Anti-reductionism as complementary, rather than contradictory

by ImNotAsSmartAsIThinK6 min read27th May 201610 comments

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Epistemic Status: confused & unlikely

Author's note: the central claim of this article I now believe is confused, and mostly inaccurate. More precisely (in response to a comment by ChristianKl)

>Whose idea of reductionism are you criticising? I think your post could get more useful by being more clear about the idea you want to challenge.

I think this is closest I get to having a "Definiton 3.4.1" in my post

"...the other reductionism I mentioned, the 'big thing = small thing + small thing' one..."

Essentially, the claim is that to accurately explain reality, non-reductionist explanations aren't always *wrong*. 

The confusion, however, that I realized elsewhere in the thread, is that I conflate 'historical explanation' with 'predictive explanation'. Good predictive explanation will almost always be reductionist, because, as it says on the tin, big are made of smaller things. Good historical explanations, though, will be contra-reductionist, they'll explain phenomena in terms of its relation to the environment. Consider evolution; the genes seem to be explained non-reductionistically because their presence or absence is determined by its effect on the environment i.e. whether its fit, so the explanation for how it got there necessarily includes complex things because they cause it.

>Apart from that I don't know what you mean with theory in "Reductionism is a philosophy, not a theory." As a result on using a bunch of terms where I don't know exactly what you mean it's hard to follow your argument.

Artifact of confusion;  if contra-reductionism is a valid platform for explanation, then the value of reductionism isn't constative -- that is, it isn't about whether it's true or false, but something at the meta-level, rather than the object level. The antecedent is no longer believed, so now I do not believe the consequent.

The conceit I had by calling it a philosophy, or more accurately, a perspective, is essentially that you have a dataset, then you can apply a 'reductionist' filter on it to get reductionist explanations and a 'contra-reductionist' filter to get contra explanations. This was a confusion; and only seemed reasonable because I I was treating the two type of explanation -- historical and predictive -- as somehow equivalent, which I now know to be mistaken.

 

Reductionism is usually thought of as the assertion that the sum of the parts equal the whole. Or, a bit more polemically, that reductionist explanations more meaningful, proper, or [insert descriptor laced with postive affect]. It's certainly appealing, you could even say it seems reality prefers these types of explanation. The facts of biology can be attributed to the effects of chemistry, the reactions of chemistry can be attributed to the interplay of atoms, and so on.

But this is conflating what is seen with the perspective itself; I see a jelly donut therefore I am a jelly donut is not a valid inference. Reductionism is a way of thinking about facts, but it is not the facts themselves. Reductionism is a philosophy, not a theory. The closest thing to an testable prediction it makes it what could be termed an anti-prediction.

Another confusion concerns the alternatives to reductionism. The salient instance of anti-reduction tends to be some holist quantum spirituality woo, but I contend this is more of a weak man than anything. To alleviate any confusion, I'll just refer to my proposed notion as 'contra-reductionism'.

Earlier, I mentioned reductionism makes no meaningful predictions. To clarify this, I'll distinguish from a kind a diminutive motte of reductionism which may or may not actually exist outside my own mind, (and which truly is just a species of causality, broadly construed). In broad strokes, this reductionism 'reduces' a phenomena to the sum of it's causes, as opposed to its parts. This is the kind of reductionist explanation that treats evolution as a reductionist explanation, indeed it treats almost any model which isn't strictly random as 'reductionist'. The other referent would be reductionism as the belief that "big things are made of a smaller things, and complex things are made of simpler things". 

It's is the former kind of reductionism that makes what I labeled an anti-prediction, the core of this argument is simply that reductionist is about causality; specifically, it qualifies what types of causes should even be considered meaningful or well-founded or simply, worth thinking about. If you broaden the net sufficiently, causality is a concept which even makes sense to apply to mathematical abstraction completely unrooted in any kind of time. That is the interventionist account of causality essentially boils it down to 'what levers could we have pulled to make something not happen', which perfectly translates to maths, see, for instance, reductio ad absurdum arguments.

But I digress. This diminutive reductionism here is simply the belief that things can be reduced to their causes, which is on par with defining transhumanism as 'simplified humanism' in the category of useless philosophical mottes. In short, this is quite literally an assertion of no substance, and isn't even worth giving a name.

Now that I've finished attacking straw men, the other reductionism I mentioned, the 'big thing = small thing + small thing' one, is also flawed, albeit useful nonetheless.

This can be illustrated by the example of evolution I mentioned: An evolutionary explanation is actually anti-reductionist; it explains the placement of nucleotides in terms of mathematics like inclusive genetic fitness and complexities like population ecology. Put bluntly, the there is little object-level difference between explaining genes sequences with evolution and explaining weather with pantheons of gods (there is meta-level difference; i.e. one is accurate). Put less controversially, this is explicitly non-reductionistic; relatively simple things (the genetic sequence of a creature) are explained in the language of things far more complex (population and environment dynamics over the course of billions of years). If this is your reductionism, all it does is encapsulate the ontology of universe-space, or more evocatively, it's a logic that doesn't -- couldn't -- tell you where you live, because doesn't change wherever you may go.

Another situation where reductionism  and contra-reductionism give different answers is an example cribbed from David Deutsch. It's possible to set up dominos so that they compute an algorithm which decides the primality of 631. How would you explain a a positive result?

The reductionist explanation is approximately: "the domino remains standing because the one behind it didn't fall over", and so on with variation such as "that domino didn't fall over because the one behind it was knockovered sideways". The contra-reductionist explanation is "that domino didn't fall over "because 631 is prime". Each one is 'useful' depending on whether you are concerned with the mechanics of the domino computer or the theory.

You might detect something in these passages -- that while I slough off any pretense of reductionism, glorious (philosophical) materialism remains a kind of true north in my analysis. This is my thesis. My contra-reductionism isn't non-materialistic, it's merely a perspective inversion of the sort highlighted by a figure/ground illusion. Reductionism defines -- reduces -- objects by pointing to their constituents. A mechanism functions because its components function. A big thing of small things. Quasi-reductionism  does the opposite, it defined objects by their impact on other objects, "[A] tree is only a tree in the shade it gives to the ground below, to the relationship of wind to branch and air to leaf." I don't mean this in a spiritual way, naturally (no pun intended). I am merely defining objects externally rather than internally. At the core, the rose is still a rose, the sum is still normality.

If I had to give a short, pithy summation of this post, the core is simply that, like all systematized notions of truth or meaningfulness, reductionism collapses in degenerate cases where it fails to be useful or give the right answer. Contra-reductionism isn't a improvement or a replacement, but a alternative formulation in a conceptual monoculture, which happens to give right answer sometimes.

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All models are wrong, some models are useful.

Reductionism is wrong only in cases where it doesn't reduce far enough, or when computation limits one's ability to work the very large number of factors that make up our macro experiences. For these reasons, some amount of higher-level modeling is needed, to gloss over the underlying math.

This does NOT mean that the big thing is anything other than the sum of small things. It just means there are too many small things to compute over, so it's easier, and gives good-enough results to treat them as a big thing.

Your examples are not of reductionist failing, but of a poor choice of modeling level. Evolutionary explanations that include inclusive genetic fitness and population ecology is already non-reductionist explanation. Evolutionary explanations that start with individual cell biology, random combination and mutation, and 10^15 or so specific deaths are probably reductionist enough for most purposes.

At least this tells me I didn't make a silly mistake in my post. Thank you for the feedback.

As for your objections,

All models are wrong, some models are useful.

exactly captures my conceit. Reductionism is correct in the sense that is, in some sense, closer to reality than anti- or contra-reductionism. Likely in a similar sense that machine code is closer to the reality of a physical computation than a .cpp file, though the analogy isn't exact, for reasons that should become clear.

I'm typing this on a laptop, which is a intricate amalgam of various kinds of atoms. Hypothetically, you could explain the positioning of the atoms in terms of dense quantum mechanical computations (or a more accurate physical theory, which would exist ex hypothesi), and/or we could explain it in terms of economics, computer science and the vagaries of my life. The former strictly contains more information than the latter, and subsumes the latter to the extend that it represents reality and contradicts it to the extend it's misleading.

At an objective level, then, the strictly reductionist theory wins on merit.

Reductionism functions neatly to explain reality-in-general, and even to explain certain orderly systems that submit to a reductionist analysis. If you want completeness, reductionism will give you completeness, at the limit. But sometimes, a simple explanation is nice. It'd be convenient to compress, to explain evolution in abstract terms.

The compression will be lossy, because we don't actually have access to reality's dataset. But lossy data is okay, and more okay to more casual the ends. Pop science books are very lossy, and are sufficient for delivering a certain type of entertainment. A full reprinting of a paper's collected data is about as lossless as we tend to get.

A lossless explanation is reductionist, and centribus paribus, we ought to go with the reductionist explanation. Given a choice between a less lossy, very complex explanation and a lossy, but simple explanation, you should probably go gather more data. But failing that, you should go with one that suits your purposes. A job where every significant bit digit of accuracy matters chooses the first, as an example.

A lossless explanation is reductionist

Isn't that what people mean when they say reductionism is right?

There are two things you could mean when you say 'reductionism is right'. That reality is reductionist in the "big thing = small thing + small thing" sense, or that reductionist explanations are better by fiat.

Reality is probably reductionist. I won't assign perfect certainty, but reductionist reality is simpler than magical reality.

As it currently stands, we don't have a complete theory of reality, so the only criteria we can judge theories is that they 1) are accurate, 2) are simple.

I am not arguing about the rightness or wrongness of reductionism. Reductionism and contra-reductionism are containers, and they contain certain classes of explanations. Contra-reductionism conatins historical explanations, explaining the state of things by the interactions with outside forces, and reductionism contains predictive explanations, explaining the future behavior in terms of internal forces.

Whose idea of reductionism are you criticising? I think your post could get more useful by being more clear about the idea you want to challenge.

I also get the feeling that use bailey in a context where motte would be the right word.

Apart from that I don't know what you mean with theory in "Reductionism is a philosophy, not a theory." As a result on using a bunch of terms where I don't know exactly what you mean it's hard to follow your argument.

Whose idea of reductionism are you criticising? I think your post could get more useful by being more clear about the idea you want to challenge.

Hmm.

I think this is closest I get to having a "Definiton 3.4.1" in my post

...the other reductionism I mentioned, the 'big thing = small thing + small thing' one...

Essentially, the claim is that to accurately explain reality, non-reductionist explanations aren't always wrong.

The confusion, however, that I realized elsewhere in the thread, is that I conflate 'historical explanation' with 'predictive explanation'. Good predictive explanation will almost always be reductionist, because, as it says on the tin, big are made of smaller things. Good historical explanations, though, will be contra-reductionist, they'll explain phenomena in terms of its relation to the environment. Consider evolution; the genes seem to be explained non-reductionistically because their presence or absence is determined by it effect on the environment i.e. whether its fit, so the explanation for how it got there necessarily includes complex things because they cause it.

I also get the feeling that use bailey in a context where motte would be the right word.

Right you are. Pretty embarrassing, really.

I've edited the OP with this in mind, but it somewhat pointless as the thesis is no longer supported IMO.

Apart from that I don't know what you mean with theory in "Reductionism is a philosophy, not a theory." As a result on using a bunch of terms where I don't know exactly what you mean it's hard to follow your argument.

Artifact of confusion; if contra-reductionism is a valid platform for explanation, then the value of reductionism isn't constative -- that is, it isn't about whether it's true or false, but something at the meta-level, rather than the object level. The antecedent is no longer believed, so now I do not believe the consequent.

The conceit I had by calling it a philosophy, or more accurately, a perspective, is essentially that you have a dataset, then you can apply a 'reductionist' filter on it to get reductionist explanations and a 'contra-reductionist' filter to get contra explanations. This was a confusion; and only seemed reasonable because I I was treating the two type of explanation -- historical and predictive -- as somehow equivalent, which I now know to be mistaken.


P.S, I've added most of this comment to the OP so future readers know my revised opinion on the accuracy of this post. If you object to this tell me.

...the other reductionism I mentioned, the 'big thing = small thing + small thing' one...

There the open question of what + means.

I've added most of this comment to the OP so future readers know my revised opinion on the accuracy of this post.

To me your post didn't feel inaccurate but confused. A mix of saying trival things and throwing around terms where I don't know exactly what you mean and I'm not sure whether you have thought about what you mean exactly either.

Good predictive explanation will almost always be reductionist, because, as it says on the tin, big are made of smaller things.

Cognitive psychologists generally make better predicitons about human behavior than neuroscientists. Here it seems to me like you think about philosophy as distinct from empirical reality. I get the impression that you try to understand reductionism without seeing how it's actually applied and not applied in reality.

You can also make great predicions on believes that the function of the heart is pumping blood even if there are no "function-atoms" around.

Cognitive psychologists generally make better predicitons about human behavior than neuroscientists.

I grant you that; my assertion was one of type, not of degree. A predictive explanation will generally (yes, I am retracting my 'almost always' quantifier) be reductionist, but this a very different statement than the most reductionist explanation will be the best.

Here it seems to me like you think about philosophy as distinct from empirical reality.

Less 'distinct' and more 'abstracted'. The put it as pithy (and oversimplified) as possible, empiricism is about what is (probably) true, philosophy is about about what is (probably) necessarily true.

I could be more precise and accurate about my own thoughts here, but philosophy is one of those terms where if you ask ten different people you'll get twelve different answers. The relation between philosophy and empirical reality depends on what 'philosophy' is.

To me your post didn't feel inaccurate but confused.

I think confusion is inaccuracy at the meta level.

And besides that, I actually felt when writing that post that I was repeating 'I was confused' to the point of parody. Illusion of transparency, I suppose.

A mix of saying trival things and throwing around terms where I don't know exactly what you mean

I'm for being ambiguous, but you'll have be more precise about what I'm being ambiguous about. I can't be clear about my terminology without knowing where I'm being unclear.

I'm not sure whether you have thought about what you mean exactly either.

I don't think it's worth debating what I meant when I don't mean it anymore.

You can also make great predicions on believes that the function of the heart is pumping blood even if there are no "function-atoms" around.

It's not clear what you're saying here. If you're talking about why the heart pumps blood instead of doing something else, that requires a historical explanation, a 'why is it like this instead of like that' and presumes the heart was optimized for something, and would have been optimized for something else if something had willed it.

If this is what you're saying then yeah, the explanation will not be reductionist.

If you're saying you can predict the broad strokes of what the heart will do without reducing all the way to the level of 'function atoms' then I completely agree. The space of explanations of reality at the level of atoms is large enough that even if most of them don't even vaguely resemble reality there still isn't enough motivation or information to exhaust the search space. Incomplete reductions are fine until there's motivations for deeper explanations.

If you weren't saying either of these things, then I've misunderstood you.

This can be illustrated by the example of evolution I mentioned: An evolutionary explanation is actually anti-reductionist; it explains the placement of nucleotides in terms of mathematics like inclusive genetic fitness and complexities like population ecology.

This doesn't acknowledge the other things explained on the same grounds. It's a good argument if the principles were invented for the single case you're explaining, but here they're universal. If you want to include inclusive genetic fitness in the complexity of the explanation, I think you need to include everything it's used for in the complexity of what's being explained.

That's what I mean by complexity, yeah.

I don't know if I made this was clear, but the point I make is independent of what high level principles explain thing, only that they are high level. The ancestors that competed across history to produce the organism of interest are not small parts making up a big thing, unless you subscribe to causal reductionism where you use causes instead of internal moving parts. But I don't like calling this reductionism (out even a theory, really) because it's, as I said, a species of causality, broadly construed.