Sources of error: the illusory illusions of reductionism

While my discussions elsewhere are settling down, it’s time to finally tackle one basic issue that underlies all reductionist endeavours, I need to write this down also to justify much of my claims on matters of brains and minds. In these pages I’ve frequently hinted at the notion that any given epistemological approach necessarily comes with its own idiosyncratic problems; or, if you prefer, will come with some inherent blind-spots. In this post I’ll discuss the obvious trouble that comes with reductionism*. It’s a bit sad that this seems necessary, but after lengthy discussions I’ve come to the conclusion that writing the following in clear language might be useful: the implications I will describe seem to be missed or overlooked by far too many people.
Blue alarm clock (1)
Imagine a very young me, I used to have a blue alarm clock, very much like the one shown here. One day I got hold of a set of tiny screwdrivers and carefully dismantled it to find out how it works. After several hours, having reconstructed and de-constructed the whole thing many times, I got a very good understanding of how it worked. Satisfied with my new knowledge I went to see dad, waving the clock and proudly announcing:

Dad, I’ve discovered that this isn’t an alarm clock: in reality it is just a bunch of smaller objects arranged in such a way that they look as if this was a unique object, but it really isn’t.

I was an inquisitive and philosophically inclined child! This little story is invented, but it does sound like me at a young age. A sensible reaction from dad would have been to explain me that this is how most “things” work: they are made of smaller parts, arranged in such a way that they produce coherent behaviours. This applies to man-made mechanisms, but to living organisms as well: in the case of biology the smaller parts are much, much smaller.

The hypothetical episode accounts for the “obvious” quality of my whole point: we all know the imaginary child-me reached a naïve and unhelpful conclusion. However, we do use reductionist approaches to study much more complex natural phenomena, and when we do, we frequently forget about the inevitable implications, and repeat the same error, over and over, and over and over again.

To proceed in order, the first thing to observe is that when dismantling the clock, imaginary-me was actually applying standard reductionist methodology. The aim was to “understand how the clock works”, and to do this, I dismantled it, carefully studied how its internal parts interact, and was therefore able to more or less grasp how the overall behaviour is produced by the interactions of its smaller parts. Was I wrong in saying that it isn’t an alarm clock? Clearly, but the underlying assumption: “it is not a single entity, it is actually made of many single objects” was correct. If I had concluded “it isn’t a single object” it would have been equally naïve and unhelpful, but somewhat less wrong. We can all see why: as long as it works, in everyday life makes sense to treat and consider the alarm-clock as a single object, even if we are perfectly aware that we can dismantle it into smaller components. However, this whole thought experiment uncovers a general pattern, which we do tend to forget for complex enough domains: reductionism relies on the assumption that we can dismantle our object of study into smaller parts. Thus, it requires to treat “our object of study” as something that only appears to be unitary, but can in fact be subdivided. When it comes to alarm clocks, nobody gets surprised, but when it comes to the study of minds, almost everyone is ready to jump to unwarranted conclusions.

Before diving into philosophy of mind, there is one more thing that our alarm clock example uncovers. Another conclusion I could have reached (if I was even more philosophically inclined!) is:

Dad, I’ve discovered that the trilling sound this clock makes is an emergent quality. None of the components of the clock can make that sound on their own, but when you piece them together in exactly this way, the result is able to make this remarkable sound. It’s fascinating!

The above would have been entirely correct, but probably none of us is likely to be equally fascinated by such emergence. That’s just how things work, right? Indeed, but again, when it comes to philosophy of mind (and many other equally challenging subjects) people regularly spend plenty of efforts trying to uncover the mysterious laws of emergence, reflecting on what emergence really is or other related, ultimately self-explanatory riddles. I’ve got news (and I’m sad to realise they are news to some): emergence is an artefact of reductionism. Whenever you try to understand a phenomenon by identifying the smaller parts that produce it, and describing how such smaller parts interact, you are assuming that the actual phenomenon is an emergent property of the underlying system. Emergence is implicit in the hypotheses that make reductionism possible (and tremendously useful). There is nothing mysterious about emergence: it is an entirely (and inadvertently) invented phenomenon, it is the result of the most useful strategy that we use to understand how reality unfolds. Emergence is epistemic: it’s the flip side of the explanatory power of reductionism. Just like any other epistemic approach, reductionism has its own blind spots, one is about emergence.

That’s not to say that reductionism is flawed: I’m a fanatic defender of reductionism, but my fanaticism requires me to spend some time and effort understanding the limits and blind spots of reductionism, so to compensate my own biases. So here is one: you can’t explain what emergence really is in reductionist terms, because reductionism implies emergence. Reductionism works because regular interactions between smaller parts can frequently generate coherent behaviours on a larger scale. That’s it, can we please stop wasting rivers of ink/bytes on such a non-problem?

No, we clearly can’t. Why can’t we? I don’t really know, but we still can’t.

To show that the errors/limitations I mention above are really worth discussing and clarifying, I will use the example of philosophy of mind (because I know something about it), other people might want to try the same exercise with quantum or theoretical physics, if they are so inclined.

If Free Will is an illusion, also my alarm clock is illusory.

If you have the slightest interest in minds you almost certainly have heard of the Libet experiments on free will: according to the prevalent narrative, the experiments show that free will does not exist, it’s an illusion. If the straightforward interpretation of the results is correct we must conclude that we become conscious of our own “free” decisions only after having made them. Therefore the idea that we consciously make decision has to be wrong.

The Libet experiment is clearly reductionist: it tries to isolate the different parts of the decision making process, and see how they interact (in a very coarse fashion!). By proceeding in this way, it assumes that there are different parts in the process, and that they interact. If they interact, it goes without saying that some things will happen before some others. Thus, what the results tell us is that indeed it seems that the decision-making process is made of smaller, distinguishable mechanisms. Or, it tells us that reduction can indeed help us to understand how we make decisions. We can thus infer that  one day it might be possible to explain human decision-making in mechanistic terms . What would have been surprising is very different: if it turned out that we became aware of having decided something before any associated activity happened in the brain, that would have left open the possibility that something non-material was generating the decision, leaving various forms of dualism somewhat viable. So where does the “Libet demonstrates that free will is an illusion” claim come from? There are two interpretations of this claim, naturally: the weak interpretations claims that “free will and/or our sense of agency aren’t what they seem on first inspection“. To us it naturally seems that we consciously make decisions, but if we admit that some underlying brain mechanisms must make our “conscious decisions” possible, and therefore expect reductionism to be useful, we are already accepting that:

a. these underlying mechanisms are not consciously perceived (otherwise we would have tried to dissect them, not our entire sense of agency).
b. if these mechanisms do exist, they won’t all happen at the same time, and there would need to be a temporal distance between settling for one choice and perceiving the result of the choice.

Negating b. requires to add some magical extra-temporal element, not the typical ingredient of scientific and reductionist efforts. Thus, I don’t have a problem with this interpretation, except noting that Libet’s (and many others’) experiments merely confirm what we already assumed (points a. and b.): they confirm that our agency depends on brain mechanisms, which is what we wanted to verify from the very start.

The second interpretation is that “free will is an illusion, in the sense that it doesn’t exist”. This is the claim that gets on my nerves…

The differences with the clock example help understand why we tend to jump to the wrong conclusion in one case but not the other.
In the clock case, we perceive it as a unitary object, but we know from experience that mechanical objects are made of smaller moving parts. Each one of us would have seen, touched and experienced the presence of such (or analogous) smaller parts, and witnessed how mechanisms interact to produce coherent behaviours. On the other hand, when it comes to our own decision making processes, the only experience we have of them comes from introspection: from that point of view, they (almost) always  look unitary. However we might try, we never get the chance to observe the inner workings of our (or someone else’s) decision making mechanisms. Thus, we always consider only their face value, and get genuinely surprised if a scientist uncovers some tiny detail of their inner workings. The sad fact is that we (assuming my readers are naturalistically inclined and don’t believe on supernatural souls or similar fantasies) should be surprised if scientists were unable to discover any of these inner-workings, not the other way round.
Once again: if we study a system in reductionist terms, we start with the assumption that it can be subdivided into smaller parts. Finding out that this assumption does hold grants us exactly the same right to declare that “free will is an illusion” and that “the alarm clock doesn’t exist in itself, it’s just a bunch of carefully assembled smaller objects”. Both conclusions are somewhat correct (in the most charitable reading), but the only thing they tell us is that there is hope that we can find interesting things by applying reductionism to the study of clocks and free will. Few people/scientists are surprised by the latter conclusion, but for some reason, most don’t see why it is equivalent to the “illusion” statement (in the weak form). For the clock, we would all react as my dad would have, and say something like “don’t be silly, of course it’s made of smaller parts, that’s why it works”. In the case of free will, because we are introspectively blind to its inner workings, discovering that it’s made of smaller-interacting parts, tends to make us conclude “it’s an illusion” (as in: it doesn’t exist). This isn’t formally wrong, but I completely fail to understand what makes the conclusion useful. Do we make decisions? Yes. Do we have some perception associated with making decisions? Yes, it feels like exercising free will. That’s it.

Thanks to Libet and many after him, we now have many reasons to believe that our ability of making decisions is the result of some mechanisms inside our brains. Thus, our free will is an emergent quality of our brains, in the same way as the trilling sound is an emergent quality of the alarm clock. Neither the clock, nor the trill, nor the brain, nor the fact that we make decisions are non-existent. They might be different from what they look like at first sight. But they still exist.

The same kind of reasoning applies to “the self”**. If we study our brains/minds in reductionist terms, we start with the assumption that someday/somehow we’ll be able to isolate the inner workings that produce our sense of self. We should be surprised if this attempt will prove to be impossible, not if we’ll find some ways to proceed. But above all, we should not conclude that “the self” is an illusion, only because reductionism is working as expected. In the same way, being surprised that the self will start looking as an emergent quality of brain/minds is equally naïve: it’s why we thought that reductionism would work in the first place!

This isn’t to say that free will, the self, or consciousness are not somewhat illusionary. I’m the first one to admit that they are not what they look like at first sight (that’s why philosophy of mind is so much fun!). However, if you use the successful results of reductionist science to declare that any of the above is an Illusion as in “it doesn’t really exist”, you are actually demonstrating that you don’t understand how reductionism works, and nothing else.

Notes and References:

*As far as I know, and to my complete surprise, the only argument that comes close to what I discuss here also comes from philosophy of mind, but applies to a slightly different issue, namely the claim that consciousness (or qualia, or phenomenal experience) are epiphenomena. Jaegwon Kim (1993) uses the example of pumps instead of an alarm clock, but the underlying logic seems the same to me. It is used to show that causality chains change according to how we (semi-arbitrarily) pick what is to be considered as the “underlying mechanisms” (or smaller objects that make up the clock), thus, showing that behaviour is caused by mental mechanisms does not imply that consciousness (or qualia, or phenomenal experience) can’t have any causal effect.

**Therefore hollowing out the standard incompatibilist view of free-will: if our decisions are the result of some mechanism, they can’t be our decisions – they just happen, whether we want it or not. Our will is therefore irrelevant/epiphenomenal. Hello? Of course my decisions are the result of some mechanism, the small detail is that these mechanisms (along with lots of others) are precisely the best possible definition of what makes me me. I am the system that hosts these mechanisms, they are part of me. So yes, I am taking my own decision, because I am (also) made of the mechanisms that make them possible (or necessary), duh.

Kim, J. (1993). Supervenience and mind: Selected philosophical essays. Cambridge University Press.
Libet, B. (1993). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. In Neurophysiology of consciousness (pp. 269-306). Birkhäuser Boston.
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Posted in Neuroscience, Psychology, Science, Stupidity
19 comments on “Sources of error: the illusory illusions of reductionism
  1. ihtio says:


    A month-old post! I have some catching up to do!

    I have noticed that you frequently use the term “emergence” without providing a full account on how we should understand it in the context of the entire post. “Emergence” – as most words in our languages – is used with different meanings in mind.
    Isn’t it the case that you are arguing against “emergence” that you think many people understand the same way you do, but they actually have something else in mind?

    You write:
    emergence: it is an entirely (and inadvertently) invented phenomenon, it is the result of the most useful strategy that we use to understand how reality unfolds.
    So you are saying that there are other things in science that are something else than “the most useful strategy we use to understand how reality unfolds”? If so, then what are those?
    Is the idea of transcription of genes and the production of proteins in a cell something else than the most useful strategy we use to understand how reality unfolds”?

    I wouldn’t want to comment on Libet’s experiments as I don’t really think why “free” will should necessarily be a conscious one.

    PS. You may be interested in my post that discusses your computationalism + physicalism ideas from Conscious Entities:

  2. Sergio Graziosi says:

    ihtio, nice to have you back.
    On computationalism, I’ve left you a hasty reply on CE, if you want more, let me know and we’ll continue on your own blog.

    As for this reply, I’m afraid I once more struggle to identify the core of your objection. I don’t provide a formal description of emergence (because I thought I didn’t need to), but I start the relevant discussion with a clear example:

    the trilling sound this clock makes is an emergent quality. None of the components of the clock can make that sound on their own, but when you piece them together in exactly this way, the result is able to make this remarkable sound.

    As usual, when discussing this kind of philosophical(?) concepts I try to be as inclusive as possible. I thought (and still do) that the article made it clear that you could apply the “emergence” concept to classic examples: the liquidity of water, the self-organisation of certain complex systems, or, in my own words, all those very disparate cases where “regular interactions between smaller parts […] generate coherent behaviours on a larger scale”.
    I suppose we could then start dissecting the notion of “coherent behaviour”, and get together in yet another rabbit hole (or endless recursion), but I guess that’s not your intention either.
    That’s to say that I was (and still am) hoping that my point was clear enough. Does the above help?

    Finally, of course there are other things in science, besides reduction. You have theories, you have endless ways to formulate new theories and/or extend existing ones, you have relatively informal methods to compare alternative hypotheses, you have all sorts of ways to infer hypotheses starting from raw data, the list could go on for a long time. Naturally, I don’t really see how a scientific enquiry might work if it excluded reduction from the acceptable methods (can someone think of a scientific theory that is both widely accepted and doesn’t at least partially rely on reductionism?), but I do know some people are trying. For example, this lot have high (and in my opinion futile) ambitions. Personally, I don’t think their project is feasible, and I’ll be eager to see their output, but you won’t hear me saying “you are not allowed to try that” on a-priori grounds. You can only know if it works by trying.
    Do I need to reiterate that I’m a fanatic defender of reductionism? That’s why I spend time thinking about its drawbacks: you need to understand the limits of your tools, in order to use them to their full potential.

    • ihtio says:


      Sure, I would like to continue the discussion about computationalism. It may be even more appropriate to leave the discussion where it belongs – on Conscious Entities.

      I noticed your example of a clock and its trilling sound. However when I read your fragment:

      when it comes to philosophy of mind (and many other equally challenging subjects) people regularly spend plenty of efforts trying to uncover the mysterious laws of emergence, reflecting on what emergence really is or other related, ultimately self-explanatory riddles.

      I thought that you are referring to something else (this “mysterious” phrase mislead me). Maybe I just got confused.

      Similar mishap probably happened to me when I read your piece(s) on reductionism. I got the impression that you think that “science is reductionist” (not a direct quote of yours) and that it is per contra to saying that “science is deductive”.

      So it seems that I am the cause of all misunderstandings. Damn…

  3. Sorry, disagree that the Libet experiment is reductionistic. Reductionistic, if not simplistic, is most people’s understanding of it, without reading everything Libet said himself about it, for starters.

  4. Sergio Graziosi says:

    reductionistic and simplistic? Yes.
    Studying the brain is like trying to understand how a modern car works, without knowing it needs fuel, having no key to ignite it, but armed with a hammer, a stethoscope and a voltmeter.
    You simply have no option: got to start with very basic stuff and build up from there.

    Can’t something be reductionist and simplistic? I don’t see them as mutually exclusive.

    Or am I misreading your comment? I have the bad feeling that I might have misunderstood what you mean entirely…

  5. I wish when people talk about free will they would first define what they mean by the term. Different people seem to mean different things by it and end up talking past each other.

    And when people say “free will is not what you think it is”, how do they know? How do they know what I think free will is?

    For some people maybe substitutability, ie the “could have done otherwise” is important. For others it might be that the conscious intention was the major factor in determining whch course of action was taken. For some it might be both. So the question of whether or not a person has free will depends precisely on what they mean by it.

    Also the “doesn’t mean what you think it does” construction is suspect. Suppose John asks Bill when when he is going to repay his debt and Bill replies “I did repay you, it is just that repayment doesn’t mean what you think it does”, I doubt it would satisfy John.

    So when you say “you do have free will, it just isn’t what it seems at first sight” it is really just a way of saying “you don’t have free will”.

  6. Also, I thought that reductionism was the proposition that science was a unity at the level of theories and that principles at any level could be ‘reduced’ to more fundamental theories via bridge laws, and that Fodor had shown this doesn’t work back in the ’70s.

    A compression wave travelling though a gas cannot be understood using by studying the properties of atoms. The microstate of the system cannot predict the future microstate, but the macrostate can predict the future macrostate – but you need rules that apply only at the macro level. The same applies to 2nd law of thermodynamics type behaviour.

    You can’t understand the laws of supply and demand by dissecting brains, that sort of thing.

    That was my understanding of ’emergence’, law like behaviour that occurred only at the level of collections of things and couldn’t be inferred from a knowledge of the lower level system.

  7. stevenjohnson says:

    Reductionism, as I read you, can be summarized as “Emergence is reductionism backwards, or it is magic.” Since some people want to believe in magic without the embarrassment of saying so out loud, I’m not sure the argument will be accepted. I suspect drawing a distinction between reductionism and emergence is at best confusion, but at worst a ploy. For what it’s worth I agree.

    But this footnote: “**Therefore hollowing out the standard incompatibilist view of free-will: if our decisions are the result of some mechanism, they can’t be our decisions – they just happen, whether we want it or not. Our will is therefore irrelevant/epiphenomenal. Hello? Of course my decisions are the result of some mechanism, the small detail is that these mechanisms (along with lots of others) are precisely the best possible definition of what makes me me. I am the system that hosts these mechanisms, they are part of me. So yes, I am taking my own decision, because I am (also) made of the mechanisms that make them possible (or necessary), duh.”

    My experience of other controversies in fields I know better strongly suggest that one person’s standard account is likely to be seen as a straw man by another. I don’t know whether it’s the standard incompatibilist account. But it seems to me the essence is the claim that one cannot assume that the conscious volition is not what chooses the desires. That instead of contemplative reason being a metaphysical reality, a faculty of the soul, conscious volition is instrumental reason that endeavors to make choices to satisfice desires, or to deal with their frustration. (I would add that I see reason as instrumental or nothing. Perhaps this is the same as rejecting philosophy as sermons from ministers without portfolio, i.e., denomination?)

    Compatibilism is about insisting people choose to be hungry when they should be dieting, and insisting that “I” can always choose not to eat. Compatibilism is about how “I” chose to become an alcohoic/drug addict. Compatibilism is about how “I” could choose to surmount all sorts of social, economic and political handicaps to want to be a good law abiding citizen. I’m afraid I think compatibilism is not common sense, but conformism, apologies for customary law and morality, no matter what. Almost. In my experience, compatibilists will graciously acknowledge the existence of the exceptional psychosis….then let the lawyers do their work. There was I seem to remember recently a murder out west, where a schizophrenic suffering delusions about people coming to hurt him. When he resisted police, he was gunned down. The legal judgment was that this was justified homicide. The law is compatibilism in action.

    There is one sense in which free can exist, namely, when there is no duress or compulsion keeping someone from doing what they want. Yet, as near as I can tell, compatibilists insist that one is exercising free will when one acknowledges the compulsion from law. And therefore that punishment is just. The compatibilist idea that free will is both doing what you want and doing what you are supposed strikes me as openly self-contradictory. Even in philosophy, that should be a red flag, shouldn’t it?

    As near as I can tell, all compatibilist accounts are equivocations about who “I” is, The notion that since “I,” a determinate volition, product of the whole mind, both conscious and unconscious, always morphs into the assumption that “I’ is the conscious mind choosing, obviously, consciously. And therefore issues about human variation in capacity for self-control and in the desires can be ignored, unless the revolt of common sense and common decency forces lip service to supposedly extreme cases involving “insanity.”

  8. stevejohnson

    Since some people want to believe in magic without the embarrassment of saying so out loud, I’m not sure the argument will be accepted

    There is nothing magic about a neural network, but you can study the components of it all you like and never guess what it does.

  9. Sergio Graziosi says:

    you make a few interesting points!
    Re defining free will, I’m guilty as charged… Since writing this, I have changed my position slightly, specifically because I’ve learned to appreciate how hopelessly blurry the distinction between strong and soft ‘illusionism’ is.
    You are right, there is an important sense in which saying “X is not what you think it is” is equivalent to saying “what you call X doesn’t exist”.
    On the other hand, the two statements are different, and send us down what I (currently) think is the correct way to approach these matters, which is uncompromisingly epistemological. For example, if we, for argument’s sake accept the two propositions as true (“X is not what you think it is” and thus “what you call X doesn’t exist”), we would still have to figure out what made you think that X exsists and what exactly do you refer to when mentioning X (or maybe identify the ’cause’ of your beliefs about X). I assume you’ve heard about Chalmers’ recent paper on the meta-problem. I think he’s asking the right questions there (while proposing answers I don’t find convincing), and that the same kind of approach should be used to frame a good proportion of open questions in philosophy of mind, including those around agency and free will.

    Re reductionism, a similar set of problems exist. People use the word in different ways…
    In our case, we are getting caught in the often overlooked distinction between a reductionist methodology (what my OP focuses about) and reductionism as a metaphysical thesis (at the root of what you are pointing out, if I’ve got your message). Again, I like to start from epistemological grounds: the (numerous) successes of reductionist methods, in my view, are the reason why the metaphysical thesis looks attractive. However, finding the methodological successes remarkable does not automatically allow to conclude that supervenience is the only game in town (that is: accepting that “everything” reduces to its lower components, or, if you prefer, accepting reductionism as a radical metaphysical stance).
    Moreover, what we (mere humans) can “infer from knowledge of the lower level system” does not necessarily coincide with what is theoretically possible to infer. Can we be sure that we can’t infer “the laws of supply and demand by [studying] brains” because we simply don’t have enough intellectuall powers? In this case, I think we do need to study/understand many more things, as well as brains, but I am not ready to conclude that supervenience certainly does not apply. Thus, I opt for humbleness and admit that I don’t know if it does.

    A bit like you, re illusionism about “free will”, I find the following approach really attractive: some make a sharp distinction between strong and weak emergence. Strong cases are those where it’s metaphysically impossible to understand the macro behaviours by looking only at the micro level. Weak emergence is where such a possibility exists, but we don’t necessarily have already learned how to do it. For me, it seems that this distinction is misleading: when we don’t know how to move from micro to macro, we are in a state of ignorance, and thus, should not be happy to declare that we are facing a case of strong emergence: once again, I think we should opt for epistemological humbleness and admit that we don’t know.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts, it was useful for me to try making the points above explicit. I hope some of the above makes sense to you.

  10. Sergio Graziosi says:

    I might be misreading you, but yes, we probably agree re reductionism vs. emergence.

    Re (in)compatilism, I hear you about straw-men, and I might indeed be guilty. In my defence, I can only say that I did relegate the argument into a somewhat jesty footnote and that I didn’t say that my view “invalidates” incompatibilism or compatibilism. With “hollowing out” I was trying to suggest that the distinction between compatibilism/incompatiblism is, IMHO, unhelpful. It does pinpoint important political flash points, which seem to be very heated especially in North America. I’m based in Europe, so I find the whole debate puzzling, somewhat amusing, but also deeply troubling, for what it’s worth.

    I am not comfortable with entering the debate in the way you are framing it, specifically because I am pretty sure I don’t understand the cultural baggage that comes with it. Or not understand it well, enough, at least…

  11. stevenjohnson says:

    Sergio Graziosi, I can appreciate your caution in weighing in on matters of crime and punishment and compatibilism as justification and guide in such matters. I’m not quite sure what the point of devising compatibilism is, otherwise.

    Robin Herbert Perhaps it is my ignorance speaking? I thought that in the initial state the parts of a neural network are all the same. The parts only become different as the neural network engages in self-modification during a kind of learning process. I don’t understand what it means to study the parts without studying the changes in the parts, much less omitting the interactions with the task that induce them. The kind of reductionism that seeks to find the elements that produce the result as a kind of emanation of their metaphysical nature strikes me as flawed not because it is reductionistic, but because it is essentialistic, metaphysical. It’s also true, if I understand correctly, that predicting the outcomes by reading the weighting of the elements of the network is computationally impossible. But that seems to be a way of saying that being determinate means being predictable. I don’t think that’s clear at all. It seems to me your objection is like demanding that someone study the inside of an old fashioned cuckoo clock to figure out that there must be a dial and hands.

  12. brodix says:


    My own form of reductionism is to see reality as a dichotomy of energy and form/information.
    Energy manifests form, while form defines energy. Because energy is dynamic, it is constantly changing form. Thus the effect of time, where the energy is conserved, so only present, while the forms coalesce and dissolve into the next. Consequently the real flow of time is future to past, within this state of presence. Tomorrow becomes yesterday, because the earth turns.

    Evidence for this dichotomy is that we evolved a central nervous system, largely designed to process information/form and the gut to digest energy, with the circulation system to cycle it throughout the body, including the brain. It should be noted that some primitive societies considered the gut as the source of consciousness and like energy going from one event to the next, while always and only present, so too does consciousness go from one thought to the next, while always only present.

    While energy is inherently dynamic, form is necessarily static, or it would lose any clarity.

    This dichotomy seems prevalent throughout nature. Consider galaxies are energy radiating out, as mass/form coalesces in. While the current mathematical argument is this form falls into a black hole, the evidence seems to strongly suggest it actually gets radiated back out again. First as star light, as this mass becomes ever more condensed, then finally as jets of plasma out the poles, in the final stage. Resulting in an overall cycle. Seemingly a cosmic convection cycle.

    Then when we consider human society, it would seem the social central nervous system, of regulation and executive function, evolved though tribal leaders and elders, to monarchies and now to the moderately functional public utility it is today. There is also a communal circulation system, in finance and money, but as we experience it as quantified hope and security, the tendency is to save and pull what are essentially vouchers out of circulation. Freezing up the system and inviting unsupported excess notes to be flooded in, creating financial cycles. Eventually it will evolve, as we come to realize money is the social contract holding enormous societies together, not just a commodity to be mined from society.

    Which is a point in support of the fact that emergence is generally just not fully understanding the dynamics at work.

  13. brodix says:


    A brief reply to your last post at FTP; While I suppose reductionism would be a means and essentialism would be an ends, I see the larger reality as a dichotomy of opposites, resulting in a cyclical effect, so the opposite of essentialism would be wholism.

    We try to distill these nodes of definition out of their context, up to the point of maximum usefulness, then accept them as aspects of the relations giving rise to them. Otherwise we risk becoming “experts.” Those who know more and more, of less and less, until they know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing.

  14. (Professor Massimo Pigliucci recently linked to Sergio’s post here: )

    I often find it difficult to have productive discussions over at Massimo’s for various reasons, such as his tiny window. So I’ll instead try this here. I don’t need a quick response, or any at all if you don’t quite feel it. But see what you think about this…

    We seem quite agreed — rivers of ink have been flowing on this topic, but with little sign of a true problem. Yes emergence is inherent to the premise of reduction. And yes “free will” should emerge as well, even under a perfectly determined reality. We may not be free in an ultimate sense, but we certainly are free from our own tiny perspectives. Regardless we need to hold people accountable for their actions.

    Instead of trying to reduce phenomena that we don’t understand to more basic components, I believe that we generally use a more productive approach. This is to consider various patterns in our mental arsenals to see if any of them seem useful to address various things that we’re curious about. For example your doctor probably didn’t generally learn about human anatomy by being taught how constituent parts make up each anatomical unit. Instead a tremendous set of analogies should have been developed, such as “The heart functions like a pump”. I’ll venture to guess that the consciousness model which you’ve developed is not so much a product of reduction, but rather a product of analogies that you’ve found effective. That’s certainly how my own such model was developed (not that reductions aren’t also welcome when they become apparent).

    So what do you think of this “analogy” rather than “reduction” brand of epistemology?

  15. Sergio Graziosi says:

    I think there might be something into your ideas about time, but I’m afraid I find your prose and/or concepts hard to grasp. We seem to lack a common language, and as a result, I don’t really know what to say. I can’t even pinpoint spots of disagreement (a very rare situation, for me!) ;-).

    Eric: the standard position about “understanding via analogy” is that the approach is powerful, incomplete and dangerous at the same time.
    Powerful: I don’t need to convince you.
    Incomplete: if I understand A by noting the analogy with B, it means that I rely on my understanding of B. Thus, analogy can’t be at the foundation of understanding, something else needs to exist in order to get the chain of analogies started.
    Dangerous: of course analogies should not be expected to be as strong as perfect correspondence. Thus, we know in advance that they sometimes fail. However, if we rely on an analogy, we don’t find elements to predict when it will fail, at least, not within the analogy itself. Thus, we incur in the risk of making big mistakes while having no direct way to be warned about them.
    IOW, my view is that anaogies are powerful, useful and prone to be misapplied. They also don’t offer us an explanation on how we justify our beliefs, they also do not offer a solid ground on which to build new beliefs/theories…

    • Agreed Sergio. I didn’t mean to imply that analogy gets the entire job done by itself, but rather that it can be an extremely useful tool from which to gain effective understandings. For example we can imagine a medical doctor in training continually tweaking various already grasped models (and well beyond an electric pump!), in order for his/her education to actually take. But reduction? No I don’t think that we generally learn how things work by observing their constituent parts. By simply taking a clock apart and having a look you’d have been one hell of a gifted boy if you could then understand it anything close to the level of the person who actually designed and built it! The clock builder, like the medical doctor, will probably gain such advanced understandings in non reductive ways, and highly augmented by tweaking existing models that are already at his/her disposal.

      My second of two principles of epistemology seems to address the holes in lone analogy that you’ve mentioned. This is to say “how we justify our beliefs”, and I think provides reasonably “solid ground on which to build new beliefs/theories.”

      There is only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. It takes what it thinks it knows (evidence), and uses this to assess what it’s not so sure about (a model). As a model continues to remain consistent with evidence, it tends to become progressively more believed.

      As for “the risk of making big mistakes while having no direct way to be warned about them”, hey I’m no god! 🙂 Still in your own general deliberations, I’d love for you to take this model out for a spin.

  16. brodix says:


    I suppose that is a pitfall of being an outsider.

    Given the basis of thought is narrative, I find it causes some degree of mental distress to question it, especially among those who are well educated. For instance, I once told a cardiologist friend the point about time and her response was; “Shut up. You’re hurting my brain.” Around the same time I was discussing it with another friend and his teenaged daughter commented; “Well duh.”

    I grew up in the horse industry and while I never settled into it completely, I did develop a good sense of the horse point of view. It was less traumatic than the people I knew.

  17. […] problem with this approach, however, is that the real world isn’t nearly as reductionistic as people imagine. When researchers feed mice these isolated substances, they rarely experience the same effects as […]

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