Say It with Me: Reductionism

This is the fourth installment of a series, introducing terms and ideas that may be unfamiliar to most but are increasingly necessary for the thinking Christian to understand.

Stephen Hawking died in March of 2018. He battled a disease for fifty-five years that should have taken his life in two. Dr. Hawking pushed the boundaries of human understanding while inspiring wonder in millions. Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees eulogized, “Few, if any, of Einstein’s successors have done more to deepen our insights into gravity, space and time.”

Rarely does such an intriguing combination of intellect, personality, and circumstances intersect. A mind of that caliber and a life of that character has much to tell us about ourselves and the universe we inhabit.

As Dr. Hawking drew close to death, he shared his thoughts on the prospects of dying. Hawking believed that science had eliminated the notion of a personal creator, and he was outspoken in his belief. He believed that the universe was only the result of quantum fluctuations. He believed that humans are no more than biological machines. So, when commenting on death his worldview came through.

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.[1]

Despite the monumental life he lived, in the end, he was reduced to a computer whose components had failed. This world-changing mind was reduced to a failing machine. The man who changed how we view the world was reduced by his own worldview.

Stephen Hawking was so much more than his worldview allowed him to be.

Here’s the thing…

People are more than their worldviews often allow them to be. This is because their worldviews contain a fatal flaw known as reductionism.

Meaning

Reductionism generally refers to explaining something by simplification. This can happen in nearly any field of study, and sometimes with a positive effect. However, reductionism becomes a problem when it oversimplifies what it attempts to explain.

This is especially true for our worldviews.

Christian philosopher Nancy Pearcey addresses the issue in her book Finding Truth. She explains that reductionism is “reducing a phenomenon from a higher or more complex level of reality to a lower, simpler, less complex level—usually in order to debunk or discredit it.”[2] The problem is, when our worldview is reductionistic, we fail to see reality as it is.

This happens when we make one aspect of reality the ultimate explanation for all reality. A part is used to explain the whole. The whole, therefore, must be reduced.

Dr. Pearcey describes the problem:

If reductionism is like trying to stuff all of reality into a box, we could say the problem is that the box is always too small.[3]

In other words, our worldview will ultimately fail to explain some part of reality—“Something will stick out of the box.” What is worse, whatever sticks out of the box is typically explained away and abandoned. What we thought was real, our worldview overrules as an illusion. (See cognitive dissonance.)

Watch how this happens.

Significance

The result of reductionism is always a reduced view of humanity. That is why it is important to look out for it in our worldviews.

Naturalism—Meaningless Machines

Many worldviews assert that all reality fits completely inside the box of nature. We categorize these as naturalistic.

Dr. Hawking’s worldview could be described as naturalism. He believed that everything in the universe, including humanity, should be explained exclusively in terms of scientific phenomena. Anything that appeared to be outside the realm of science is a mere illusion. He wrote:

It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.[4]

If reality is only nature and science, free will does not fit in the box.

Naturalism also reduces humanity to the point that our consciousness is assumed to be an illusion. It doesn’t fit in the box. Neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey explains:

Our starting assumption as scientists ought to be that on some level consciousness has to be an illusion….The reason is obvious: If nothing in the physical world can have the features that consciousness seems to have, then consciousness cannot exist as a thing in the physical world.[5]

The reduction continues. Anything in the human experience that cannot fit into the box of nature is jettisoned. Renowned neuroscientist Francis Crick brings us to the logical conclusion:

‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules…You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”[6]

We must wonder: If that much of the human experience must be written off as an illusion, does the naturalist worldview view the world well?

Pantheism—Oblivious Oneness

Many worldviews assert that all reality fits completely inside the box of spirituality. We categorize these as pantheistic.

Pantheistic worldviews explain everything in the universe in terms of spiritual oneness. Anything that appears to be distinct is mere illusion. This includes physical desires and individuality. We dissolve all distinction, usually by way of meditation. That way, we find our place in what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Over-soul: “the soul of the whole…the eternal ONE.”[7]

Charles Darwin declared that the world of biology is the result of gradual chance mutations. Yet, decades earlier, G.W.F. Hegel declared the world of ideas to be the result of gradual “actualization of the Universal Mind.”[8] He described all history as progress toward an Absolute Spirit or Universal Mind.

The problem with this reductionism is that it consigns all individuality to illusion. This is especially seen in the pantheism of Eastern religions. Pearcey explains:

In Hinduism, your individual identity is actually called maya, which means illusion. It is regarded as the cause of evil, selfishness, greed, and war. The goal of meditation is to dissolve your sense of being a separate self by merging with the cosmic One, the undifferentiated All, like a drop of water dissipating into the ocean. In Buddhism, the word nirvana means literally “to become extinguished.”[9]

We see reductionism expressed in the Upanishads, ancient writings that form the basis for Hinduism. In one passage, a father explains to his son the essence of who he is.

“Bring me a fruit from the banyan tree.”
“Here is one, Father.”
“Break it open.”
“It is broken, Father.”
“What do you see there?”
“These tiny seeds.”
“Now break one of them open.”
“It is broken, Father.”
“What do you see there?”
“Nothing, Father.”
“My son, you know there is a subtle essence which you do not perceive, but through that essence the truly immense banyan tree exists. Believe it, my son. Everything that exists has its Self in that subtle essence. It is Truth. It is the Self, and you are That.”

Did you catch the reductionism? What the son identifies as nothing, the father explains as the essence from which come nature (the tree in this case), self, and truth. The father concludes by telling his son that he is that—nothing.

As ancient as religious pantheism is, we see the same reductionism today in best-selling books and top-trending videos from the likes of Deepak Chopra and Damien Mark Smyth.

We must wonder: If that much of the human experience must be written off as illusion in the pantheist’s worldview, does the pantheist view the world properly?

Christianity—Image Bearers

Naturalism reduces humanity to machines. Pantheism reduces humanity to oblivion. Yet, the Christian worldview seems to maintain what the others seem to miss. Christianity maintains that we are physical and spiritual beings. We live in a natural world with intangible yet real emotion, will, and identity.

The Bible teaches that God created humanity in his image. Both naturalists and pantheists dismiss this out of hand because it does not fit within the framework of their worldview (See plausibility structures.) However, this is the highest view of humanity possible. Because God is the ultimate explanation for reality, being made in his image is the ultimate status.

We stand apart from the rest of nature, eternally and equally valuable in the eyes of our Creator. This value was demonstrated when God came to us in Jesus Christ to fix the image that we had corrupted by our rebellion against him. The value the God sees in us as his image-bearers is expressed in his grace, mercy, and love.

There is no reductionism in God’s love for us.


[1] Ian Sample, “Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’”

[2] Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes, pp. 44-45 (Kindle Edition).

[3] Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes, p. 103 (Kindle Edition).

[4] Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design, p. 32.

[5] Nicholas Humphrey, “Consciousness: The Achilles Heel of Darwinism? Thank God, Not Quite,” in John Brockman, ed., Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement (New York: Vintage, 2006), 58.

[6] Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, 3.

[7] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Over-Soul”.

[8] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit.

[9] Pearcey, p. 127.


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3 thoughts on “Say It with Me: Reductionism

  1. This was a very well written post, yet I feel the urge to make a few comments.
    As an aside, I find it a bit humorous that I’m commenting on this post of yours with the name I have. :p

    “He believed that everything in the universe, including human, should be explained exclusively in terms of scientific phenomena.”
    He didn’t. He believed that it *could* be and, more importantly, *is best* explained exclusively by scientific phenomena. Using the word ‘should’ is a strawman (not to mention, reductionist of Hawking’s epistemology. :p) which implies he built his worldview and only then looked to rationalize it, but I contend you have no evidence that this is what he did.

    Scientists, by and large, are the opposite. They examine all relevant evidence and only then decide the worldview that best explains what is observed. Out of all the worldviews you spoke of, it is the only one that works this way. It is the only one that does not contend it has explanations which hasn’t adequate evidence to grant justification in belief (ie: suspending the laws of nature for miracles, souls, the very existence of god, etc). That someone merely wrote these claims is very much not adequate evidence and no logical arguments have yet approached justification for belief. Maybe they will someday, but not at this time.

    “If reality is only nature and science, free will does not fit in the box.”
    Indeed. We have no evidence that free will exists, but you are using this line, as well as others in your post, as an appeal to emotion. Or, as I call it, an appeal to romanticism. I wrote an essay about this specifically. If you’re interested, https://robotphilosopherblog.wordpress.com/2019/02/06/appealing-to-romanticism/

    The fact that humans want free will to exist or want to have the ‘highest view’ or ‘ultimate status’ of humanity is meaningless when judging the truth of the statement. When presented with something we dearly want – status, self-esteem, ego, etc – we often employ all kinds of mental gymnastics and fallacies that will allow us to believe the thing without real justification. I think you’re aware of how effective it can be as a tool to convince others, but it says nothing of the truth of the claim.

    “The Bible teaches that God created humanity in his image. Both naturalists and pantheists dismiss this out of hand because it does not fit within the framework of their worldview”
    Naturalists reject this hypothesis because there is no credible evidence to support it, not because it doesn’t fit into our worldview. Nothing we see in nature or experiments or gathered data supports this, hence it is not rational to believe. On the contrary, what we see in nature supports the idea of evolution. Transition fossils, carbon dating and other dating methods, fossil layering in the sediment – all point exclusively towards evolution, making that the most rational thing to believe at this time. Again, maybe things will someday change and new experiments will yield results that favor what you wish to believe, but not today.

    Still, I enjoyed you’re writing. I hope you take this response as good natured, as that is how I intended it.

    1. Thanks for your comment—and compliment! I do my best. Sorry for the delay. My time for blogging lately has been minimal, time for commenting even less.
      Could vs. Should
      I think you’re putting a little more weight on the difference than you should. Are you saying Dr. Hawking would disagree with the statement “He believed that everything in the universe should be explained exclusively in terms of scientific phenomena”? Or that he would only agree with *could*? I mean *I* believe that everything *could* be explained in terms of science. But, as I was trying to say in this post and others, I believe that leads to a multitude of problems, one of which is reductionism. The difference between Dr. Hawking and I—besides about a hundred IQ points—is that he thinks they *should*.
      I work hard to make sure I understand the positions I critique. If I make a strawman out of Hawking’s words, I definitely want to know! However, if you’re critiquing an implication from strawman that I don’t believe is there, I don’t know if I can help.
      The whole which came first—evidence or belief—is a bit of chicken and egg situation. I don’t believe (and didn’t say) that Dr. Hawking “built his worldview and only then looked to rationalize it.” But, I’m pretty sure he didn’t suspend worldview building until all the evidence came in, right? What I am getting at is that at some point (I’m guessing pretty early on) Hawking established a naturalist worldview as his basis, his presupposition if you will, by which he interpreted his continuing work. Many believers have done the same thing, only with a theistic worldview. The evidence led them to believe in God. (See Alister McGrath, Jon Lennox, Francis Collins, et al.) They have their reasons just as Dr. Hawking had his. This post only referenced one consequence of many for taking the naturalist’s route.
      Free Will
      I did not get the chance to read through your entire post on the subject. I skimmed it—and the post you wrote on me and my not answering you. I hope to read thoroughly when I get the chance.
      I understand that Christian apologists make a lot of appeals to emotion, and they should be scolded for doing so. The blog post was not addressing free will, so I did not give my reasons for believing in it. I only brought it up as a consequence of the naturalist worldview.
      I don’t believe the appeal was to emotion as much as to intuition. We sense our decision making as a reality—not just one that we want, but one that we have. I know that some naturalists believe in free will as an emerging reality (a la Dr. Sean Carroll). However, the naturalist worldview unavoidably leads to determinism.
      My reasons for believing in free will are based on rationality. I believe it is rationally intuitive that we have free will largely because of our capacity to think critically. In a deterministic universe, rationality becomes pointless. No need to think critically when our conclusion is determined. Our ability to make choices are illusions—including a decision to believe or not believe in determinism!
      If free will is an illusion, is my belief in free will determined? If so, why try to convince me otherwise? Our entire conversation—which I think I am really going to enjoy by the way!—is intuitively grounded in the perceived reality that both you and I have a choice in the matter. That seems like pretty strong evidence for free will.
      No Evidence
      I’m no scientist. But, I know of plenty of scientists who believe there is plenty of evidence in nature to believe in a Creator God. Some even believe that the process of evolution itself points to a Creator, making that the most rational thing to believe. So, I think it’s disingenuous to say definitively that there is *no* credible evidence or that *nothing* we see in nature supports this.
      Great talk! I am looking forward to reading your stuff!

  2. Thank you so much for your response. I really appreciate it. I will have to update my own post to reflect this generosity. I am so used to being ignored by people who don’t want to grapple with scrutiny of their ideas that I suppose I was overly cynical in my assumptions. I should have given you more time to respond, as I can completely understand being too busy.

    I think Hawking would absolutely disagree with the wording of ‘should’. Really, it’s an is-ought problem. ‘Should’ implies a moral imperative, but under whose authority would Hawking claim we ‘should’? What could anyone claim? ‘Could’, in contrast, doesn’t lay claim to any to any non-existent moral imperative, which would be correct, as none exist. I know you have strong feelings to the contrary on that, as well, and I would love to have that discussion, too. I’ll try not to get too sidetracked, though.

    As previously stated, I don’t think you are justified in claiming that Hawking thought people ‘should’ view the world this way, but rather that he thought reality *is best* explained via naturalism. Scientists don’t often make absolute statements unless they have empirical data to back it up, and ‘should’ and ‘should not’ are philosophical statements, not scientific ones, such as ‘could’ and ‘is best’ are. Granted, ‘best’ is subjective, but if given the obvious qualifiers of ‘most accurately explains what we observe of reality’, it becomes quantifiable and therefore scientific in that sense. I’ll say again that no verifiable scientific study has ever concluded that anything supernatural existed or even was likely to. Efficacy of prayer, transubstantiation, etc – none provided helpful correlations to your argument. Studies *have* shown, however, that the best predictor of what religion you are is what religion your parents were, lending credence to the idea that religion is not more than inherited superstition.

    I think the whole worldview thing may not be too fruitful to contemplate, but I don’t think anyone builds their worldview all at once. It is piecemeal. If Hawking was anything like myself, he accepted only what he had evidence for, and then one day realized that all he had accepted happened to be natural explanations – no supernatural. That is because, again, there is no good evidence to support those theories.

    Free will: It’s understandable – I have written extensively on free will, and you were given 2 rather lengthy posts of mine to skim. I don’t blame you for not getting through it all. :p I wrote for probably longer than warranted on free will as determinism is one of my main topics of interest. It was the catalyst for both my getting into philosophy proper and my name on here. But, no, I believe it can be logically shown that we do not have free will – at least not in the sense that we imagine we do.

    Yes, I believe your belief or non-belief in free will is determined. You were not directly responsible for the experiences you had in your life that made you believe in free will. You did not choose the chemistry and structure of your brain to perceive determinism the way you have. If everything is determined, that does not preclude the possibility of me convincing you of that fact. You can’t directly choose how you perceive my words – it is impossible for you to ‘choose’ to truly believe something (if you could, you would have real free will). You have to actually be able to rationalize it. As Schopenhauer said: ‘A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills’. If I find the right combination of words that satisfies your rationalization, you also won’t be able to choose to not be convinced.

    I could talk all day on free will. Perhaps if we get the rest of this discussion sorted, we can go there more in-depth, but this response is already too long and I’m not even finished.

    Appeals to intuition are just as bad. Again, think of flat-earthers. Their intuition, understandably, leads them to believe something that is demonstrably false. Intuition is not a substitute for facts and logic. They constantly lead us astray, which is one of my main reason for being an atheist. We are constantly reminded how fallible we are. There are over 3000 religions currently practiced in the world and at most (for the most part – only a few can coexist), only one is correct. That means there are probably *at least* 2999 fictional religions followers who believe ‘without doubt’ and ‘absolute certainty’ that theirs is the correct one. This tells us that 1) Humans love creating fictitious Gods, and 2) Certainty means absolutely nothing. The only way to actually trust what we believe is by empirical evidence. But people, for some reason, think their own certainty is worth more than everyone else’s, even when they have no more evidence for what they are certain of than anyone else.

    I have seen scientists who believe there is evidence for a creator as well. When they are asked what evidence that is, however, they cite personal experience or the irreducible complexity of the human eye (which has been thoroughly debunked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ql5PmOGtM34), or ‘I saw Mother Mary’s visage burned into my toast’ or, as my terrible middle school SCIENCE teacher said, “I just can’t fathom a world billions of years old” as though that was adequate evidence, etc. It either qualifies as ‘not evidence’ or ‘bad evidence’ or ‘unverifiable evidence’ (from what I’ve seen). Why should it be so difficult, if anybody in the world has any good evidence, for them to reveal it to the rest of us? They could solve this age-old debate in a moment if they had actual good evidence and they have massive motivation to do so. Not to mention vanity – their names would go down in history for decidedly solving the biggest mystery we have ever conceived. Why, then, are we still waiting for this burden of proof to be satisfied?

    My pedanticism does want to agree with you that I indeed misworded it, though. There is no credible evidence supporting a creator of any kind *that we know about*. *Yet*.

    As an aside: Would you mind if I posted these comments to a post of mine? I’m not sure what exactly I will do, yet, but I’d love to archive this in some way, as it looks to be a good discussion. And again, thank you for your courteous and measured response.

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