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Greedy reductionism is a term coined by Daniel Dennett, in the book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, to distinguish between acceptable and erroneous forms of reductionism. Whereas reductionism means explaining a thing in terms of what it reduces to, greedy reductionism comes when the thing we are trying to understand is explained away instead of explained, so that we fail to gain any additional understanding of the original target.

For example, we can reduce temperature to average kinetic energy without denying that temperature exists, so this is good reductionism. In contrast, when we consider the question of why clicking on a hyperlink takes us to one website and not another, any answer that says that it all comes down to electrons and that hyperlinks don't really exist anyhow is a greedy attempt to explain away the problem without solving it.

B. F. Skinner's radical behaviorism has often been criticized as greedily reductionist, due to a perception that it denied the existence of mental states such as beliefs. Notably, Skinner himself characterized his views as anti-reductionist: in Beyond Freedom and Dignity and other works, he wrote that while mental and neurological states did exist, behavior could be explained without recourse to either. This example is particularly relevant because Dennett himself can be categorized as a type of behaviorist.

In Consciousness Explained, Dennett argued that, without denying that human consciousness exists, we can understand it as coming about from the coordinated activity of many components in the brain that are themselves unconscious. In response, critics accused him of explaining away consciousness because he disputes the existence of certain conceptions of consciousness that he considers overblown and incompatible with what is physically possible. This is likely what motivated Dennett to make the greedy/good distinction in his follow-up book, to freely admit that reductionism can go overboard while pointing out that not all reductionism goes this far.

The opposite extreme from greedy reductionism is throwing up your hands and denying that a reductionistic analysis of a complex system can work at all. This tactic is found in some theories that say consciousness is an emergent epiphenomenon that cannot be further reduced. Dennett's response is to call such notions mysterian.

'Nothing Buttery'

Note that 'nothing buttery' is a colloquial term synonymous with greedy reductionism, referring to the tendency to say something is 'nothing but' something else (as in, 'The Mona Lisa is nothing but daubs of paint on canvas'), without acknowledging that the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts.


  • Dennett, Daniel (1991), Consciousness Explained, The Penguin Press, ISBN 0316180661.
  • Dennett, Daniel (1995), Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 068482471X.

See also

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