September 12, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Are Scientific Models Reductionist?

Scientific models can be useful in science, as long as one is aware of their limitations.

The Reductionism Fallacy: Examples

A music critic described a Beethoven string quartet as “Horse’s hair scraping on cat’s gut.”  You are what you eat. (Have some more nuts/turkey/chicken.)  The human body is just carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, a little phosphorus and some trace minerals.  Marriage is just sex.  The Constitution is just a piece of paper.  A bird is an egg’s way of making another egg.  An organism is just a gene’s way of making another gene (Richard Dawkins)  Religion is just man’s attempt to explain mysterious phenomena, like lightning.  Human personality is the sum total of neurotransmitter interactions in the brain.  Thomas Hobbes: all social interactions, including ethics and morals, can be reduced to the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain.  Evolutionary game theory: altruism and cooperation are artifacts of social interactions processed by natural and sexual selection; the principles are equally valid for bacteria, fruit flies and human beings  The ratomorphic fallacy (Arthur Koestler): treating humans like just another species of lab rat.  “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” (Carl Sagan, Cosmos).

Is Modeling Reductionist?

A standard technique in scientific explanation is modeling, or reducing a complex phenomenon into idealized or simplified components that are more amenable to mathematical manipulation. Newton represented an orbiting body by a point mass, for instance, while working out the law of gravity. No scientific theory should be considered valid or complete, however, unless it can be reconciled with the real world to an acceptable degree of approximation that is both useful and falsifiable. The fallacy of reductionism lies in asserting that the subset represents the essence of the whole, and nothing else need be considered in the explanation: e.g., Thomas Hobbes’ view of man as merely a machine subject to physical laws. Clearly our bodies obey the law of gravity, but can our human qualities like honesty, rationality or altruism be reduced to material substances? In his view, yes – but then, such an assumption would undermine his own rationality, and consequently, the validity of his philosophical system (see self-referential fallacy).


Note: From September 7 to 23, new articles on CEH will be sparse or non-existent while the Editor is on travel and speaking. Thanks for your patience.

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