Reductio ad absurdum

atomThere’s a common belief that science is all about reductionism. It’s assumed that the only way to explain a phenomenon scientifically is by dissecting it until we get to the smallest, most fundamental component, and that is the explanation. Non-scientists sometimes use this as a stick to beat science, but it’s a misunderstanding or fallacy. Not all scientific explanations are reductionist.

Consider the explanation of how a computer works. You could explain that a computer runs programs that are lists of instructions. The programs and the data they use are encoded in binary bits. These bits are stored in digital circuits. The circuits are made from tiny transistors. The transistors are etched in silicon. The way the transistors work is explained ultimately by quantum physics.

None of this helps to understand how a computer plays chess. To explain this, we need to understand concepts like “black knight” and “checkmate”, none of which you’ll find in a book on computers. So a reductionist approach isn’t the right way to explain how a chess computer works, just as biology won’t help you to understand Wordsworth’s thoughts about daffodils.

Explaining the world requires explanations at an appropriate level of complexity, otherwise you’ll miss the point entirely. And since science explains the world, it follows that science offers a hierarchy of explanations at different conceptual levels.

Reductionism isn’t more fundamental than any other level of explanation. This is a fallacy.

So if you dismiss science as being unable to explain the world, it’s perhaps your understanding of science that is faulty, not the subject itself.


6 responses to “Reductio ad absurdum

  1. Nice Steve! You anticipate a post I intend to write on “Scale”. Science only asks that we try to expand our understanding. It doesn’t mean we understand everything right now down to the brass tacks. Newton’s laws of motion worked quite well for centuries. It didn’t matter that these laws were just averages of what was happening at the atomic scale.

  2. Thanks Craig, I look forward to reading your post.

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  5. You need to explain this obvious truth to Sam Harris who recently said

    Does the fact that we cannot predict the behavior of chickens or fledgling democracies on the basis of quantum mechanics mean that those higher-level phenomena are something other than their underlying physics? I would vote “no” here…
    and believes that studying neurons can help to answer moral questions.

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