Reductionism has been an extremely effective approach for learning a lot about the world around us. The amount of information that we’ve obtained as a result of this method has allowed us to more effectively predict the course of nature and thus appears to have been invaluable in our quest for better understanding the universe. However, I believe that several limitations of reductionism have been revealed through Quantum Mechanics, thus demonstrating it to be inapplicable to the fundamental nature of the universe. This inapplicability results from the “non-separability” property that appears to emerge from within Quantum mechanical theory. While this is just my inference of some of the quantum physical findings, the implications of this property of “non-separability” (i.e. “one-ness”) are vast, far-reaching and are incredibly significant in terms of the “lens” we use to look at the world around us.
I feel that I need to define what I mean by “reductionism” as there are a few interpretations (some more ambiguous than others) as well as specific types of reductionism that people may refer to more than others. Among these types are: theoretical, methodological and ontological reductionism. I’m mostly concerned with ontological and methodological reductionism. When I use the term “reductionism”, I am referring to the view that the nature of complex things can be reduced to the interaction of their parts. An alternate definition that I’ll use in combination with the former is the view that the whole (a complex system) is simply the sum of its parts (some may see this as the opposite of “holism” or “synergy” — in which the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts). The use of the word “parts” is what I find most important in these definitions. We can see an obvious problem if we attempt to unify the concept of “parts” (a required component of reductionism) with the concept of “no parts” (an implied component of non-separability). My use of the word “non-separability” implies that any parts that may appear to exist are illusory parts due to the fact that the concept “parts” implies that it is separate from everything else (separate from “other parts”, etc.). To simplify matters, one could equate the concept of non-separability that I’m referring to with the concept of “one-ness” (i.e. there are no “parts”, there is only the whole).
Reductionism is an idea that appears to have been around for centuries. The idea has penetrated the realms of science and philosophy from the time of Thales from Miletus — who held the belief that the world was or was composed of water at a fundamental level, to the time of the scientific revolution and onward with the advent of Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics (or more appropriately “Newtonian” mechanics) and the new yet equivalent views of Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics that ensued. I think it would be safe to say that most scientists from that point forward were convinced that anything could be broken down into fundamental parts providing us with a foundation for 100% predictability (determinism). After all, if a system seemed too complex to predict, breaking it down into simpler components seemed to be the easiest route to succeed. Even though scientists couldn’t predict anything with 100% certainty, it was believed by many that it was possible if the instrumentation used was sufficient enough. They thought that perhaps there were fundamental constituent building blocks that followed a deterministic model. This view would change drastically in the early part of the 20th century when the foundations for Quantum Mechanics were first established by Bohr, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Planck, Shrodinger and many others. New discoveries such as Heisenberg’s famous “Uncertainty Principle”, as well as the concepts of wave-particle duality, quantum randomness, superposition, wave function collapse, entanglement, non-locality and others, began to repudiate classical ideas of causality and determinism. These discoveries also implied that certain classical concepts like “location”, “object”, and “separate” needed to be reconsidered. This appeared to be the beginning of the end of reductionism in my view, or more specifically, it demonstrated the fundamental limitations of such an approach. One thing I want to point out is that I completely acknowledge that reductionism was the approach that eventually led to these quantum discoveries. After all, we wouldn’t have been able to discover the quantum realm at all had we not “scaled” down our research (i.e. investigated physically smaller and smaller regimes) using reductionism. While it did in fact lead us to the underlying quantum realm, it is what we choose to do with this new information that will effect our overall view of the world around us.
One interesting thing about the concept of reductionism is it’s relationship to the scientific method. To clarify, at the very least, we can say that in order to have separate objects and observers (as we require in the scientific method) we must dismiss the idea of non-separability, thus employing the idea of separateness (required for reductionism). The effectiveness of the scientific method presumes that the observer is not affecting the observed (i.e. they are isolated from each other). Scientists are well aware of the “Observer effect”, whereby the minimization of this effect defines a better-controlled experiment and the elimination of the effect altogether defines a perfectly controlled experiment. Experimentation within Quantum mechanics is no exception to this effect. In fact, quantum mechanical measurements appear to have what I like to call a “100% observer effect”. Allow me to clarify. The superposition principle in quantum mechanics states that a physical system (e.g. an electron) exists in all it’s possible states simultaneously and only upon measuring that system will it give a result that corresponds to one of the possible states or configurations. This unique effect produced by measurement is referred to as the “collapse of the wave-function”, at least according to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. I think that this “100% observer effect” is worth noting when considering the scientific method and the reductionist elements within it. There appears to be an inescapable interconnectedness between the observer and the observed which forces us to recognize the limitations of the scientific method within this realm. At the very least, within this quantum realm, our classical idea of a “controlled” experiment no longer exists.
Another interesting discovery within Quantum mechanics was Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle which states that we can’t know any two complementary properties of a “particle” simultaneously without some minimum degree of uncertainty. One example of complementary properties of a particle are position and momentum, whereby when we measure one property to an arbitrary accuracy we lose accuracy in our ability to measure the other property and vice versa. Here again within the quantum realm we are able to see an interconnectedness, although this time it is between physical properties themselves. Just as we saw in the case of the observer and the observed, what we once thought of as being completely separate and independent of one another, turn out to be unavoidably interconnected.
The last concept I want to discuss within quantum theory is that of quantum entanglement. If two particles come into physical contact with each other, interact or are created in a very specific way, they can become entangled or linked together in very specific ways (much like that of the aforementioned complementary properties: position and momentum). In this case, the linkage between the two particles is a shared quantum state where one particle can’t be fully described without considering the state of the other. This shared quantum state “collapses” as soon as one of the particle’s states is measured. For example, if we have two electrons that become entangled, and then we measure one of them to be a spin up electron, by default the other will be a spin down electron. Prior to measurement, there is an equal probability that the first particle’s state measured will be spin up or spin down. Again, according to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the quantum state that this electron assumes upon measurement is completely random. However, once the electron’s spin has been measured, there is a 100% chance that the other electron in the entangled pair will have the anti-correlated spin, even though in theory it should still be a 50% chance as was the case for the first electron. At the time this was discovered, most physicists (most notably Einstein) were convinced that there was some form of a hidden variables theory which could determine which state the electron would assume upon measurement. Unfortunately, Bell’s theorem suggested that local hidden variables were impossible. This left only one alternative for an underlying determinism (if there was one) and that was the theory of non-local hidden variables. Non-locality however is something that is so counter-intuitive due to its acausal nature, even if it was somehow deterministic, it would not make sense from a reductionist (i.e. locally interacting parts) perspective. Thus, all of the reductionist approaches — that is, the assumption that complex systems can be explained by breaking them down into smaller, yet causally connected (locally interacting) parts, is inadequate for explaining the phenomena pervading the quantum realm.
The unique yet explicit case of quantum entanglement phenomena not only suggests that the idea of separate “parts” is flawed but also that the interconnectedness exhibited is non-local, which I believe to be extremely significant from not only a scientific and philosophical viewpoint, but from a spiritual perspective as well. If “something” is non-locally interconnected with “something” else, does it not imply that the two are actually “one” ? Perhaps this is an example of merely seeing “two different faces of the same coin”. While they may appear to be separated in 3D-space, it does not mean that they have to be separated in a dimension outside our physical reality or experience. To put it another way, non-locality suggests the possibility of extra spatial dimensions if we are to negate the alternative — that is, that the speed of light is being violated within 3D space by faster-than-light information transfer (e.g. one electron communicates to the other instantaneously such that the appropriate anti-correlation exists between their spin state). If two particles that seem to be “separate” in our physical reality are in fact “one”, then we could surmise that other sets of particles or even all particles for that matter (that we do not currently define to be “entangled”) are entangled in an unknown way. There may be an infinite number of extra spatial dimensions to account for all unknown types of “entanglement”. We could hypothesize in this case that every seemingly separate particle is actually interconnected as “one” entity. While we may never know whether or not this is the case, it’s an interesting thought. It would imply that the degrees of separation that we observe are fallacious, and simply a result of the connection being hidden. It would be analogous to our thinking that the continents are separate pieces of land, when in fact, deep in the ocean, we can clearly see the continuity between all of those continents.
If we consider the Big Bang Theory, the “singularity” that supposedly existed prior to expansion would be a more intuitive way of looking at this homogenous entity I describe as “one”. Perhaps after expansion, it started to take on an appearance of reducible separateness (within three dimensions of space anyways), and my theory that this separateness is illusory appears to be demonstrated in quantum phenomena despite the fact that this idea is entirely counter-intuitive to our everyday experience in a 3D-limited scope of our physical reality. I feel that it’s important to recognize this illusion of separateness from a philosophical perspective and utilize this view to help realize that we are all “one” with each other and the entire universe. While I may have no prescription for how to use this information (as I believe it will require self-discovery to have any real meaning to you), it’s just the way I feel on the matter — take it or leave it. Life goes on.
You never did make clear what you mean by “methodological reductionism”.
I’m not so sure that science was ever all that reductionist, though philosophers of science often describe it as if it were. Scientists have long known that everything affects everything.
I agree with the definition given by the “Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy” which states that “methodological reductionism is the position that the best scientific strategy is to attempt to reduce explanations to the smallest possible entities. Methodological reductionism would thus hold that the atomic explanation of a substance’s boiling point is preferable to the chemical explanation, and that an explanation based on even smaller particles (quarks, perhaps) would be even better…”
I believe that this type of reductionism goes hand in hand with ontological reductionism and was discussed thoroughly within the post (e.g. scientific method, reductionism leading us to scale down to the quantum realm, the search for finding the smallest “constituents” of matter, etc.). I thought that I addressed this in my broad definition of reductionism as well.
I believe that reductionism has dominated science for centuries (both methodological and ontological). While you may believe that “Scientists have long known that everything affects everything”, this vague and ambiguous belief still remained under the assumptions that the principle of locality governed those causal relationships between “something” and “everything else”. That is, zero separation in 3D space was seen as the only way that something could causally effect another — whether it’s zero 3D separation between real and virtual particles (to cause the fundamental forces to act on those real particles), or zero 3D separation between real particles only (to cause physical interaction and a billiard ball effect of momentum exchange). These causal relationships as well as locality have now been seriously questioned or are “thrown out the window” when we enter the quantum realm. This is where the disconnect arises between what science has “long known” and what the current evidence within quantum physics suggests.
Thanks for the explanation of “methodological reductionism.”
Personally, I would like to see ontology being dropped by philosophy. Or, at least, it should lose its status as part of metaphysics, and become part of epistemology.
I don’t believe that.
We need to distinguish between “some of what science does, has the appearance of using reduction” and “reduction is a goal of science”. In my opinion, “reductionism” should apply only to the second. And I don’t see that it has ever been a goal. The main goal of science is a better understanding of nature (or of reality, if you prefer to use that term). Science will use reductive methods when those help with that goal of understanding. But I don’t see reduction as a goal, so I don’t see scientists as reductionists.
As for “everything affects everything” – gravitational fields, electrical fields, magnetic fields all extend infinitely.
I’m curious what your main reasons are for this. I’m just curious. I do agree that it should become part of epistemology, rather than remaining within metaphysics.
“I believe that reductionism has dominated science for centuries (both methodological and ontological).”
I don’t think that science’s purpose per se is reductionism, but I think that it is the required method for fundamentally answering the types of questions that we are asking. The view that things can always be broken down into simpler components for more thorough explanation is interwoven in science, as science is meant to seek a type of understanding. I think the “type of understanding” that we seek most (but not always) is a reductive understanding.
I don’t think it is merely an “appearance of using reduction”. I think that reduction is explicitly used in terms of finding operational definitions, and in providing detailed explanations of phenomena. I also don’t think that reduction is an EXPLICIT goal of science, but I do think that it is implicitly so — that is, it seems to be perceived as the required means for achieving science’s goal of ultimate understanding. Perhaps we also need to better define what we mean by “understanding”. I think that an “understanding” has to do with explaining the details behind (the “reasons” for) phenomena. If those reasons are followed by more questions like: “well then what makes THAT work” ad infinitum, we end up with reductionism as the method used. Different branches within science aim at answering questions in different ways and with different levels of detail in mind, but OVERALL it seems that the type of complete explanation that most people seek in science will unavoidably require reductionism. Note that reductionism is only required for a certain TYPE of explanation required. The type of explanation that I see in science involves a locally interacting physicality.
The range may be infinite, but they don’t operate faster than the speed of light. In theory (particle physics), if the sun were to immediately vanish into another dimension (or whatever explanation you care to use), we would not feel the change in gravity (in terms of our orbit) for over 6 minutes! Because the theoretical gravitons (the force-carrier particles for gravity) that were left over from the sun, created prior to the sun disappearing, would still be on their way to earth (traveling 92.9 million miles at the speed of light). The absence of those particles (and thus the lack of a gravitational field) would need just as much time to “catch up” to earth. We would feel that gravity (and the heat and light from the sun as well) and would remain in orbit for several minutes. The same thing is true of electric fields. If I have an electron at some fixed distance from another electron, the force field would not be “felt” by either electron (i.e. the field wouldn’t affect either electron’s motion) right away. It would take a fraction of a second in order for the virtual photons to reach the electrons and cause them to repel. Since these virtual photons have no mass, the range is infinite. So while it may seem that “everything affects everything”, it isn’t happening in ways that most people assume it is. Non-locality disrupts this view as it implies that we can no longer SEE if or how everything is being affected from a physical perspective (3D space). It is interesting…