What is unclear is how the pre-theoretical intuitions [for example, of free will] are to be accommodated theoretically within favored analyses... At the very least the anti-reductionist is owed an account of why the intuitions arise if they are not accurate."[26]


The development of systems thinking has provided methods for tackling issues in a holistic rather than a reductionist way, and many scientists approach their work in a holistic paradigm.[27] When the terms are used in a scientific context, holism and reductionism refer primarily to what sorts of models or theories offer valid explanations of the natural world; the scientific method of falsifying hypotheses, checking empirical data against theory, is largely unchanged, but the approach guides which theories are considered. The conflict between reductionism and holism in science is not universal—it usually centers on whether or not a holistic or reductionist approach is appropriate in the context of studying a specific system or phenomenon.

In many cases (such as the kinetic theory of gases), given a good understanding of the components of the system, one can predict all the important properties of the system as a whole. In other systems, emergent properties of the system are said to be almost impossible to predict from knowledge of the parts of the system. Complexity theory studies systems and properties of the latter type.

Alfred North Whitehead set his metaphysical thinking in opposition to reductionism. He refers to this as the 'fallacy of the misplaced concreteness'. His scheme set out to frame a rational, general understanding of things, that was derived from our reality.

Sven Erik Jorgensen, an ecologist, lays out both theoretical and practical arguments for a holistic approach in certain areas of science, especially ecology. He argues that many systems are so complex that it will not ever be possible to describe all their details. Drawing an analogy to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, he argues that many interesting and relevant ecological phenomena cannot be replicated in laboratory conditions, and thus cannot be measured or observed without influencing and changing the system in some way. He also points to the importance of interconnectedness in biological systems. His viewpoint is that science can only progress by outlining what questions are unanswerable and by using models that do not attempt to explain everything in terms of smaller hierarchical levels of organization, but instead model them on the scale of the system itself, taking into account some (but not all) factors from levels both higher and lower in the hierarchy.[28]


Fragmentalism is an alternative term for ontological reductionism,[29] although fragmentalism is frequently used in a pejorative sense.[30] Anti-realists use the term fragmentalism in arguments that the world does not exist of separable entities, instead consisting of wholes. For example, advocates of this position hold that:

The linear deterministic approach to nature and technology promoted a fragmented perception of reality, and a loss of the ability to foresee, to adequately evaluate, in all their complexity, global crises in ecology, civilization and education.[31]

The term "fragmentalism" is usually applied to reductionist modes of thought, frequently with the related pejorative term of scientism. This usage is popular amongst some ecological activists:

There is a need now to move away from scientism and the ideology of cause-and-effect determinism toward a radical empiricism, such as William James proposed, as an epistemology of science.[32]

These perspectives are not new and in the early twentieth century, William James noted that rationalist science emphasized what he termed fragmentation and disconnection.[33] Such views also underpin many criticisms of the scientific method:

The scientific method only acknowledges monophasic consciousness. The method is a specialized system that focuses on studying small and distinctive parts in isolation, which results in fragmented knowledge.[33]

An alternative usage of this term is in cognitive psychology. Here, George Kelly developed "constructive alternativism" as a form of personal construct psychology, this provided an alternative to what he saw as "accumulative fragmentalism". In this theory, knowledge is seen as the construction of successful mental models of the exterior world, rather than the accumulation of independent "nuggets of truth".[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See e.g. Reductionism in the Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science.
  2. ^ For reductionism referred to explanations, theories, and meanings, see Willard Van Orman Quine's Two Dogmas of Empiricism. Quine objected to the positivistic, reductionist "belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience" as an intractable problem.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Strenski, Ivan. "Classic Twentieth-Century Theorist of the Study of Religion: Defending the Inner Sanctum of Religious Experience or Storming It." Pages 176–209 in Thinking About Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion. Malden: Blackwell, 2006.
  5. ^ Jones, Richard H., Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence (Jackson Square Books, 2013) and Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality (Bucknell University Press, 2000, pp.24-34).
  6. ^ Interview with Third Way magazine in which Richard Dawkins discusses reductionism and religion, February 28, 1995
  7. ^ R.E. Ulanowicz, Ecology: The Ascendant Perspective, Columbia University Press (1997) (ISBN 0-231-10828-1)
  8. ^ Ulanowicz, R.E. (1996). "Ecosystem Development: Symmetry Arising?" Symmetry: Culture and Science 7(3): 321–334.
  9. ^ [1] R. Gregory Taylor, "Zermelo, Reductionism, and the Philosophy of Mathematics". Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Fall 1993)
  10. ^ [2] J. Väänänen, "Second-Order Logic and Foundations of Mathematics".The Bulletin of Symbolic Logic, 7: 504–520 (2001).
  11. ^ [3] S. Awodey, "Structure in Mathematics and Logic: A Categorical Perspective". Philos. Math. Series III, Vol. 4, No.3 (1996)
  12. ^ F.W. Lawvere, "The Category of Categories as a Foundation for Mathematics". Proceedings of the Conference on Categorical Algebra (La Jolla, Calif., 1965), pp. 1–20. Springer-Verlag, New York (1966)
  13. ^ [4] Michael Silberstein, John McGeever, "The Search for Ontological Emergence", The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 195 (April 1999), (ISSN: 0031-8094).
  14. ^ The Basics of Philosophy
  15. ^ [5] Michael Ruse, "Do Organisms Exist?", Amer. Zool., 29: 1061–1066 (1989)
  16. ^ P.B. Andersen, C. Emmeche, N.O. Finnemann, P.V. Christiansen, Downward Causation: Minds, Bodies and Matter, Aarhus University Press (ISBN 87-7288-814-8) (2001)
  17. ^ — A. Juarrero, Causality as Constraint
  18. ^ Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman
  19. ^ A. Scott, Reductionism Revisited, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11, No. 2, 2004 pp. 51–68
  20. ^ a b Huber, F; Schnauss, J; Roenicke, S; Rauch, P; Mueller, K; Fuetterer, C; Kaes, J (2013). "Emergent complexity of the cytoskeleton: from single filaments to tissue". Advances in Physics 62 (1): 1–112. Bibcode:2013AdPhy..62....1H. doi:10.1080/00018732.2013.771509.  online
  21. ^ Clayton, P; Davies, P, eds. (2006). The Re-emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  22. ^ Link Anderson, P.W. (1972). "More is Different". Science 177 (4047): 393–396. Bibcode:1972Sci...177..393A. doi:10.1126/science.177.4047.393. PMID 17796623. 
  23. ^ Downward Causation
  24. ^ Paul Guyer, "18th Century German Aesthetics," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  25. ^ Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2006) p. 161
  26. ^ John W Carroll (2009). "Chapter 13: Anti-reductionism". In Helen Beebee, Christopher Hitchcock, Peter Menzies, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Causation. Oxford Handbooks Online. p. 292. ISBN 019927973X. 
  27. ^ Dossey, Larry. Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing. (ISBN 0-06-251622-1) HarperSanFrancisco. (1999)
  28. ^ S. E. Jørgensen, Integration of Ecosystem Theories: A Pattern, 3rd ed. Kluwer Academic Publishers, (ISBN 1-4020-0651-9) (2002) Chapters 1 & 2.
  29. ^ Kukla A (1996). "Antirealist Explanations of the Success of Science". Philosophy of Science 63 (1): S298–S305. doi:10.1086/289964. JSTOR 188539. 
  30. ^ Pope ML (1982). "Personal construction of formal knowledge". Interchange 13 (4): 3–14. doi:10.1007/BF01191417. 
  31. ^ Anatoly P. Liferov, Global Education as a Trend Reflecting the Problems of Today and Meeting the Requirements of Tomorrow
  32. ^ Yunkaporta on Kakkib and Oneness, Tyson Yunkaporta, Friday, January 05, 2007
  33. ^ a b Tara W. Lumpkin, Perceptual Diversity: Is Polyphasic Consciousness Necessary for Global Survival? December 28, 2006,
  34. ^ Pope ML and Watts M (1988). "Constructivist Goggles: Implications for Process in Teaching and Learning Physics". Eur. J. Physics 9 (2): 101–109. Bibcode:1988EJPh....9..101P. doi:10.1088/0143-0807/9/2/004. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Dawkins, Richard (1976), The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press; 2nd edition, December 1989.
  • Descartes (1637), Discourses, Part V.
  • Dupre, John (1993), The Disorder of Things. Harvard University Press.
  • Jones, Richard H. (2013), Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.
  • Jones, Richard H. (2000), Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality. Bucknell University Press.
  • Laughlin, Robert (2005), A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down. Basic Books.
  • Nagel, Ernest (1961), The Structure of Science. New York.
  • Ruse, Michael (1988), Philosophy of Biology. Albany, NY.
  • Dennett, Daniel. (1995) Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Simon & Schuster.
  • Fritjof Capra (1982), The Turning Point.
  • Alexander Rosenberg (2006), Darwinian Reductionism or How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology. University of Chicago Press.
  • Steven Pinker (2002), The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking Penguin.
  • Steven Weinberg (1992), Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist's Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature, Pantheon Books.
  • Steven Weinberg (2002) describes what he terms the culture war among physicists in his review of A New Kind of Science.
  • Eric Scerri The reduction of chemistry to physics has become a central aspect of the philosophy of chemistry. See several articles by this author.
  • Lopez, F., Il pensiero olistico di Ippocrate. Riduzionismo, antiriduzionismo, scienza della complessità nel trattato sull'Antica Medicina, vol. IIA, Ed. Pubblisfera, Cosenza Italy 2008.
  • Maureen L Pope, Personal construction of formal knowledge, Humanities Social Science and Law, 13.4, December, 1982, pp. 3–14
  • Tara W. Lumpkin, Perceptual Diversity: Is Polyphasic Consciousness Necessary for Global Survival? December 28, 2006,
  • Vandana Shiva, 1995, Monocultures, Monopolies and the Masculinisation of Knowledge. International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Reports: Gender Equity. 23: 15–17.
  • The Anti-Realist Side of the Debate: A Theory's Predictive Success does not Warrant Belief in the Unobservable Entities it Postulates Andre Kukla and Joel Walmsley.

External links[edit]