Reductionism

My friend Dr. Randy Isaac read my recent post about emergence and got in touch with me about it. Randy recently retired from a long stint as the Executive Director of the American Scientific Affiliation. A physical scientist and a pretty brilliant guy, Randy is the archetype of the perfect blend of science and faith. We became friends years ago, when I joined ASA and Randy often came to the Washington DC meetings.

As it turns out, Randy is writing a review for the ASA journal (PSCF) of a book by the famous physicist George Ellis that has a bearing on the subject of emergence. The review will appear in the June issue of the journal, and we will discuss  it here when it appears. Ellis has written extensively on cosmology, theoretical physics and the nature of reality. His new book is titled How Can Physics Underlie the Mind? Top-Down Causation in the Human Context.

While I don’t have the book yet, the first chapter and contents are available on Amazon. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter:

ellis-quote

Reductionism is the principle that all phenomena can be traced to lower level components, so that an object can be “reduced” to the sum of the materials that make it up, and each such component can be further reduced to its component molecules and atoms and then particles  Reductionism is often  an important part of atheistic philosophy, since it leaves no room for anything other than what we can measure and describe. But one need not be a theist to reject reductionism, as is demonstrated in Ellis work.

Here are a couple of blurbs for the book, written by people I know. Both are leaders in the Christian/science dialog:

AEG

ALI also came across a video of Ellis speaking at a symposium on causality, which I think gives a pretty good summary of his views (although it moves very quickly).

Ellis speaks of emergence as something apart from the reductionist laws of nature we are familiar with, but the ideas are scientific, with no reference to God or  supernatural forces.  He makes a strong case that the emergent complexity we see everywhere we look is not readily accountable by the reductionist paradigm of rational materialism as we know it. I think it is important to hear this from such an authority on the physics of the universe.

There will be another post on emergence once Randy’s review is published – and if we are lucky, we might get a guest post directly from him. And after I have read and hopefully understood (at least part of) Ellis’ book, I might have more to say about reductionism as well.

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5 Responses to Reductionism

  1. resonate47 says:

    I saw a bit of Dr. Isaac’s review back in December on his blog. Looks exciting. Incidentally, I saw something recently in Quanta magazine about a new way researchers are approaching particle physics that is not reductionist. Not to say that the entire science community is going to abandon reductionist thinking, or that the approach that the article was talking about was even correct, but I guess it’s refreshing to see that yet again, we are looking at so many mysteries in the universe and things are never so cut and dry, boring and meaningless as some like to suggest. A friend of mine once suggested that maybe even Heaven won’t be as simple as we think sometimes; that maybe after this life and when we’re in the new creation, God will have much larger journeys for us to embark on. I like that idea very much. Whatever the case, I’m thankful that His Love holds it all together in perfect harmony.
    God Bless.

    • Thanks Ethan. I was just re reading parts of Paul Davies book The Goldilocks Enigma, and I think its fair to say that a lot of physicists have “graduated” away from reductionism. But not as many biologists, and especially very few philosophical natural materialists (who are not actually scientists). And of course, reductionism has been embraced by the new Atheists, and those who follow the ideas of scientism. Real scientific thinkers like Davies, Wheeler, Ellis, (and many others) know better. In biology, we have a few voices (fairly faint so far) like Conway Morris, A. Wagner, and many of the Third Way or EES proponents who oppose the reductionist view of gene centrism, but that will be the subject of an upcoming blog post. At least its in an area I know something about.

  2. SheilaDeeth says:

    Loved the video. Thank you.

  3. Enjoyed the Ellis video also. Nice thing about the videos, you can pause on the chart if its moving too fast.

    Something I like to say is that physics can explain the apple falling on Newton’s head, but it cannot explain why the apple showed up in Johnny’s lunchbox, 50 miles from the tree.

    There are three levels of causation in play. Physics can only explain “passive” behavior. Living organisms behave “purposefully” to survive, thrive, and reproduce. And intelligent species behave “deliberately”, imagining alternative ways of accomplishing this purpose of living, evaluating their options, and choosing for themselves which option to employ.

    It’s not that the laws of physics are ever broken, but they simply do not cover everything. For example, the car stopping at the red light can only be explained by the social laws that govern driving. The laws of physics are employed, but the purpose for which they are employed only exists at the social level of organization.

    • Thanks for the great comment, Marvin. And of course I agree with you about purpose in biology. I dont know if you have seen my recent paper in Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith. If you go to the recent post called “Is there Purpose in Life” you will find links to it. The link near the bottom is accessible for everybody. I would love to get your reactions to it.

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