Philosophical Reductionism

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The 2nd article in the humanist manifesto includes the following statement:  “As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context.”

The philosophy that lies behind this statement is what is known as “reductionism.” Reductionism says that in examining any phenomenon the scientific explanation is the only valid one available to us. An honest analysis of such a statement implies that human beings are nothing more than accumulations of matter and can thus be explained in terms of atoms and molecules. This philosophy possesses some well known adherents as notably in Francis Crick who, alongside James Watson, discovered the double helix structure of DNA. Crick has espoused what he has called an “astonishing hypothesis”; he writes:

‘“You”, your joys and sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’” (1). Atheist chemist Peter Atkins likewise claims that human decision making “At the deepest level, are adjustments of the dispositions of atoms in the molecules inside large numbers of cells in the brain” (2). Richard Dawkins, on his book The Selfish Gene, claims that we are merely “survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (3). Psychologist Skinner claims that “Man is a machine in the sense that he is a complex system behaving in lawful ways” (5).

Despite some high profile proponents there are, alternatively, those who are skeptical that human beings can be reduced to nothing but atoms and molecules. Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics, articulates: “It is the essence of all scientific theories that they cannot resolve everything. Science cannot answer the questions that philosophers – or children – ask: why are we here, what is the point of being alive, how ought we to behave? Genetics has almost nothing to say about what makes us more than just machines driven by biology, about what makes us human. These questions may be interesting, but scientists are no more qualified to comment on them than is anyone else” (6).

Christian writer John Blanchard criticizes reducing humans to that of mere machines: “Can a computer express love, hatred, pride, prejudice, sympathy, jealousy, fear or joy? Can any machine known to man lose its temper, change its mind, express its independent approval or exercise self-control? Is there any machine that can set out to make an impression, influence people’s thinking or make moral judgements? Can any machine enjoy good music or a beautiful sunset? Does any machine ask questions about its origin, character or destiny? Does a computer know it is a computer?” (7) In a similar vein philosopher Paul Ziff denounces the idea that man is just a machine by pointing out distinctions between them: “A machine uses power, but a man has lunch. A machine can take, but a man can borrow. A machine can kill, but a man can murder. A machine can calculate, but a man can be calculating. A machine can break down, but a man can have a breakdown” (8). To which Blanchard comments: “To say that human beings are just machines contradicts everything we know about both. A totally new dimension would need to be added to machinery before it would even approximate to humanity, and a vital dimension would need to be removed from humanity before it could ever be reduced to machinery.” Reductionism, points out Robert Morey, fails to ground the human beings transcendent nature: “The fact that man remembers the past, perceives the present and anticipates the future reveals that he is a transcendent self as well as a body” (10).

Reductionism, many have argued, raises far more problems than it claims to solve. For example, it cannot explain why a whole person seems to be more than the sum of his physical parts. It provides no basis for conscience, imagination, intention, desire for freedom and the power of reflective choice. It also fails to satisfy the demands of reason and human experience. It likewise fails to ground belief which would arguably be its fatal flaw; as atheist biologist J. Haldane notes:

“If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms” (11). A challenge on which Blanchard claims that “No humanist has yet been able to produce a credible response to… To reduce the human personality to ‘a function of the biological organism’ is to step outside of reality. It is also to destroy any credible sense of purpose or hope” (12).


1. Crick, F. 1994. The Astonishing Hypothesis, the Scientific Search for the Soul. p. 3.

2. Atkins, P. 1981. The Creation. p. 35.

3. Dawkins, R. 1976. The Selfish Gene. p. v.

4. Dawkins, R. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. p.10.

5. Skinner, B. 1971. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. p.202.

6. Jones, J. 1993. The Language of the Genes. p. xi.

7. Blanchard, J. 2002. Does God Believe in Atheists? p. 246 (Scribd ebook format)

8. Cited by Cook in Blind Alley Beliefs. p. 40.

9. Blanchard, J. 2002. ibid.

10. Morey, R. 1986. The New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom. p. 102.

11. Haldane, J. 1927. Possible Worlds. p. 209.

12.  Blanchard, J. 2002. ibid. p. 248.


One response to “Philosophical Reductionism

  1. Simply because reductionism introduces more problems, this does not mean that it is incorrect. I can make up a crazy theory that solves every scientific and philosophical issue we know of, but if the initial premise is too outlandish, it is still not a valid theory. This is arguably the case for the soul– I believe that humans believe they have souls, and I do not think that statements concerning the soul are invalid (in any capacity short of strict scientific); they are simply colloquial descriptions of an emergent property of our incredible minds. The more is learned about science, the more wonder there is to be had at the complex beauty inherent in the physical world, and the less crazy it sounds to describe the soul or the consciousness in terms of physics alone.

    Also (as Blanchard begins to touch on), the reason that no machine can express emotion or have consciousness is because they work NOTHING like human brains. Despite their improved speed on arithmetic, they are vastly inferior at abstraction and learning (not to mention less efficient). Once we develop artificial intelligence that can emulate a human brain sufficiently, I am willing to bet that “computers” (although in the future, this will likely be considered an insensitive slur) will feel emotion and possess consciousness to rival any human— and exceed it. You may hold me to this prediction, although I doubt you’ll find the need to.

    Technology is accelerating as rapidly as ever, and the historical mockery of people who deny the ramifications of such is near universal.

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