Emerging from Reduction


Below are some of my thoughts on reductionism and emergentism in response to the column “Reality Is Flat. (Or Is It?)”  by Richard Polk in The Stone philosophy forum of August 16, 2012 in the New York Times.  Here’s the link to the column: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/16/reality-is-flat-or-is-it/

As Polk points out there are indeed philosophers and scientists who hold what some call “flat reductionist” views of ontology that adopt a simple, animal level view of human morality and social affairs.  And many flat reductionists are “radical nihilists”, which in essence is a sociopathic or psychopathic set of ideas.  Flat reductionists in general are unaware or wrongly deny that much of ethics arise from the operation and needs of society, such as class based morality. Some are also are blind to general human morality that transcends classes and that exist along both the physical and social dimensions.

However Polk seems to be unaware of David Nagel’s view of reductionism which most accept as the predominant view of reductionism today in the philosophy of science.  This view accepts the higher level level laws of “emergentism”, but also lays out how higher level affairs can be reduced to (spring from) the lower level phenomena of physics.

Polk also fails to realize that there are aspects of ethics that do in fact derive from our physical being.  He apparently does not understand that much of our psychology and social affairs are in in fact due to the effect of material causes.  Both physical and social material impact our psychology and social affairs.  A society’s mode of production is one such decisive material force, or causal factor on human psychology and other social affairs.  Not that we are limited to the determinism of the mode of production, but it unquestionably has a powerful and in some cases decisive effect on human psychology and other social affairs.

-Tanner Phillips, @philosophyofsci


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