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Physicalist Anti-Reductionism

Cosmic Variance
By Sean Carroll
Nov 3, 2010 10:44 PMNov 20, 2019 2:43 AM


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In a philosophical mood at the moment, because I'm about to head to Montreal for the Philosophy of Science Association biennial meeting. Say hi if you're in the neighborhood! I'm on a panel Thursday morning with Nick Huggett, Chris Wüthrich, and Tim Maudlin, talking about the emergence of spacetime in quantum gravity. My angle: space is obviously not fundamental, though time might be. Here's a Philosophy TV dialogue between John Dupré (left) and Alex Rosenberg (right). They are both physicalists -- the believe that the world is described by material things (or fermions and bosons, if you want to be more specific) and nothing else. But Dupré is an anti-reductionist, which is apparently the majority view among philosophers these days. Rosenberg holds out for reductionism, and seems to me to do a pretty good job at it.

John and Alex from Philosophy TV on Vimeo.

To be honest, even though this was an interesting conversation and I can't help but be drawn into very similar discussions, I always come away thinking this is the most boring argument in all of philosophy of science. Try as I may, I can't come up with a non-straw-man version of what it is the anti-reductionists are actually objecting to. You could object to the claim that "the best way to understand complex systems is to analyze their component parts, ignoring higher-level structures" but only if you can find someone who actually makes that claim. You can learn something about a biological organism by studying its genome, but nobody sensible thinks that's the only way to study it, and nobody thinks that the right approach is to break a giraffe down to quarks and leptons and start cranking out the Feynman diagrams. (If such people can be identified, I'd happily join in the condemnations.) A sensible reductionist perspective would be something like "objects are completely defined by the states of their components." The dialogue uses elephants as examples of complex objects, so Rosenberg imagines that we know the state (position and momentum etc.) of every single particle in an elephant. Now we consider another collection of particles, far away, in exactly the same state as the ones in the elephant. Is there any sense in which that new collection is not precisely the same kind of elephant as the original? Dupré doesn't give a very convincing answer, except to suggest that you would also need to know the conditions of the environment in which the elephant found itself, to know how it would react. That's fine, just give the states of all the particles making up the environment. I'm not sure why this is really an objection. This is purely a philosophical stance, of course; it means next to nothing for practical questions. Nor does the word "fundamental" act in this context as a synonym for "important" or "interesting." If I want to describe an elephant, the last thing I would imagine doing is listing the positions and momenta of all its atoms. But it's worth getting the philosophy right. I could imagine hypothetical worlds in which reductionism failed -- worlds where different substances were simply different, rather than being different combinations of the same underlying particles. It's just not our world.

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