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Antireductionism is a philosophical position that stands in contrast to reductionism by advocating that not all properties of a system can be explained in terms of its constituent parts and their interactions. An extreme form of antireductionism is holism, that understanding a system can be done only as a whole. One form of antireductionism (epistemological) holds that we simply are not capable of understanding systems at the level of their most basic constituents, and so the program of reductionism must fail. The other kind of antireductionism (ontological) holds that such a complete explanation in terms of basic constituents is not possible even in principle for some systems.[1] The ontological view is supported by some scientists as well.[2]

Although breaking complex phenomena into parts is a key method in science, there are those complex phenomena (e.g. in psychology, sociology, ecology) where some resistance to or rebellion against this approach arises, primarily due to its perceived shortcomings. Antireductionism also arises in academic fields such as history, economics, anthropology, medicine, and biology as dissatisfaction with attempts to explain complex phenomena using simplistic, ill-fitting models, which do not provide much insight.

An example of antireductionism in psychology is Davidson's proposed ontology of what he calls 'events' and its use "to provide an antireductionist answer to the mind/matter debate ...[and to show that]...the impossibility of intertranslating the two idioms by means of psychophysical laws blocks any analytically reductive relation between...the mental and the physical."[3]

Karl Popper was a famous proponent of antireductionism. In his book Of clouds and clocks, Popper classified phenomena into two types: "clock" phenomena with a mechanical basis and "cloud" phenomena which are indivisible and depend upon emergence for explanation.[4]

For example, Popper thought that a materialist explanation of consciousness is not possible.[5] The view of reductionists about consciousness is explained by Velmans:[6]

"Most reductionists accept that consciousness seems to be different from brain states (or functions) but claim that science will discover it to be nothing more than a state or function of the brain. In short, they mostly accept that brains states and conscious states are conceivably different, but deny that they are actually different (in the universe we happen to inhabit)."
—Max Velmans; Understanding consciousness", Note 26, page 262

Velmans himself is not in agreement with this reductionist stance. Opposition to this mind = brain reductionism is found in many authors.[7][8][9] An often mentioned issue is that science cannot explain the hard problem of consciousness, the subjective feelings called qualia. However, a more telling objection is that science is not a self-contained entity, because the theories it uses are creations of the human mind, not inevitable results of experiment and observation, and the criteria for adoption of a particular theory are not definitive in selecting between alternatives, but require subjective input.[10][11][12] Even the claim that science is based upon testability of its theories has been met with qualifications.[13][14]

According to Alex Rosenberg and David Kaplan, the conflict between physicalism and antireductionism can be resolved, that "both reductionists and antireductionists accept that given our cognitive interests and limitations, non-molecular explanations may not be improved, corrected or grounded in molecular ones."[15] However, others find that the conflict between reductionism and antireductionism is "one of the central problems in the philosophy of updated version of the old mind-body problem: how levels of theories in the behavioral and brain sciences relate to one another. Many contemporary philosophers of mind believe that cognitive-psychological theories are not reducible to neurological theories...most nonreductive physicalists prefer the idea of a one-way dependence of the mental on the physical."[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Thomas Nagel (1998). "Reductionism and antireductionism" (PDF). The Limits of Reductionism in Biology: Novartis Foundation Symposium 213: 3–10. 
  2. ^ For example, see Robert B. Laughlin (1998). "Nobel Lecture: Fractional quantization" (PDF). 
  3. ^ Quote is from the blurb for Donald Davidson (2002). Essays on Actions and Events (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199246274. 
  4. ^ Karl Raimund Popper (1966). Of Clouds and Clocks: An Approach to the Problem of Rationality and the Freedom of Man. Washington University. ASIN B000O717EW. 
  5. ^ Alastair I.M. Rae (October 8, 2013). "Anti-reductionism". Reductionism: A Beginner's Guide. Oneworld Publications. ISBN 978-1780742540. 
  6. ^ Max Velmans (2000). "A new synthesis: Reflexive monism". Understanding consciousness. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780415224925. 
  7. ^ Evan Thompson (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674025110. 
  8. ^ Thomas Nagel (2012). Mind and Cosmos: Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly wrong. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199919758. 
  9. ^ A rather extended discussion is provided in Georg Northoff (2004). Philosophy of the Brain: The Brain Problem (Volume 52 of Advances in Consciousness Research ed.). John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 1588114171. 
  10. ^ Thomas Kuhn formally stated this need for the "norms for rational theory choice". One of his discussions is reprinted in Thomas S Kuhn. "Chapter 9: Rationality and Theory Choice". In James Conant, John Haugeland, eds. The Road since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993, (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press. pp. 208 ff. ISBN 0226457990. 
  11. ^ Bird, Alexander (Aug 11, 2011). Edward N. Zalta, ed, ed. "Thomas Kuhn". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition). Despite the possibility of divergence, there is nonetheless widespread agreement on the desirable features of a new puzzle-solution or theory. Kuhn (1977, 321–2) identifies five characteristics that provide the shared basis for a choice of theory: 1. accuracy; 2. consistency (both internal and with other relevant currently accepted theories); 3. scope (its consequences should extend beyond the data it is required to explain); 4. simplicity (organizing otherwise confused and isolated phenomena); 5. fruitfulness (for further research).  Bird's reference is to Thomas S Kuhn (1977). The Essential Tension. Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (7th ed.). University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226458067. 
  12. ^ Bird, Alexander (Aug 11, 2011). Edward N. Zalta, ed, ed. "§4.1 Methodological Incommensurability". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition). They [such criteria] cannot determine scientific choice. First, which features of a theory satisfy these criteria may be disputable (e.g. does simplicity concern the ontological commitments of a theory or its mathematical form?). Secondly, these criteria are imprecise, and so there is room for disagreement about the degree to which they hold. Thirdly, there can be disagreement about how they are to be weighted relative to one another, especially when they conflict. 
  13. ^ Stephen Thornton (February 5, 2013). Edward N. Zalta, ed. "Karl Popper; §9: Critical evaluation". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition). 
  14. ^ Imre Lakatos (1980). "Popper, falsificationism and the 'Duhem-Quine thesis'". In John Worrall, Gregory Currie, eds. The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Volume 1: Philosophical Papers. Cambridge University Press. pp. 93 ff. ISBN 9780521280310. 
  15. ^ Alex Rosenberg,D. M. Kaplan (2005). "How to Reconcile Physicalism and Antireductionism about Biology". Philosophy of Science 72 (1): 43–68.  On-line full text here
  16. ^ Quote from back-cover blurb of John Bickle (1998). Psychoneural reduction: The new wave. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262024327. 

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