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Article quality[edit]

... is not great. Could do with a significant rewrite to describe reductionism more plainly and in terms someone who has not done Phil 101 (and ... er only Phil 101) could understand. ElectricRay (talk) 15:21, 16 May 2016 (UTC)


Hi Lee, since you ask for feedback--where does the list of kinds of reductionism comes from? Philosophers refer to lots of different kinds of reductionism, especially in relation to the mental phenomena, value, biological phenomena, social phenomena, etc., but there isn't any such generally agreed upon list of "kinds of reductionism" that I am aware of. (That doesn't mean that such a list doesn't exist, but I'm skeptical.) It would be more helpful, instead, to elaborate some particular theory that is said to be an example of reductionism, or to elaborate some philosopher's general characterization of reductionism. (Philosophers obviously don't agree about what reductionism is with regard to any domain--my impression is that a lot of the debate over the merits of reductionism turns precisely on the question of what it is.) In particular, I don't immediately get the difference between methodological, scientific, and theoretical reductionism. It would help a lot if this terminology were attributed to actual philosophers. --Larry Sanger

I see at least two kinds of reductionism in science. One is reductionism as a method of research (maybe a more apt/less loaded term would be "analysis"?). The success of the method cannot be denied and the fact that reductionism works is a nontrivial statement about the world. The other is the result of elevating the research method to a worldview. Does a discussion of these ideas belong in this article, or somewhere else. Also, I don't think I can provide a lot of references for this. -- Miguel

Well, I'd say that reductionism is clearly a topic in philosophy. It's possibly also (I guess I don't know) a topic of philosophical reflection by scientists (in a tradition of theorizing separate from philosophical reflection about science by philosophers). If scientists do use the term "reductionism" in ways that are culturally important (as opposed to just occasionally making off-the-cuff remarks that reflect what they read when they were reading some philosophy of science written by philosophers), then the ideal encyclopedia article about reductionism would include information about how scientists use the term. (Whether that discussion belongs on scientific reductionism I don't know; that depends on whether scientists call the reductionism they champion "scientific reductionism," which I would doubt. Maybe the discussion would be better placed on reductionism in science or even scientists' views on reductionism. The reductionism article certainly should include a lot of information about how philosophers use the term.

As to whether you should put two name and describe two different senses of "reductionism" in the article, I would say that depends entirely upon whether you're making up words to describe phenomena (about the scientific community) you observe, or instead reporting how others have described such phenomena. If you're making up words, then you're essentially doing original research which (I would say) doesn't have a place in an encyclopedia. If you're reporting some distinction that you've read in textbooks, for example, that would be another matter entirely. In such a case, the ideal article would attribute the distinction to whatever seminal sources are responsible for making it. --Larry Sanger

I have a question for Lee, Larry, and others who have been working on this article. My question concerns the relationshionship between reductionism and explanation, rathe than types of reductionisms (although I might suggest that one type of reductionism may have more than one function). In short, I question whether the purpose of reduction is to "explain" things. I guess this really hinges on how you define explain, so perhaps I am simply asking that the contributers to this article explain what they mean by "explain."

In A Brief History of time Stephen Hawking defines a theory as a model of the universe or some part of the universe, and a set of rules that allow us to relate quantities in the model to our observations of the real world. Now, I imagine there are other good and maybe even more popular definitions of theory, but I think Hawking is well-enough known and admired that this definition is acceptable. In any event, I am introducing it not as an example of a definition of a theory, but as a case of reductionism for in describing theories as models, Hawking seems to be taking a generally reductionbism view.

But, my question is, do such reductions (as those theories of physics that he describes) really "explain" things? I do not think they do, at least not in the common sense of a prior action that determines a consequent action. On the contrary, it seems to me that all such models do is describe how certain kinds of events may determine other kinds of events. It seems to me that the real stregnth of such theories is not that they explain, but that they reveal that different events can all be described in the same language, i.e. that the orbit of the moon and an apple falling off a tree obey the same law of gravity. But this does not mee that the apple falls "because" of the theory of gravity; the theory of gravity merely describes the relationships of bodies with mass that allow us to predict future events. Is this realy "explanation?"

If it is "explanation," all I can say is, it is not explanation in the sense that I think most English speakers mean, and so the article should be clear about the meaning. SR

If "reductionism" generally is to be defined in terms of explanation, it can't be just causal explanation; it would also have to be explanation of meaning, or semantic explanation.

A more complete article on the subject would certainly make a big to do about how reduction might or might not be considered to be a variety of explanation. Often, reduction is portrayed as elimination; so, for example, if I try to reduce mental events to brain events, some people naturally react not as if I had tried to explain what mental events are (an ontological explanation) or how they occur (causal explanation), but tried to eliminate the need to talk about mental events at all, in favor of talk about brain events. --Larry Sanger

I'm removing the italicized portion of the following:

Scientific reductionism has been used to describe all of the above ideas as they relate to science, but is most often used to describe the idea that all phenomena can be reduced to scientific explanations; that is, that all things are explainable.

This seems problematic, because it implies that there is no such thing as a "non-scientific explanation". Is that really what is meant?

Also, is it part of "scientific reductionism" to deny the reality of that which cannot be reduced to science? If so, maybe this should be clarified here. --Ryguasu

I'm curious: Daniel Dennett talks about "greedy reductionism". Does anyone talk about "greedy holism"? If I were to define that term, it would mean something along the lines of "understanding the whole has nothing whatsoever to do with understanding its parts." Although it would probably be hard to find someone who would actually espouse such an extreme position, I think one could certainly accuse some people (perhaps even mainstream sociology) of having strong tendencies in that direction. --Ryguasu 16:45 Jan 24, 2003 (UTC)

Reply to Ryguasu (above)
Some people use the word emergence when they make claims such as: "understanding the whole has nothing whatsoever to do with understanding its parts," particularly in a context such as, "you cannot explain consciousness by reductionism because consciousness is emergent."
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a good summary of use of the term "emergent" within philosophy.

If you compare the Stanford Encyclopedia entry to the Wikipedia entry for emergence, you will see that the Wikipedia version is too simplistic.

I am surprised that there is no entry yet for holism. I have always had a problem with the term "holism" because it seems to get hijacked by people who have an anti-reductionism agenda.
For example: "Holism, stands in stark opposition to the method of reductionism, which holds that analysis, dissection, and strict definition are the tools for understanding reality. Holism asserts that phenomena can never be fully understood in isolation; it asserts that reductionism can only give us a partial view of anything it dissects." I usually like to tell people that I take a holistic approach to my reductionism. I see nothing paradoxical about this. We reduce complex systems to their componenents then we must construct a holistic view of how the components interact to produce the whole system. I think holism and reductionism should go hand-in-hand not be viewed as being in "stark opposition". I have similar problems with the term "emergent" which I have discussed here: JWSchmidt 04:08 Mar 1, 2003 (UTC)
I have a question regarding the article - why on earth should you throw Stephen Gould out of a window ??

A classic line, I actually laughed aloud when I read that 05:46, 15 May 2006 (UTC)

Steven Weinberg wrote an essay called 'two cheers for reductionism'. Perhaps worth mentioning?

It's several years since I've read Robert Laughlin's A Different Universe but what I recall of it seems both relevant and surprisingly neglected in this discussion. He points out that there are many scientific 'explanations,' satisfactorily embodied in formulae, that describe systems behaviour while making no claim to understand the systems' components (gas laws would be a typical example). Furthermore, the behaviour frequently turns out to be compatible with a wide range of underlying phenomena, which strongly suggests that attempts to understand the systems' organizing principles by means of analyzing the systems' constituents are misguided. He doesn't mean to undermine reductionism entirely with this kind of observation, just to alert us to the fact that reductionism, like all things, has its limits and becomes counter-productive when asked to exceed them.—Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 28 April 2011

>the behaviour frequently turns out to be compatible with a wide range of underlying phenomena
I have not read Robert Laughlin’s book, but it looks like this is a well known argument referred to as multiple realizability. See also [1] (Please sign you posts by typing four tildes: ~~~~) --Y2y (talk) 11:51, 1 May 2011 (UTC)

Reductionism and emergence[edit]

I'm a bit confused about the "emergence disproving reductionism" part. Maybe some summary on the notion would help? I mean, certainly it isn't argued that emergence is where something is more than the sum of its parts. Does anyone really believe that? It would make *much* more sense for someone to argue that if simpler parts inexplicably result in a more advanced whole than is predicted then the simpler parts' values were miscalculated. Of course, this is just my opinion, but certainly there aren't scientists, (supposedly) the fonts of all that is logical and sound, who would believe otherwise? Where are the sources to this claim?


Generally, people who speak about emergence do mean that there are systems for which the complete correct knowledge about the parts does not offer complete correct knowledge about the system, and some of these people are scientists, or mathematicians. The analysis of complex systems is to do with this. Complex systems are said (although afaik not yet proven) to be impossible to understand analytically. In other words, one can't work, by maths, from the description of the rules of a complex system, a script on how it will behave. Cellular automata with very simple rules and turing-complete behaviour make a good case. Eulen 13:43, 14 February 2006 (UTC)

[Update, just saw this:]

"I usually like to tell people that I take a holistic approach to my reductionism. I see nothing paradoxical about this. We reduce complex systems to their componenents then we must construct a holistic view of how the components interact to produce the whole system. I think holism and reductionism should go hand-in-hand not be viewed as being in "stark opposition"." It is indeed true that people can have varying levels of reductionism, and they can reduce systems to certain levels where holistic approaches are then taken. However, if absolute reductionism is not taken, it could be posited that the "best" semi-reductionist method would be to reduce the system of components, or "forms" as I like to call them, to a level of holism where these forms are defined by how they are most logically and naturally perceived. The logicality and naturalness could only be determined if the holistic concepts of "logicality" and "naturalness" were defined, of course, but presumably definitions that satisfy the basal needs of the terms, such as "that which coincides with the natural order of nature" for "logicality", could be found. As you may have noticed, this method of defining the concept of "logicality" is, paradoxically, based on "logicality". But despite being paradoxical, it still works.

ps. sorry about the excessive updates, i'm getting used to this discussion thing.

Should some examples of arguments against reductionism (or links to such arguments) be included? Multiple realizability etc.? (Anon)

Holism advocates that complex systems may possess collective properties which differ from the cumilative sum of individual component properties. The idea is that you cannot produce the whole system through constructing a model based on how individual components behave and interact, and that you can only understand the whole through observing the whole. In this respect, holism contrasts with reductionism. This is especially true of living systems. An example of this is Gaia theory, which brings to light the self-organising properties of the ecosphere, properties which only become apparent when the system is viewed as a whole.

      • [Interjection: There's a more significant problem for reductionism than this, and the Robert Laughlin comment at the tail-end of the previous section hints at what it is. If different sets of underlying phenomena can converge to produce identical systems behaviour, attributing a unique causal role to any of these sets becomes impossible. In what sense, then, could a reduction continue to masquerade itself as an 'explanation?'] *** —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 28 April 2011

Reductionism should link to systemic thinking. See the work of Peter Senge and Gregory Bateson for further reference. This ideology draws attention to the idea that reductionism, i.e. the isolation and analysis of individual components, gives limited insight into the way in which components relate and interact both with each other and with the systems in which they participate. Furthermore, surely the sentence "But it cannot be understand from such principles as elementary particle physics or superstring theory." should read "But it cannot be understood from such principles as elementary particle physics or superstring theory." Alzclarke 23:44, 23 May 2006 (UTC)

Reductionism and Emergence, Interaction Between Phenomena at Different Levels of Reduction[edit]

Question: What if emergent phenomena modulate the behavior of components at a lower, more reduced level?

Would this view be compatible with a reductionist perspective on emergent phenomena, or would it challenge reductionism? I'm thinking in terms of biological systems, in case that helps clarify. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 16:21, 18 April 2010 (UTC)

Materialism is reductionism but no vice verca[edit]

I removed this:

"In short, it is philosophical materialism taken to its logical consequences."

You can be a reductionist without materialism, e.g. a radical empiricsist would claim that all states of affairs, objectcs, things, etc. are reducible to sense-data, regardless of truthvalues necessary for materialism.

Then there is phenomenological reductionism, and Marxist historical materialism is reductionism but a materialism of quite different sort.


False dichotomy[edit]

The first of these are commonly accepted but the last step is controversial and therefore the frontier of reductionism: evolutionary -psychology and -sociology vs. those who claim people have a soul or another quality that separates them from the material world.

This seems to imply that either you subscribe to evolutionary psychology and sociology or you believe in a soul or some other supernatural phenomenon. There are many intelligent materialists who are deeply critical of evolutionary psychology and sociology - the late Stephen Jay Gould (unceremoniously defenestrated in another passage of the article) was one. Spiritual explanations are only one kind of counter to reductionist thought, and not in my view the most obvious or important. Breffni-- 00:17, 18 February 2006 (UTC)

Why throw Jay Gould out of the window? Surely it's just rude unless you explain why it's relevant. 12:50, 19 May 2006 (UTC)


The religious stance hadn't been mentioned,so it can't be a "redescription". These additions are not anti-reductionist, just a framing of the debate. Plz use Talk....

Fine. Your edit is suffciently general and concise as to be hard to object to. My only concern is that, on Wikiepdia, one mention of a particular religious view or something that invokes things beyond the physical in a vague manner in philosphy of science articles almost always leads to an overhwleming assault from people with eccentric, pseudoscientific theories (often their own), New Age postmodern gobbdledygook which no one can understand, and so on. I will leave it alone and hope that the page doesn't fall apart into nonsense. But beware that there are literally millions of people who come across the philosophy pages and think they vcn now get their chance to disprove reductionism (or what have you) becasue the e.g. L. Ron Hubbard said that there exist "indescribable essences of the mainifest being which invoke the six-dimenisal Kalabi Yau space of unknowable noumenal objects, etc.." --Lacatosias 09:23, 11 April 2006 (UTC)
I share your concerns but actually feel having a blanket mention of "beyond visible nature" sentiments may lead to less non-philosophic intrusion rather than more. Hopefully people will see there's at least a general description of thier objections and go merrily on thier way. Besides, though a reductionist myself, I take the religious impulse seriously and believe it should get its due in articles like this. But "its due" should almost always be a short, purely non-sectarian statement. JDG 13:12, 12 April 2006 (UTC)


I find the use of the word "item" synonymously with "thing" to be stultified, distracting, and often strictly erroneous. Where things (particulars, articles, instances, etc.) appear among similar things, as in a class (category, list, itemization, etc.), it may be appropriate, depending on one's intention, to identify them as items. But without such an intention or context, "item" is a poor choice of wording. Instead of carrying the broad connotation needed in many of the statements in this discussion, it seems to imply the indication of a specific member of a (presumably finite and known) group. (--Marshall Price, d021317c, October 6, 2006, 10:25 am, EDT)

By coincidence, I just discovered, by way of "Arts and Letters Daily" (, an article by the former director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Burton Richter, in which he uses "reductionist" not as identifying a theory, but as a "trend" and "direction" on paths to understanding. He distinguishes it from "what appear to me to be empty concepts like naturalness, the anthropic principle, and the landscape" (of theorizing, I think). The article appeared in the October 2006 issue of "Physics Today", and is available as a PDF download. I found it inspired, inspiring, and brilliantly written. It reveals a few crucial facts about the history of theoretical physics which had escaped me before, the learning of which has been quite rewarding. (As an aside, I wonder whether the technology and practice of putting a piano together, regulating it, and tuning it, should be considered constituent parts of the piano.) (--Marshall Price, d021317c, October 6, 2006, 12:20 pm, EDT)

Methodological reductionism[edit]

Methodological reductionism is the idea that explanations of things, such as scientific explanations, ought to be continually reduced to the very simplest entities possible (but no simpler). Occam's Razor forms the basis of this type of reductionism.

As far as I can ascertain this is incorrect. Occam's Razor is a preference for simplicity when dealing with "equivalent" theories. I can not see any direct bearing this has on Methodological Reductionism, which is the view that "An understanding of a complex system is best sought at the level of the structure and behavior of its component parts." [2] However, Methodological Reductionism redirects to Occam's Razor. I have thus not edited the article yet, pending further discussion. --Nappyrash 10:53, 10 January 2007 (UTC)

I have edited the entry for Methodical Reductionism, I think it is now more accurate. Nappyrash 03:33, 14 January 2007 (UTC)

"set-theoretic reductionism"[edit]

I have removed the following passage:

Set-theoretic reductionism is the idea that all of mathematics can be reduced to set theory. Throughout the history of mathematics, the idea that all of mathematics can be reduced to a single branch has been very powerful. However, most of the attempts to reduce mathematics to a single branch have been proven either incomplete or inconsistent. Most of these proofs were developed by Gottlob Frege. He then proposed his own form of reductionism, logicism, which in turn was famously disproven by Russell's Paradox. Many believe that Godel's Incompleteness Theorem proves that reductionism in mathematics is impossible (since all systems cannot be both complete and consistent at the same time), but there is still a great deal of debate on the matter.

There is some truth in the above, but it's so badly muddled that I don't see how to fix it. Point by point:

  1. The first sentence needs a reference; while it's a plausible name for the idea that math can be reduced to set theory, I've never actually heard it used, other than here.
  2. Frege was not the one who showed how to reduce the vast majority of mathematics to claims about sets. It's actually the work of many great names -- Cauchy, Dedekind, Cantor, Zermelo, and von Neumann are probably the most important.
  3. Frege's logicist version of set theory was indeed refuted by Russell's paradox, but it's problematic to identify Frege's logicist set theory with logicism as a whole.
  4. The Gödel theorems are indeed often seen as refuting logicism (though this is debated), but they certainly don't refute reducing mathematics to set theory (reduction of mathematics to set theory is not per se logicist, because set theory is not purely logical). And the explanation ("since all systems cannot be complete and consistent at the same time") makes no sense.

The ideas might well merit inclusion in the reductionism article, if sourced and explained clearly, but I can find nothing worth saving in the existing text, and I don't have a reference talking about "set-theoretic reductionism" that would enable me to write alternative text. --Trovatore 08:23, 4 July 2007 (UTC)

Regarding point 2: I don't think the passage says thet Frege showed how to reduce mathematics to set theory, but rather that he showed that many attempts to do reductions to a single branch are flawed. -- Meni Rosenfeld (talk) 11:03, 4 July 2007 (UTC)
Hmm, possibly. Did he in fact show that? I don't know of an example. --Trovatore 19:15, 4 July 2007 (UTC)
I have no idea. -- Meni Rosenfeld (talk) 19:24, 4 July 2007 (UTC)
If Meni Rosenfeld is correct about point 2, it seems the first part of point 4 is also a misreading of the original text.

I think that we should add back the material on set theory. It seems highly relevant to reductionism. Perhaps we could come up with a more balanced viewpoint, and more sources? Cazort (talk) 19:32, 26 November 2007 (UTC)

Well, it's not enough that it seem relevant intuitively. The question is, do writers on reductionism make this connection? We shouldn't add material to this article on the grounds of "hey, this kind of sounds like the same thing to me". But if you can find the sources (preferably by recognized authors), then have at it. I wouldn't re-use any of the old text, though, for the reasons I explained above. --Trovatore (talk) 21:27, 26 November 2007 (UTC)
There are actually a ton of sources out there...which I have come across. It's a lot of work to add though because it's not something I know all that much about and the things tend to be a bit hard to read. I put a small amount of text there with one source. It would be nice to have more sources but...I'm not sure we really need any more material since there probably isn't all that much that could or should be said about it on this page. I agree with your criticisms of the old text. As another note, I think there's a slight problem on this page with "such-and-such" reductionism. I find a lot of people wrote text like this onto the page...when it would be more accurate to talk about "reductionism in" or "reductionism as applied to" or "an interpretation of reductionism" or something of the like. In searching for several of the categories I found that the scholarly literature doesn't really refer to them that much (for example, "scientific reductionism" seems people usually just say reductionism without the qualifier of "scientific"). Cazort (talk) 04:52, 29 November 2007 (UTC)

Serious Problems[edit]

This article seems very inaccurate and misleading to me. Some thoughts: is reductionism a "theory"? Not really in the scientific sense because it cannot be invalidated...rather it seems to be an approach, a principle, a guideline, something of the sort. Also, the "Criticisms" section seems's not so much a question of whether or not reductionism is "correct"...but rather, the question of its scope--what types of systems are appropriate for reductionist thinking/study, and what types are not. The controversy/criticism always stems from application of reductionism to a particular system or field of study. I also find the introductory paragraph discussing unity of science to be pretty problematic. I recommend scrapping it...unless...does anyone see a way to salvage it? It seems very POV, more than a bit arbitrary, and I can see people objecting to it on so many counts. Cazort 20:14, 23 October 2007 (UTC)

I changed "Criticisms of Reductionism" to "Limits to Reductionism"; I don't think anyone dismisses reductionism entirely which is why I think the old heading was misleading. Cazort 23:54, 6 November 2007 (UTC)

I was reading this article and found the term "limits to reductionism" a bit too... final, if you will, for I believe that many people believe that there are not, in fact, any limits to reductionism and that these so-called "limits" are nothing more than superficial. Not that I'm one of these people, of course... but I think that maybe if you said something like "proposed limits to reductionism" or even if you reverted back to "criticisms" it may be better, maybe? Good article, by the way: it may have some problems, but it has a lot less than it could have had for such a controversial subject!! —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 14:46, 9 August 2008 (UTC)

The problem with "criticisms" is that people aren't criticizing reductionism itself, they're criticizing the use of it in certain contexts they see as appropriate, or criticizing ontological reductionism. I think it is hard to deny, too, that there are very real practical limits to reductionism, even if one accepts ontological reductionism. Saying "proposed" I think would water it down too much. Cazort (talk) 18:34, 15 April 2009 (UTC)

Justifying my changes[edit]

I deleted the Richard H. Jones source, and all the material associated with it. I feel that this rather extreme action requires some justification and explanation. I know this is a subjective judgment, but I got hold of the book and read it and I found it to be extremely lacking in terms of quality of scholarship and content, and not really suitable as a valid source. If someone wants to dispute this, I'm open to discussion, but I think one would need some sort of verification that that source is indeed accepted as legitimate by others in the field, and honestly I would be very surprised if that were the case. Cazort (talk) 00:55, 14 December 2007 (UTC)

Response. That is surprising. My assessment is just the opposite. I found the book to be very helpful. I only skimmed the chapters on social science and religion because I am not as interested in those topics, but the chapters on philosophy and science are what I am interested in and I read those chapters carefully. I know something about those topics and I found the scholarship and argumentation to be solid. Perhaps because it is a general work and not for specialists in philosophy of mind or philosophy of science that Cazort did not like it. But for the general reader I would highly recommend it. I restored a citation to the book for the general reader, but the wikipedia being what it is Cazort is free to delete it. -- William Ryan.

Response. I just finished reading Jones' new book Analysis and the Fullness of Reality and found it to be an excellent introduction to the subject, bringing together all the fields and showing the state of reductionism and emergence today. -- William Ryan. — Preceding unsigned comment added by Shankara1000 (talkcontribs) 13:21, 22 June 2013 (UTC)

History section[edit]

The idea of reductionism was introduced[citation needed] by Descartes in Part V of his Discourses (1637). Descartes argued the world was like a machine, its pieces like clockwork mechanisms, and that the machine could be understood by taking its pieces apart, studying them, and then putting them back together to see the larger picture. Descartes was a full mechanist, but only because he did not accept the conservation of direction of motions of small things in a machine, including an organic machine. Newton's theory required such conservation for inorganic things at least. When such conservation was accepted for organisms as well as inorganic objects by the middle of the 20th century, no organic mechanism could easily, if at all, be a Cartesian mechanism.[citation needed]

It's not clear that this is actually reductionism at all, and I don't think it is. It's more of an example of a determinist theory. I'm going to add the stuff from my philosophy book real quick. ImperfectlyInformed | {talk - contribs} 05:50, 11 May 2008 (UTC)

overtly biased[edit]

this article implies that all the greatest minds and philosophers consider that Reductionism is a wonderful thing. this simply isn't true and it would be nice if somebody could review this and make it less like and ideological advertisement —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 22:47, 21 August 2008 (UTC)

I'm not sure I would agree that the article reads this way. If you had said this a couple years ago, I would have agreed fully--I initially thought the article displayed the type of bias you're talking about. However, the article now includes extensive sections on the "limits of reductionism", and also much discussion of criticism and alternative perspectives throughout much of the rest of the article, citing many specific examples of scientists and philosophers, especially more modern ones. Maybe, if you're still seeing a bias, you're simply seeing the legacy of the development of western philosophy and modern science--modern science has been developed within a largely reductionist paradigm for several hundred years now, and it's only recently that people have started to see the limits of this approach. Personally, I think this has limited science greatly, and I think many scientists are held back from sometimes obvious discoveries because they are so stuck within the reductionist framework. Perhaps your criticism would be better directed at the academic establishment as a whole, as opposed to this page. I have personally found that many philosophers are stuck on/in the idea of ontological reductionism, and many scientists stuck on reductionism when it comes to causal explanations of just about anything (especially, nowadays, in biology and ecology). But that's just a personal beef of mine and has nothing to do with this page. Cazort (talk) 00:02, 21 November 2008 (UTC)


Does this qualify? "In decision theory, a nonlinear utility function for a quantity such as money can create a situation in which all relevant decisions to be made in a given time period must to be considered simultaneously in order to maximize utility, if all relevant decisions act on utility only through this quantity." —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 07:22, 2 August 2009 (UTC)

Link to Abstraction[edit]

I think having a link to the abstraction page, or some kind of explanation of how reductionism works as an abstraction process could make the article a little more clear. Any opinions on this? (talk) 00:53, 24 November 2009 (UTC)Kentuser

An early precurser to reductionism from[edit]

This could be extremely useful in this article.

Main Entry: Oc·cam's razor Variant(s): also Ock·ham's razor \ˈä-kəmz-\ Function: noun Etymology: William of Occam Date: circa 1837

a scientific and philosophic rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily which is interpreted as requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities —Preceding unsigned comment added by Trappy77 (talkcontribs) 08:55, 12 May 2010 (UTC)

I edited the ontological reduction section. I don't think my edit is "original" research, its just very straightforwardly cleaning up the sentence logically. I don't believe the edit would be controversial but this note is just to prevent a knee-jerk revision... —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 02:52, 22 May 2010 (UTC)

Category theory (under mathematical reductionism)[edit]

Pertaining to the following;

"As an alternative to set theory, others have argued for category theory as a foundation for certain aspects of mathematics."

This is completely wrong. While it is true that standard ZFC set theory cannot attain some aspects of category theory, category theory is in no way an alternative to set theory. Tarski–Grothendieck set theory can be used as the foundations of category theory. Metamath has a whole spiel about it here;

I suggest removing the sentence, and perhaps mentioning TG set theory. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 05:25, 17 November 2010 (UTC)

Proposed merge with Reduction (philosophy)[edit]

I proposed that this article be merged with Reduction (philosophy). See Here for a discussion of the possible merge.--Foobarnix (talk) 22:17, 30 March 2011 (UTC)

Ontological reductionism[edit]

Section 1.3 and section 3 have the same title (Ontological reductionism). They should be reduced to one. - Armin B. Wagner (talk) 13:39, 4 February 2012 (UTC)

metaphysical basis of ontological reductionism[edit]

The article on Reductionism as well as the article on Reduction (philosophy) state that ontological reductionism is "the belief that reality is composed of a minimum number of kinds of entities or substances", a claim which is "usually metaphysical". A short explanation would be appropriate. - Armin B. Wagner (talk) 13:55, 4 February 2012 (UTC)

Merge proposal[edit]

I think fragmentalism and reductionism cover the same ground. Throughout most of the former article, it's made clear that "fragmentalism" is a pejorative term for reductionism. Since Wikipedia articles are about things, not words, having two separate articles is a form of content forkery. I could be misunderstanding the issue, though. If the cognitive psychology meaning is clarified, only a partial merger may be necessary. — Ƶ§œš¹ [ãːɱ ˈfɹ̠ˤʷɪ̃ə̃nlɪ] 18:13, 5 September 2012 (UTC)

  • Support - Fragmentalism and reductionism are two terms for the same concept. Considering "reductionism" is the less pejorative term, Fragmentalism should be merged here. Neelix (talk) 22:54, 23 April 2013 (UTC)

 Done. Nice job, Neelix. — Ƶ§œš¹ [ãːɱ ˈfɹ̠ˤʷɪ̃ə̃nlɪ] 14:39, 25 April 2013 (UTC)

  • Oppose Fragmentalism is a sufficently different concept to reductionism to warrant an article of its own Peter morrell 16:43, 25 April 2013 (UTC)
Okay, What's the difference, exactly? — Ƶ§œš¹ [ãːɱ ˈfɹ̠ˤʷɪ̃ə̃nlɪ] 15:30, 26 April 2013 (UTC)
Fragmentalism is a way of looking at the world and is rooted in the belief that the world is actually composed of parts rather than wholes; it therefore stands in opposition to holism. Reductionism is a shortcut method of understanding things based on a reduction of complex things into simplified models. Reductionism is thus a method of simplifying complex phenomena, while fragmentalism is a belief that all aspects of our world truly are composed of parts rather than wholes. For example, seawater is reduced to various chlorides and sulphates of sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium but in reality it is more than these. For most everyday purposes seawater can be said to be composed of those chemicals, but in reality it is more than just a recipe of certain chemicals mixed together and dissolved in water. It is perhaps more accurately described as a dynamic 'soup' of interacting ions. Any complex solution is like that. To call it a bunch of chlorides and sulphates is not only a false simplification, it is to use a merely static and one-dimensional picture as proxy for a complex and dynamic totality.

Likewise, anatomists contend that the human body consists of skeleton, muscles, organs, blood vessels, nerves, etc. Holistically, this is merely an abbreviated and hugely simplified model that only partly corresponds to a real human body, which is anatomically a much more complex structure than that. A fragmentalist view of the human body would not necessarily contend that the body is composed of muscles, bones, etc but that the apparent view of individual organs and tissues is truly real and that each organ truly is a discrete entity in its own right. In truth, that is an incorrect oversimplification because no organ or tissue in the body exists separately from all others or from the whole body itself.

The chemical analysis of seawater is a good example of reductionism, but by contrast, a fragmentalist view would hold that seawater really is composed of nothing more than a bunch of sulphates and chlorides and that seawater truly is composed of nothing more than that. I doubt a reductionist would make such a claim because they (should) know that their approach is just a method, and their model is but a simplification of a complex system not to be taken too literally. Likewise, a reductionist approach to anatomy is aware that the body is more than a collection of parts, while a fragmentalist would hold that it truly is composed just of parts. In these senses the two are clearly very different positions.

Reductionism is thus more of a method for simplifying the world into cause and effect mechanisms, while fragmentalism is more of a belief about how the world is actually constructed. You can argue that fragmentalism is a conceptual product of an excessive use of and reliance upon the reductionist method. You can argue that the habitual use of reductionism naturally leads to a fragmentalist belief system. In that respect, the two go hand in hand. Therefore, although the two terms are close and appear to cover the same ground, they are subtly different in that one is merely a shortcut method of describing things, while the other is a viewpoint, a belief that complex things really do consist only of simpler parts.

The main problems with reductionism arise from its failure to take into account the wider picture of a field of inquiry. It looks at the pieces and fails to reassemble them into a whole. This was the basis of Rachel Carson's critique of the impact pesticides were having in the early 1960s. Pesticides target unwanted parts of nature--weeds, pests, insects--while ignoring the possible impacts those chemicals can have on other parts of nature such as beneficial insects, soil organisms, aquatic systems, human food chains, etc.

Persistent use of reductionism can then lead to a fragmentalist view, a type of tunnel vision that contends that our world truly is composed of parts that can be regarded as separate entities.

The problem with fragmentalism is that the world is not actually composed of parts at all but that this is just a product of our perception and of the words we use to describe things. Rocks, minerals, seawater, soil and the atmosphere are all in truth complex natural materials that cannot be fully broken down into truly existent parts. In absolute terms, fragmentalism is thus a convenient but a false view of reality. Likewise, a living organism is not truly composed of parts; that is just a way of seeing it and describing it. The tongue or cheek does not exist separate from the mouth or face; in reality, all the parts blend into each other and do not have a separate existence as discrete entities in their own right. In this respect, reductionism is a false method and fragmentalism is a false view of complex things.

In essence, therefore, reductionism is a method of enquiry that reduces complex things into simpler models, while fragmentalism is a belief that the world is actually composed of parts. One is a method and the other is a belief system. I hope that clarifies why I think the two articles should remain separate. The fragmentalism article ideally needs more depth and detail and more citations to illustrate the above points. Apologies fo length. Peter morrell 19:04, 26 April 2013 (UTC)

Boy, I really asked for it. Do you think you can edit the two articles to clarify the distinction? — Ƶ§œš¹ [ãːɱ ˈfɹ̠ˤʷɪ̃ə̃nlɪ] 22:34, 26 April 2013 (UTC)
Yes, I will have a look at how that might be done with citations to avoid accusations of OR. Thanks Peter morrell 05:15, 27 April 2013 (UTC)
"Reductionism" has two definitions; one is the definition you provide for reductionism, the other is the definition you provide for fragmentalism. We can have two separate articles, but both of the articles currently primarily pertain to the first definition and not the second. If we are going to keep the articles separate, the Fragmentalism article will need to incorporate most of the information currently on the Reductionism article and the Reductionism article will need to be stripped to only the second definition information. Neelix (talk) 04:35, 28 April 2013 (UTC)
What you have said does not make sense, please clarify? Fragmentalism is about believing the world to consist of parts. Reductionism is about a simplifying method of making shortcuts about complex phenomena. The current reductionism article already covers this. You need to state more clearly what you think should go in each article. Peter morrell 06:09, 28 April 2013 (UTC)

Whatever the meaning of "Fragmentalism" may be (I assume that Peter Morell can provide a number of quotations from the literature) I am sure that the dispute cannot just be about the question whether you call that what something is composed of its "parts" or its "wholes". It should also be really clear that "Reductionism" does not simply refer to some analytic method. The reductionism article should clearly cover the various connotations of the term, regardless of what some other term might mean, and quite some work needs to be done, so Neelix could just go on and do it (again, regardless of some notion of "Fragmentalism"). Peter Morell should produce references to and quotations from the literature on fragmentalism, so that it can be seen that it actually is a term with some meaning that is not synonymous with "reductionism" which would justify a seperate article. (talk) 09:21, 28 April 2013 (UTC)

Limits of Reductionism - cybernetics and systems theory[edit]

I just found editation 12 November 2007 (User:Cazort) with link to ref.

Disciplines such as cybernetics and systems theory strongly embrace a non-reductionist view of science...

Is this NPOV? Source says e.g. "You cannot have organisms whose internal functioning flouts the rules of physics and chemistry.".

I'm a bit familiar with Engineering cybernetics, Control theory (see Modern control theory and Controllability and observability paragraphs), State space representation and this flavour of cybernetics is IMHO reductionist (not non-reductionist). --mj41 (talk) 22:25, 4 January 2013 (UTC)

Hmm, the cited source is about as direct as it can get in support of this statement. Quote: "Systems theory has always taken an anti-reductionist stance, noting that the whole is more than the sum of the parts" and "Downward causation can be defined as a converse of the reductionist principle above". The quote in your source does not seem to provide any contradiction to the idea that these fields are non-reductionist in approach--merely that they are consistent with (and constrained by) laws of physics and chemistry, most of which are understood through reductionistic means. I think it's more a question of what features the fields look at. If you think my wording is overstatement, I would not object to you removing the word "strongly", as I think it is unnecessary. I may actually do this myself. Cazort (talk) 23:10, 4 January 2013 (UTC)
I just removed the word "strongly". I still think, however, that there's no contradiction with this source. There may, however, be multiple viewpoints on this issue. If you can find other sources describing aspects of cybernetics and systems theory that are reductionist, then I think this would help to make this more NPOV. The statement that I introduced does only represent one perspective. Cazort (talk) 23:12, 4 January 2013 (UTC)
Thanks. Source is about 'Downward Causation' - without any link to cybernetics. So maybe only link to systems theory should remain? mj41 (talk) 23:46, 4 January 2013 (UTC)

Removal of Rewrite tag[edit]

In this edit Anonymous user attached a rewrite tag to the article without any guidance on the Talk page. In this edit Sunrise moved the tag to the top of the page without further comment. IMO, if this tag is to mean something, it needs to be clarified on this Talk page just what the objections are. I have therefore removed this tag. Brews ohare (talk) 16:26, 13 March 2015 (UTC)

I agree the tag is spurious ----Snowded TALK 13:18, 16 March 2015 (UTC)

Extreme form[edit]

I'm not sure that a Philosophy of Biology by a single author can be used to justify a general statement about extreme (itself a judgement mental phrase)) and non-extreme versions. We need something that addresses Philosophy a a whole to justify that type of change to the lede----Snowded TALK 19:43, 17 March 2015 (UTC)

The term extreme is not meant to be judgmental of reductionism, but to indicate a limiting form of reductionism that says a whole system is "nothing but" the sum of its parts, a statement which virtually no-one subscribes to. Of course, examples abound of abstractions that can describe a system on an abstract higher level with great clarity (because the forest is presented not the trees), while the concepts of the higher abstraction are reducible to a lower level of finer detail (the trees) if more detail is required. An extended quote from Godfrey-Smith's textbook in favor of a more relaxed view of reductionism is presented in the following thread. Brews ohare (talk) 23:31, 17 March 2015 (UTC)
By the way, the source already present in this article, John Polkinghorne's Reductionism in the Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia, also takes exception to the "nothing but" characterization. Brews ohare (talk) 00:11, 18 March 2015 (UTC)

Extended quote from Godfrey-Smith[edit]

Below is an extended quotation from Godfrey-Smith's Philosophy of Biology, which can be read first-hand using Amazons's look-inside feature:

"This kind of work is "reductionist" in a low-key sense of that term: the properties of whole systems are explained in terms of the properties of their parts, and how those parts are put together. Reductionism is sometimes associated with the idea that a whole system is "nothing but" its lower-lever parts, but this "nothing but" talk is usually quite misleading. A living system may be entirely composed out of a collection of parts, but the system will have features that none of the parts have. Rather than showing that the higher level activities do not exist, the point of mechanical explanation is usually showing how the higher-level features arise from the parts."
— Peter Godfrey-Smith: Philosophy of Biology, Chapter 2: Laws, Mechanisms, and Models, page 16

I have placed this excerpt here for the benefit of Snowded, who suspects the quote in the Intro was taken out of context. Brews ohare (talk) 23:23, 17 March 2015 (UTC)

I said two thing (i) I wanted to see the full quote and (ii) I'm not sure we can define the term from a book on the Philosophy of Bilogy, we need something more generic. The quote in NO WAY WHATSOEVER supports you use of pejorative language. Also, please do not assume because you have provided what you think is an answer on the talk page it means that you can revert the article. You are meant to WAIT for agreement. Lets see if one of the mainline summaries of philosophy as a whole supports this (or some other change) before we make it please. ----Snowded TALK 07:05, 18 March 2015 (UTC)
You have the full quote and three (3) sources supporting it. There is zero support for the "nothing but" formulation. There is no need to wait until somebody shows up with an 'opinion' about this matter. I have no idea at all of what I have said is pejorative. I think you are just annoyed that no source supports your actions here. Brews ohare (talk) 14:03, 18 March 2015 (UTC)
You have an opinion Brews, you need to learn that other people have them as well. If you bother to check I have said that I don't think you can change the lede to cover the whole of reductionism from one aspect of philosophy. You are as ever simply searching for sources to back an opinion rather than thinking about the nature of those sources and their position in a field as a whole. And yet again, rather than seeking agreement on the talk page you are simply imposing your view. I'm going to look at this again on Friday when I get home, For the moment take notice your changes are disputed as they stand and I reserver the right to revert them on Friday if I can't find a more appropriate form of words from a better source. Also I'm not getting back into and edit war over multiple articles with you. So if you can't learn to work on the talk page I'm going to formulate a proposal as to how to handle interactions with you at ANI ----Snowded TALK 16:28, 18 March 2015 (UTC)
Snowded: What I have provided is the opinion of multiple reliable sources. If you have sources with different views, bring them forward. You have no right to revert sourced opinion and replace it with unsupported halftruth based upon scuttlebutt, apparently. Brews ohare (talk) 20:36, 18 March 2015 (UTC)
Inasmuch as the sources cited mention the "nothing but" viewpoint in order to disclaim it, I'd guess there are sources that use this formulation. Some of them may show up in this Google Book search. Citing such opinion would make the article more useful, but a NPOV would demand the approach discounting this restrictive definition be presented. Maybe it's worth pointing out that restricting the topic to a narrow "nothing but" definition is tantamount to relegating reductionism to the trash bin of archaic concepts. Brews ohare (talk) 15:14, 19 March 2015 (UTC)
You've provided a source Brews and I have (i) questioned it and (ii) said I will check third party sources tomorrow when I am home You are not the arbitration of what is or is not sourced data I'm afraid. We've been through this before and you have to gain consensus rather than satisfy yourself ----Snowded TALK 17:43, 19 March 2015 (UTC)
Consensus has nothing to do with it. What reliable sources have to say are what goes in the article. If you have additional views that are sourced, put them in with citations. Brews ohare (talk) 23:49, 19 March 2015 (UTC)
Your opening sentence illustrates the problem you have working with other editors. The Issue I raised is (i) your summary of the source, (ii) if that source is valid for the field as a whole. You cannot simply say that you don't accept the argument and put your preferred version in without the agreement of other editors. It is not a matter of my adding material, but whether I accept the material you have added. That I will check shortly and then will amend the article or revert your changes. As it stands the excerpt you have given is a commentary on reductionism in the context of biology, it is not a definition of the field. You over rely on on line sources if I may make a general comment. If I revert the changes you will have to start a RFC or edit war. ----Snowded TALK 06:04, 20 March 2015 (UTC)
Snowded: Your thinking is incomplete. There is an evolution involved in the progress of a WP article. It involves an initial formulation by WP editors that is a summary of what sources say that they have discovered. This initial form is made more encompassing and/or deeper by the discovery of additional sources that make the article more comprehensive. This process is underway here. It's continuation does not proceed as you imagine, which if I understand you, is to revert the presentation of sourced material on the basis of the unsourced personal opinion of a WP editor who thinks the selected sources are inadequate, but does not support that opinion with other sources, but based solely upon some abstract argument that the selected sources are insufficiently general, and that therefore their content should be suppressed entirely until better credentialed sources can be found. A middle ground might be to preface the presented material with some qualifier such as, in this instance: "According to philosophers concerned with reductionism in biology the following opinions are offered..." That preamble to this work would be consistent with the evolution of the artcle, unlike the effects of reversion of this material entirely in favor of an unsourced view that actually is explicitly contradicted by the sources available. However, in fact, the sources available that present the views you dispute are not parochial and limited to philosophers of biology. Brews ohare (talk) 05:50, 21 March 2015 (UTC)

Well, I agree with Brews about the sources. On the other hand, I agree with Snowded that Brews' statement that "[c]onsensus has nothing to do with it" is absolutely wrong. Frenchmalawi (talk) 14:23, 3 April 2015 (UTC)


When I checked the 'meta sources' they do not support the distinction implied in Brew's recent changes. Honderich (which is the most recent one I have access to) basically says it is one of the most used and abused terms used in Philosophy. He then makes a three part division between Ontological, Methodological and Theory based reductionism. Blackburn again does not make a strong/weak distinction and generally supports Honderich with some useful examples of how reductionism manifests itself in philosophy. My feeling is that summarising these two sources which talk about the field as a whole would be the best way to revise the lede. Comments? ----Snowded TALK 06:53, 20 March 2015 (UTC)

Naturally, sourced opinion is valuable. The courtesy of some links to an accessible version of this work or an extended verbatim quote to ensure that the authors' intent is faithfully represented also would be helpful. Brews ohare (talk) 12:24, 20 March 2015 (UTC)
Your summary of this work introduces additional detail about reductionism, but it does not suggest a contradiction of the sources already cited, nor an endorsement of the "nothing but" definition. Brews ohare (talk) 12:29, 20 March 2015 (UTC)
Neither source supports a simple division between extreme and weak (or any variant thereof). There is no comparison in terms of source between a general encyclopaedia on the field as a whole and a commentary in the context of one application of the subject in biology. Neither source is available on line in common with most such sources. I could have checked in a library but as it happens (as this is my subject) I have invested in copies for my own library. I'll edit with a summary and reference and if you want I'll happily take a picture of the entry and email it to you if you want. ----Snowded TALK 14:04, 20 March 2015 (UTC)
Great; do that please. Brews ohare (talk) 14:57, 20 March 2015 (UTC)
You might notice that Polkinghorne (cited) also splits 'reductionism' into several divisions, among them methodological and conceptual. He explicitly disclaims the "nothing but" formulation.
The intent of the present text is not a division into strong and weak reductionism. The main point is that reductionism suggests the behavior of the whole involves phenomena that are readily grasped without invoking a detailed explanation in terms of basic constituents, using concepts only indirectly related to the findamental constituents. Many examples can be drawn from comparisons between thermodynamics and kinetic theory. Often cited examples are the concepts of temperature and entropy which have an interpretation in terms of atoms or molecules, but there is no need for that detail at the level where thermodynamics operates, and these concepts are statistical measures at the atomic level. The "nothing but" approach can be misleading by underplaying this aspect. Brews ohare (talk) 21:15, 20 March 2015 (UTC)
You also might note that the article has a subsection Types where reductionism is broken down into varieties. Your sources might fit well in providing citations for these subsections. Nagel (pp.4,5 speaks of psychophysical reductionism (the attempted reduction of psychological phenomena to physics and chemistry), as do others and physico-chemical reductionism (the attempted reduction of biology to physics and chemistry), again as do others. Brews ohare (talk) 04:45, 21 March 2015 (UTC)
I'm more concerned with the lede - Ruse is referenced in Honderich by the way in the context of reductionism in biology which further makes my point. ----Snowded TALK 09:29, 21 March 2015 (UTC)
Snowded:I have provided full citation information for the sources you mention. I also have rewritten your version of wht they say to be what I consider to be a more accurate presentation. And I have restored much of the lede you removed, which appears to me to be entirely legitimate and well-sourced. If you think Polkinghorne, Jones, Godfrey-Smith, and the other sources cited are somehow opposed to Ruse and Honderich, I see no evidence that that is the case, nor that these authors' views are somehow nonrepresentative and peculiar to the philosophy of biology. Brews ohare (talk) 16:47, 21 March 2015 (UTC)
You are cherry picking sources from science rather than from the field as a whole. The Polkinghorne book is one is a web site on science and religion from the 'Pontifical University of the Holy Cross' and Ruse is in Biology. The Jones book again from page one (The Age of Reductionism) takes a science perspective. Sorry but we have to give preference to third party reviews of the field as a whole in providing a primary definition. Introducing 'complex' systems which has a specific meaning in science is also problematic. Not only that your sources do not support the distinction between something which is 'oversimplified and contested form' (your evaluation) and a strong form. You might want to bring that material back into the section on science but it does not belong in the lede. ----Snowded TALK 17:06, 21 March 2015 (UTC)
I've rearranged and reworded the lede to make clear the scientific orientation of some sources cited. The "oversimplified and sometimes contested" description of the "nothing but" formulation is beyond dispute and thoroughly sourced. The word 'complex' has been removed. Brews ohare (talk) 17:42, 21 March 2015 (UTC)
Looks OK. Not sure about the use of footnotes to add commentary but will look at that tomorrow ----Snowded TALK 19:09, 21 March 2015 (UTC)

User:Brews ohare and User:Snowded: this is the sort of interaction that I commend you both on. Teasing things out and improving the article. I hate the idea of either of you being blocked off Wikipedia or something like that. WP is the looser when that happens. Frenchmalawi (talk) 14:26, 3 April 2015 (UTC)

Article is a hodgepodge[edit]

I've reordered subsections, put headers of same construction at the same level. However this article is a mess. Brews ohare (talk) 18:57, 21 March 2015 (UTC)

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Assessment comment[edit]

The comment(s) below were originally left at Talk:Reductionism/Comments, and are posted here for posterity. Following several discussions in past years, these subpages are now deprecated. The comments may be irrelevant or outdated; if so, please feel free to remove this section.

needs inline citations and perhaps some more sections Snailwalker

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