Shocked by Reductionism

Recently I watched a portion of a debate between an atheist and Dinesh De Souza in the wake of the Sean Carroll debate.
The atheist team member (who I thought was Sean himself) stated that thoughts are imaginary. They arise from chemical phenomena in the neuron but themselves are imaginary, i.e., do not exist. We only think they exist, but they actually do not. In other words, they are ontologically imaginary.

To me this has huge implications. It implies that minds are imaginary (and do not really exist). The trappings of minds, such as love and justice and morality and meaning are also imaginary. Personality does not exist. What a convenient way to get rid of the ultimate personality we call God. It is a very convenient solution to an atheists problem set! Define God as non-existent.

One problem: this means people also not exist! They are just chemical reactions.

I thought at the time, how does one who believes this way describe himself? Is he a reductionist? Is that his philosophy? Hmmm.

I want to touch briefly on reductionism. Here is a quote from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy about Reductionism.


Reductionists are those who take one theory or phenomenon to be reducible to some other theory or phenomenon. For example, a reductionist regarding mathematics might take any given mathematical theory to be reducible to logic or set theory.

Or, a reductionist about biological entities like cells might take such entities to be reducible to collections of physico-chemical entities like atoms and molecules. The type of reductionism that is currently of most interest in metaphysics and philosophy of mind involves the claim that all sciences are reducible to physics. This is usually taken to entail that all phenomena (including mental phenomena like consciousness) are identical to physical phenomena.

The bulk of this article will discuss this latter understanding of reductionism.

This definition (in grey) certainly does describe the position of the atheist person debating Dinesh. It was presented as the position of modern physicists when arguing against Dinesh’s theism.

I do not think reductionism is the position taken by most physicists, and this is why the claim surprised me.

There is a related belief: scientific materialism.

Scientific materialist say “if a phenomena is not part of the physical world of matter and energy then the phenomena is not REAL. I.E., does not ontologically exist. It exists only as a concept (which of course is held by an imaginary non-existing entity we call a mind). This is what they mean by “imaginary”.

Who can question the word of a physicist?

What about John Polkinghorne? John Charlton Polkinghorne KBE FRS (16 October 1930 – 9 March 2021) was an English theoretical physicisttheologian, and Anglican priest.

*GASP* A “theist”. See some of what PolkingHorne has to say in his FAQ pages.

Or Stephen M Barr? Stephen Matthew Barr[1] (born November 28, 1953) is an American physicist who is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Delaware.[2] A member of its Bartol Research Institute, Barr does research in theoretical particle physics and cosmology. In 2011, he was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society, the citation reading “for original contributions to grand unified theories, CP violation, and baryogenesis.”[3]

*GASP* … another theist.

Whats going on here?

Alan Lightman (Alan Lightman, both a novelist and a physicist, teaches at MIT. ) wrote about how many scientists see no problem between science and God’s intervention with the physical universe:

Francis Collins, leader of the celebrated Human Genome Project and now director of the National Institutes of Health, recently told Newsweek, “I’ve not had a problem reconciling science and faith since I became a believer at age 27 … if you limit yourself to the kinds of questions that science can ask, you’re leaving out some other things that I think are also pretty important, like why are we here and what’s the meaning of life and is there a God? Those are not scientific questions.” Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, told me: “The universe exists because of God’s actions. What we call the ‘laws of nature’ are upheld by God, and they are our description of the normal way in which God orders the world. I do think miracles take place today and have taken place over history. I take the view that science is not all the reliable knowledge that exists. The evidence of the resurrection of Christ, for example, cannot be approached in a scientific way.” Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard University, says: “I believe that our physical universe is somehow wrapped within a broader and deeper spiritual universe, in which miracles can occur. We would not be able to plan ahead or make decisions without a world that is largely law-like. The scientific picture of the world is an important one. But it does not apply to all events. Even in science we take a lot for granted. It’s a matter of what you want to trust. Faith is about hope rather than proof.”

Devoutly religious scientists, such as Collins, Hutchinson and Gingerich, reconcile their belief in science with their belief in an interventionist God by adopting a worldview in which the autonomous laws of physics, biology and chemistry govern the behavior of the physical universe most of the time and therefore warrant our serious study. However, on occasion, God intervenes and acts outside of these laws. The exceptional divine actions cannot be analyzed by the methods of science.

Alan Lightman declares himself to be an atheist, yet can conceive of a religious belief that ould be valid once we learm more of the universe. Why? He says,

However, I certainly agree with Collins and Hutchinson and Gingerich that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations.

But he ascribes such knowledge as belonging to the realm of arts and humanities.

Problem: To a reductionist (or to a scientific materialist) those realms of knowledge are NOT REAL. They are not really knowledge.

Lightman drops a bomb.

As another example, I cannot prove that the Central Doctrine of science is true.

Lightman seems to, ahem, cough, cough, not be a reductionist.

My Question: What makes a reductionist so sure he really knows?

Lightman drops another bomb:

I imagine the conversation in the MIT seminar room, with the murmurings of students in the hall and the silent photographs of Einstein and Watson and Crick staring from the wood-paneled walls:

I agree with much of you’ve said, says Jerry, but we need to distinguish between physical reality and what’s in our heads.

Something like the resurrection of Christ is a physical event. It either happened or it didn’t.

So he gets back to the actual historical claims of Christianity. These are not elements of religious faith. They either happened or they did not happen. How does a reductionist know they did not happen? Well, they just define it as not being possible. By faith in scientific materialism.

If reductionists cannot proven history did not happen how can they insist everybody must believe them? This seems a tough proposition – made more tough by the idea they want to tell the people doing the believing they themselves do not really have minds or personalities that are anything except imaginary.

Unless I misunderstand reductionism of course. Perhaps it is possible to have a mind but one where thoughts are all imaginary, as the reductionist said. Its difficult to ponder what such a mind would think of itself. It sounds sort of like Brave New World where Huxley proposes that if you don’t like your beliefs you just take a pill, and this alters chemistry, and this alters reality – POOF the world changes and history itself changes. This does not sound to me like the most rational of belief systems, but then again, I do not believe in reductionism so it is not my problem to solve.

I am just trying to understand 1) what reductionist are saying and 2) why they think it makes sense and is convincing.

Then came an anti-reductionist thought.

Physicists teach that the real state of matter at a microscopic scale is in indeterminate states until an observer interacts with matter. (i.e., does an observation). then there is a “quantum collapse” and the state of the matter becomes fixed. Example: an electron is both a wave and a particle and acts like both a wave and like a particle. And nobody knows which until it is observed. Then, having been observed, it is only a particle. If there isn’t an observer then it stays as both a wave and a particle. This is a well known paradox.

This implies that thoughts alter the material universe. Not the other way around. Perhaps I missed something and perhaps I am naive as can be. But to me this is hysterically funny.

What if an entity, made of only thought, outside the universe observed an electron? Or any other particle? Would it suddenly change it’s physical state? How do we know that is not possible?

What do we mean by “observer” anyway?

If an observer is imaginary, how can it affect physical states of matter?

Anyway, the bold declarations of the atheist debating with Dinesh just seemed to be a bit too strong to be taken at face value. It’s got to be more complicated and I see no reason to take his word for it.

I am going to discuss scientific materialism (separate post) and this may shed some light.

A final point on an argument between physicists.

First I want to mention one thing about Polkinghorne’s point that science and religion relate at a conceptual level. The atheist scientist I heard debate Dinesh, if I understand him correctly, would as a reductionist say Polkinghorne is wrong. They do not relate at a conceptual level. Why? Because thought is imaginary whereas physics is real. That is his belief.

I do have a question here. When this belief is expressed, is that KNOWLEDGE? I ask because if thought is imaginary then … isn’t knowledge itself also imaginary? I am somehow bothered by this sweeping thought under the rug by declaring it to be imaginary. I’m unsure how philosophers sort this out.

I think physicists really should disagree about this and really stop making categorically true statements that reductionism is the sole definition of scientific knowledge.

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