Essay: On Reductionism



n. 1. the practice of analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation.

photography Indy Sagoo

words Charlotte Ferguson-Quilter


During a university lecture in 2009, Professor Murray Gilman endorsed a typical version of reductionism. “Everything comes down to the laws of physics, the initial conditions and chance.” In this view, economics, for example, is really only psychology, psychology is only biology, biology is only chemistry, chemistry is only physics and physics is ultimately only whatever happens with fundamental particles. This is why the view is called reductionism, an idea which explains complex phenomenon by analysing its simplest and most basic physical mechanisms. For example, with depression, a common reductionist view might be that low levels of serotonin in the brain can cause a person to be depressed. A more holistic approach, with the belief that the parts of an entity are explicable only by reference to the whole, would consider depression as a complex affective disorder which causes a variety of symptoms such as impaired concentration, feelings of guilt, isolation and insomnia, with causal factors such as early childhood experiences, diet or sleep pattern.

The effectiveness of reductionist approaches depends on the purpose to which they are put. By breaking down the constituent parts of an entity, scientific investigations can achieve valid and reliable results within a controlled environment. However, it cannot produce complete explanations and conclusions without taking account of wider social influencers. Whilst reductionism attempts to reduce the complex to the elementary, we must question whether it is possible to explain all phenomena in such reduced terms.

The Reductionist Worldview

Often, when we take a reductionist view, we are unwilling to accept a worldview where, along with science, concepts such as faith or spirituality, are quintessential contributors to culture and its evolution. Reductionism also opposes historicism, the philosophy that advocates the analysis of any object or construct by emphasising its historical, geographical, and cultural setting. As such, reductionist thinking can bias policies determining the interrelationships of people and nations, towards industrially successful archetypes that remain indifferent to the view that different communities, ethnicities, cultural groups and civilisations have evolved their own tenets of justice and social interaction.

Within this range of plurality exists a basic commonality that respects the individual creative potential of human beings and the existence of different states of meaning and consciousness. More than just levelling distinctions among cultures, therefore, reductionist thinking reduces people to a one-dimensional definition. Any additional states have no place in a reductionist worldview and are therefore denied.

Reductionism in Society

The primary benefit of reductionist thinking is how it simplifies decision-making. The use of snap judgements in everyday life act as a useful cognitive function for efficient processing and practical evaluation. It can reduce information storage, lessen costs and establish control. However, it relies on stereotypes and assumptions which do not consider the contradictions that exist in reality.

Racism is an example of this simplistic thinking. For the racist, there is no middle ground and non-support for one position is equated with support of the opposite position. Similarly, an extremist, who insists on the unerring infallibility of their beliefs, has no receptivity to challenging evidence or argument and refuses to compromise. These emotions of love and hate are often the positive and negative poles of the same emotion, for as it is normal to love that which represents one's values, so it is also normal to hate that which represents the antithesis of one's values and threatens them with harm or destruction.

Reducing the behaviour of the opposing group erases their humanity and they are no longer another person with intricate thoughts, feelings and actions, therefore easier to hate. Hatred, a negative emotion derived from the primary emotion of love, is in itself not immoral, until behaviour disregards, violates or causes harm to the legitimate rights and interests of others. Hence, the problem with simplistic thinking, whether reductionism or extremism in a political or religious sense, is that in a world of almost infinite complexity and variety it rarely provides an accurate portrayal of real life, complicating social interactions.

Self & Psychology

Reductionist theories are considered inappropriate to the study of human subjectivity and experience because the emergent property that we have to take account of is that of the “whole person”. Otherwise, it does not make sense when attempting to understand the meaning of any human behaviour. Third force psychologists emerged with a humanistic reaction against the psychological perspectives that reduce behaviour to a set of simple elements. Their starting point is the self - our sense of personal identity - which they consider as a functioning whole. In other words, the identity is an “organised, consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself”, to quote psychotherapist, Carl Rogers. It includes an awareness of the person ‘I’ am and could be. It directs one's behaviour in all the consciously chosen aspects of our lives and is the most essential and unique quality of a human being. A holistic point of view is, therefore, in humanistic terms, the very basis of all knowledge of the human psyche.


In Conclusion

Reductionist thinking rules society. Without it, the modern world as we know it would not exist without the technical marvels that come from putting pieces together in novel ways to create often spectacular new inventions, many of which change our lives in profound ways. Within this context, by breaking elements down to their individual parts to understand them in detail we can aim to know absolutely everything important there is to know within the realm of science or technology.

The primary disadvantage of applying a reductionist view to oneself, others or the world is that you will frequently be wrong in your conclusions. An individual often has mixed motivations for doing things, is inconsistent and changes their attitudes and behaviour over time. Project this to all people in different cultural settings and you are left with a high degree of variability in human nature. For example, for a complex social issue like poverty, a reductionist point of view looks for a single cause: fix X and Y will be solved. Raise the minimum wage and no one will be poor. But society is more complex in reality and by focusing on only one cause, reductionist thinking frequently misses other influencers, which can lead to disastrous decisions, whether in government, business or our personal lives.