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Reductionism in philosophy describes a number of related, contentious theories that hold, very roughly, that the nature of complex things can always be reduced to (explained by) simpler or more fundamental things. This is said of objects, phenomena, explanations, theories, and meanings.
Roughly, this means that chemistry is based on physics, biology is based on chemistry, psychology and sociology are based on biology. The first two of these reductions are commonly accepted but the last step is controversial and therefore the frontier of reductionism: evolutionary psychology and sociobiology versus those who claim that such special sciences are inherently irreducible. Reductionists believe that the behavioral sciences should become a "genuine" scientific discipline by being based exclusively on genetic biology.
A very typical reductionistic book is The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It argues that because genes are the fundamental elements of life, all life and all natural behavior can best be understood by studying genetic mechanisms. This way all life is best regarded as temporary accommodation and a reproduction device for the genes.
In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins introduced the term "hierarchic reductionism". This means that reductionism can only work when it is used one level at a time. For example: when you throw Stephen Jay Gould out of a window, his fall can be explained by classical mechanics. But you should not try to understand his work from such elementary principles.
There are several generally accepted types or forms of reduction in both science and philosophy:
- Ontological reductionism is the idea that everything that exists is made from a small number of basic substances that behave in regular ways (compare to monism).
- Methodological reductionism is the idea that explanations of things, such as scientific explanations, ought to be continually reduced to the very simplest entities possible (but no simpler). Occam's Razor forms the basis of this type of reductionism.
- Theoretical reductionism is the idea that older theories or explanations are not generally replaced outright by new ones, but that new theories are refinements or reductions of the old theory into more efficacious forms with greater detail and explanatory power. The older theories are supposedly absorbed into the newer ones and they can be deductively derived from the latter.
- Scientific reductionism has been used to describe all of the above ideas as they relate to science, but is most often used to describe the idea that all phenomena can be reduced to scientific explanations.
- Linguistic reductionism is the idea that everything can be described in a language with a limited number of core concepts, and combinations of those concepts. (See Basic English and the constructed language Toki Pona).
- The term "greedy reductionism" was coined by Daniel Dennett to condemn those forms of reductionism that try to explain too much with too little.
The denial of reductionist ideas is holism; the idea that things can have properties as a whole that are not explainable from the sum of their parts. Phenomena such as emergence and work within the field of complex systems theory are considered to bring forth possible objections to reductionism.
- Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press; 2nd edition, December 1989 ISBN 0192177737.
- Nagel, E. (1961) The Structure of Science. New York.
- Ruse, M.(1988) Philosophy of Biology. Albany, NY.
- Dennett, Daniel. (1995) Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 068482471X.
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