Last week I discussed what I’m calling “Non-Reductionist Materialism,” a view which, as the name implies, sees the world as fully material and physical, but which does not privilege microscopic analysis in which the smallest parts of reality are taken as definitive of reality entire. Rather, all scales of reality are recognized with the same ontological status as real, from the smallest quantum fluctuations up through mid-level objects like people and societies and planets up though the cosmos as a whole. While analysis of the small certainly has its uses, so does analysis of the other levels, and the universe itself shows no recognition that the smallest parts are in fact the most important. This week I want to flesh out some implications of this view.
There is a common association between reductionism and materialism, which is so ingrained that people sometimes think that materialism automatically implies reductionism. This gives many people pause because they become uncomfortable with narrowly viewing very complex and important phenomena, such as cognition, emotion, beauty, and the like, in reductionist terms. Many then revert to spiritual or supernatural language and philosophies to deal with these phenomena, and so the narrowness of reductionism repels many people from the materialism that its proponents would prefer people to adopt.
This is compounded by the fact that the basic metaphor for the reductionist method is mechanism, is which all natural phenomena are conceived of as consisting of interacting parts, as in a machine. This mechanical metaphor – and it is only that, a metaphor – has in the modern period exploded to encompass and even envelop entire systems of thought, and is often taken to be an accurate, defining descriptor of the universe itself. It too drives many away from materialism. (Again, the point here is not that mechanism is wrong per se, only that while it is useful for some purposes, it is not for all. Some phenomena can also be analyzed with other metaphors, such as organic ones.)
Furthermore, privileging reductionist-level analysis also has a tendency to go hand-in-hand with privileging quantification and measurement. When a scientist or other analyst is at a high level examining a lower level, it is a good position from which to delineate and define the smaller parts, categorize them, and line them up for the purpose of counting them. Privileging reductionism thus both narrows things to mechanics and privileges the usefulness of measurement.
Reductionism, mechanism and “measurementism” turn some people off from materialism and science, since they find these methods of analysis inadequate and incomplete for many phenomena. Many people, even reasonable people and the science-minded, don’t want to reduce art or emotions to measurable mechanics. And they are right to detect the narrowness of such analysis and to resist it. And they don’t have to accept it: non-reductionist materialism allows us to shift our point of view to approach these things rationally as mid-level objects that are just as real as their molecules and atoms, with their own mid-level properties and mid-level relations and interconnections with other mid- and large-level things. For example, the emotions that lovers feel for each other are real qua feelings; they are not real only as electro-chemical reactions in their bodies and brains. They are indeed that, and it can be useful to examine the neurochemistry of emotions, but emotions are also real as emotions experienced at a mid-level by mid-level organisms. Those emotions cause really-existing entities of the universe (the lovers) to interact in certain ways, ways not comprehensible from a microscopic viewpoint.
Note that the claim I am making here is a claim about ontological status, not about psychological significance. This is not a squishy-feely argument from discomfort that science is too cold about emotions. I’m not merely saying that science tends to be too reductionist about emotions as a matter of significance because emotions are important to people and they feel comforted and validated when their emotions are respected and taken seriously. That is indeed true, but that’s not the point. The point is that things like emotions, aesthetic experiences, cognition, pain, and so on have real ontological status, as opposed to thinking that the only “real” stuff going on with regard to them occurs at microscopic levels.
Thinking is material, and real, and not just reducible to atoms and molecules. There is no need to resort to spiritualism, noumena, essentialism, ideal forms, geist, or any other residual supernaturalism to understand it. Nor need we shrink it down only to its parts; we can and should, analyze it at the middle levels too, where we directly experience it. And indeed we already do, in philosophy, psychology, conceptual history, linguistics, and even literary theory. The same is true for things like the unconscious, morality, civic virtues, language, and social interactions and institutions of all kinds. These all involve networks of material relations which manifest properties of interest at levels much higher than that of the small; nor can they be completely understood merely by examining their componenets.
Thus the place to turn to deal with mid-level objects is not religion, nor is it often reductionist science; instead, we must make full use of all the other fields of human inquiry and scholarship: philosophy, psychology, history, sociology, anthropology, political science, art criticism, and all the rest. Non-reductionist materialism implies that other disciplines than "science" are fully legitimate in analyzing the world. Each level of analysis, however we demarcate those levels, can have its own proper sphere of inquiry. Of course, there can be cross-contributions, and the lines are and will continue to be fuzzy, but each level will and should develop analysis that is fitting or suitable to its own level. The social sciences are as legitimate as the physical sciences..
There is currently a spike in reductionist claims that “science” will solve all remaining unsolved problems, and these are overblown: neuroscience is not going to give us a universal morality, and evolutionary psychology is not going to point the way to optimal social organization. While contributions can be made, no reductionist science, whether biology or neurology or cognitive science, will deliver morality to us; morality is something that mainly occurs at the bigger level of interactions and interconnections between whole persons; it has an inherent social component. Yet science continually makes the mistake of reducing morality to be a matter of individuals, rather than of social groups; and even worse, it reduces it to emotional impulses like sympathy, rather than of the entire personality; and worst of all is to reduce it to be a matter of neurons, rather than of whole organisms that interact as part of a social context. This approach is blinkered. Let’s say, for example, that science delivers a drug that can ensure that a human being acts peacefully and feels happiness; who is to administer the drug? Decide who must take and who need not? Does morality always consist of happiness? Is it always morally right to be peaceful? All these questions would have to be answered to understand the morality of such a drug, and they are questions that reductionism is ill-equipped to answer.
Additionally, measurement alone is inadequate for many purposes. We must also be able to assess, evaluate, contrast and compare, weigh and balance, deem good or bad, all sorts of mid- and large-level phenomena. In other words, one has to develop not just an ability to measure quantities but a high capacity for qualitative judgment. That sense of judgment come not from the mechanical reductionist sciences, but from the social science, humanities, and arts – the fields that fall under the cover of a “liberal education.” Alas, that region of academia has been slowly strangled for decades.
To successfully deal with our moral, social, and environmental problems will require greater understanding and awareness of connections between larger level items, not additional analysis of smaller ones. Atomism has admirably created many technological advances, yet we have not figured out how to use them in healthy ways. Science has created vaccines and computers and advanced materials. It has also created nuclear weapons and surveillance devices and machines that pollute the atmosphere. Science helps us both understand the crisis if climate changes but also contributes to creating it in the first place. Learning to use technology harmoniously with the biosphere and for the benefit of humanity will require us to take the larger scales of reality as seriously as we take the small, and to develop the judgment to do so well.