Science & Values: Is My View of Religion Reductionism or Scientism?

Reductionism and scientism are phrases thrown around, mostly by people with beliefs that conflict with science, those who’ve been taken in by pseudoscience or who have vested interest against some paradigm in science (such as the anti-vaccine crowd, the climate change denier lobby, certified MBTI® administrators or alternative medicine dispensers). In order to make their arguments unassailable they often use these terms loosely and obtusely; they avoid defining exactly what they are saying.

However, as I will discuss below I suspect by and large they are made by fear and misunderstanding, rather than due to ulterior motives. Furthermore, could some of the criticisms bundled up in these umbrella terms have some merit when used as warnings to avoid potential pitfalls when doing science, or discussing philosophy of science? Here I try to delineate what people mean when they make accusations of scientism and reductionism and I can then discuss to whether my philosophy of spiritual materialism falls afoul of them.

Both are used, then, in a variety of ways, but I think it is possible to cut through the
rhetoric to get at what fears cause people to brandish them so readily.

I’ve often failed to understand how the methodology of science is reductionist, yes scientists take things apart to see how they work, but there’s no point if they can’t reassemble them to make them work again! However, I think there are some legitimate warnings here, or at least pertinent reminders. Emergent systems show properties that the parts don’t and phenomena at higher levels of complexity can affect those at lower levels. But scientists tend to have a very good understanding of emergent properties and the discipline they study dictates what level of emergence they are ‘taking apart’. There is always a danger of over-simplifying and missing out complexity or mistaking it for noise, but again I’d challenge anyone to find a scientist who isn’t aware of these potential pitfalls. Much of designing and implementing research is based around trying to get the right balance between these considerations.

In fact this might be a more useful appropriation of the term ‘scientism’ or scientific reductionism, a simplifying of things to more basic parts or properties without losing sight of the more complex whole. Thus describing the type of desirable reductionism that scientists actually do!

That helpful caution aside, however, the terms are used to attack a straw-man; one who believes everything can be reduced to scientific study or law, or to bolster the critic’s own biased world-view. There seem to be several fears on display when this attack is made:

1. A desire for certain things (usually the human mind and consciousness) to remain irreducibly complex and mysterious. This may be for moral, emotional or spiritual reasons (see below) or so they can maintain the illusion that they want to present to others; that they are themselves are the paragon of unpredictability. (As Geoffrey Miller argues in his brilliant work Must-Have: The Hidden Instincts Behind Everything We Buy, this desire to be seen as potentially hipster in everything one does is a typical of liberals trying to show off who is most open-minded.)

2. A fear that things will be reduced to clockwork (especially including the opponent’s mind and emotions), and thus that this eliminates the role of randomness and contingency. These opponents often attack the idea of cause and effect, the like to suggest that somewhere between the parts coming together to operate as a whole there is a break in causation. This seems to stem from a desire to add some unpredictability, often people who use this version of the reductionist argument will try to co-opt quantum mechanics to their cause, arguing that its finding show cause and effect break down at the quantum level and so supposedly keep something like consciousness away from science (this is known as the quantum physics fallacy). They miss that quantum systems are only difficult to predict at the level of individual particles, due to the uncertainty principle (we can’t predict the speed and direction of a particle), when looking at hundreds of particles we can make accurate statistical predictions (10% will move one way, 90% another).

3. Another is a concern that science is overstepping its boundaries into something it ‘should’ not comment on. For example if in the case of consciousness in the above point there remains an element of predictability then they can still talk about free will and morally culpable agents. Often this is a moral or religious argument; it is also used to voice concern that art and creativity become part of science. We can use science to study what makes humans create, display and appreciate art, but I don’t think anyone has ever seriously argued that we should use science to create and judge art.

4. Fuelled by a desire to add a ghost into the machine, some wielders of reductionist labels dislike what the universe is being reduced down to; matter and energy. If it was reduced to matter, energy and spirit they would not have a problem, as long as ‘spirit’ remained undefined, see point 1.

5. Others just seem to think scientific explanations are aesthetically or emotionally displeasing, whether it’s because they leave us seeped in ugly, messy things like biology, or in a universe full of ‘just’ matter and energy unappealingly drab and grey. These are seen to remove the beauty of life, but as Gregory Miller puts it, ‘Understanding the origins of human morality, art, and language is unlikely to diminish our appreciation of ethical leadership, aesthetic beauty, or witty conversation’.

6. A combination of 3. and 5. is the fear that science will remove the need or support of various ideas about what value, I expand on the value of value below.

For the most part these fears are ones people will have to deal with, the human mind is being studied already and nothing one can protest will change that, or we will never have to deal will (it has been a long time since the world was viewed as clockwork). Thus I’ve often struggled to see why reductionism is seen as a bad thing when talking about the human mind, if we aren’t going to invoke anything dualistic or supernatural then things must boil down to physical workings of neurons. Yet even many scientists in the fields of human cognition can be disdainful, or even horrified, by the idea of reducing the mind to brain, and come up with elaborate theories to explain consciousness or re-introduce randomness, so that it becomes unknowable and mysterious (see Bohm, Penrose, Sheldrake et al).

I should note, however, that my struggle to understand those who make the charge of scientism may partly be due to my own biases, which makes scientific reductionism appealing to me. For instance I have a psychological desire for neatness that tends to prefer the simplicity of things reduced to interactions at a more basic level and not to leave things unexplained. Furthermore, people’s disgust (particularly by outspoken opponents of scientism) at some of the things science has ‘reduced’ in this way can give me a perverse pleasure and a desire for further widening of sciences explanatory reach. The negative reaction to science’s perceived overreaching is nowhere stronger, louder and more resistant to argument than that against the study of consciousness. Still, as someone with an interest in the study of the human brain I am able to sympathise with some of these feelings of fear, which must ultimately be a result of personality and moral foundations. Learning about these have only helped put my judgments in perspective and given me greater tolerance for the judgments of others. I may still think they are wrong, but I don’t judge them for being wrong.

As a materialist I hold the position that consciousness or the human mind is what the brain does, it is an emergent process tied inextricably to the human brain. I tend to dislike the phrase ‘the mind is just what the brain does’; as that italicised word does seem to miss out its worth to us as users of those very minds. I prefer to say’ the mind is only what the brain does’, in the sense that it requires nothing else, but it is more than that in terms of its value to us; it is the source of awe and surprise, beauty and art, tears, laughter and love. I have described consciousness before as traceable to causal factors in theory, if not in practice, in the same way that weather (which also used to be believed to require supernatural explanation) is due to causal factors, but it is a system too complex to always trace them, which is why it will never be entirely predictable.

Gerald Edelman’s Second Nature is a book that aims to give a summary of his attempts towards a non-reductionist scientific description of consciousness. There’s two aspects of this, first that the workings of the brain that produce consciousness should not be studied at a level lower than the whole brain or large areas of it; this would be an over-simplification of the type I mention above; we’d miss some of its attributes. This is due to his research which he claims shows the brain’s extreme integration and cross-linking of distant parts (which he calls a re-entrant system). It’s not quite that every part in connected to and communicating with all the other parts all the time, but neither is every part as isolated as perhaps previously thought (it’s somewhere in-between). I think no scientist would have problems with this in principle, and my understanding is that this is what neuroscientists do in practice, at least as much as possible. But it is not always possible, it’s similar to Richard Dawkins extended phenotype, which showed the effects of genes reaches well beyond the body normally regarded as the phenotype; no organism is an island. Yet while evolutionary biologists and physiologists have always been aware of this complexity of interactions, it’s not always practical or desirable to study them. It will depend upon what level we are studying, which is why we have the separate, but closely linked, disciplines of ecology, the study of interactions between organisms and their environment. I’m not knowledgeable enough on the topic to judge whether this theory of re-entrant connections has any weight to it (and Edelman does not present his research in this book).

The second aspect of Edelman’s non-reductionism is that individual history (in terms of brain wiring) and subjectivity is irreducible. However, this seems like an argument against a point one no one would ever make; science never deals with individual cases, but general principles and statistical expectations.

Edelman’s book has helped me understand where science has its limits, more than any argument made by those who throw the accusation of scientism around; it all hinges around the word ‘value’ with its multiple meanings. Edelman, while empathically avoiding dualism, divides experience into nature; the universe and everything in it as explored by science, and ‘second nature’; our perception of nature as see in our mind’s eye as well as our recursive perception of that perception, i.e. our subjective experience and our thoughts about our subjective experience. This is mostly internal, but is also what is conveyed in art, the humanities (sometimes) and culture. Second nature could be seen as a combination of our sensory information and how it is coloured by our intuition or biases to give us values, our thoughts and feelings. This is all materialistic, but that does not mean it is open to study by science, as Edelman puts it,

‘Scientific insight results when this power [the combinational power of thought that produces imaginative insight] is constrained by logic, mathematics, and controlled by observations. But not all judgement and thought can be reduced to scientific description. A key example is the area of normative judgement seen in ethics and aesthetics. Hume’s argument still holds: “ought” does not derive in any straightforward way from “is”. These limitations of scientific reduction do not mean that conscious activity, language, and issues of meaning derive from some spooky realm of res cogitans. By explaining the neural basis of conscious thought, we can in fact reconcile the appearance of all of the rich properties of thought with physics and biology.’

Science can study the mind and tell us how we gather sensory information and how we colour it with our values, it can’t tell us what our values should be (the is/ought divide) or, for the most part, what are values are (which is mostly due to individual, historical factors). Edward De Bono defends his work on creative thinking much the same way; psychology and philosophy try to tell us how we think, but not how to think or what to think. (Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind is the most convincing attempt I’ve read to give a scientific account as to how evolution, through sexual selection, guided our second nature, our ability to share it and the ways in which we do. It is a wonderful, important book that I cannot recommend enough.)

I would argue there are some exceptions: I agree with Sam Harris’ moral landscape that we can use science to inform ‘values’ (his word), although I have always thought ‘values’ would be better replaced by ‘policies’, since most of what he talks about is governing human flourishing. The knowledge we have from the human sciences can also be applied, to a limited degree, to ethics; knowing more about how people work can help make personal decisions about how to behave, but it can’t tell us what our goal is making those decisions (it could be a decision to manipulate people to one’s own ends as much as it could be to promote others flourishing). I prefer Mark Henderson’s weaker form of the moral landscape, which allows for values in policy making, as well as scientific research, the important thing is that politicians make clear which they are basing decisions on. Harris has discussed in interviews the idea of a spiritual landscape and that was an influence on my thesis of spiritual materialism; scientific findings can inform our use of spiritual practices without them needing to provide evidence for any of their theological interpretations (which they don’t).

Where ‘values’, in another sense of the word cannot be replaced by science is in the other fields of study, in the arts and, to a lesser degree, history. History requires both natures; what happened is a scientific question, why they happened may be a value question. Historical studies may aim to draw out general patterns, such as Jared Diamond’s great Germs, Guns and Steel. This type of history asks why things happened as they did, but won’t find much answer from values, although an understanding of human behaviour in relation to values may be needed. On the other end of the historical scale you have biographies, or the history of events greatly affected by personal biography (wars are won or lost by the temperaments of strategists and soldiers and started or avoided by those of rulers) and these require an understanding of the people involved. An understanding that is gained by studying second nature; intuitive insight into someone’s behaviour, beliefs and own second nature, their judgements. ‘Value’ here is perhaps better replaced by ‘judgement’; they are what we are what we need to assess and interpret intended meaning of the aesthetic arts, the works of an author, painter or sculptor. (‘Value’ and the different contexts and ways in which something is of ‘good quality’ are a major part of Robert Pirsig’s body of work, but Pirsig searches for a way of marrying subjectivity with objectivity whereas Edelman argues to keep them separate.) I would suggest that ‘value’ is too broad a word and it’s useful to make clear the distinction between moral value and other judgements of artistic or practical worth.

Opponents of scientism, however you define it (since they never do), often say in their defence that there are ‘other ways of knowing’ (or form of truth). Scientific research like related to moral foundation theory can give us objective, predictive insights into value judgements, and reduce them to neurological and genetic factors; if we know someone’s predisposition then we can guess their reaction to certain ideas, behaviours, people or events. But that may not be useful in historical science; it may not be possible for people long dead. Furthermore, we are not so interested why someone made that decision in that sense of moral foundation theory explaining why their brain worked that way, but what their reasoning was, how they justified their decision to themselves and others, which would influence their consequent behaviour. Science rightly tries to ignore or reduce the impact of motivated reasoning, but when examining people’s biography, and the events caused by them, it is exactly what we need to focus on. Thus the use of the second nature metaphor isn’t so much in deriving a different form of knowledge, but applying meaning to that knowledge, or determining what meaning others applied. This brings into focus one element that is often left out of discussions of consciousness (highlighted by Edelman); reflection. Reflection is an important part of the puzzle, as far as we know it is only something human’s do (as Gregory Miller argues, and makes a guess to its evolutionary origins in The Mating Mind), and it adds a layer of complexity that makes consciousness more practically intractable, the weather does not have such a feedback mechanism.

Note that I call the idea of second nature a metaphor and therein lies a problem with it; it is a tautology. However, I think Edelman’s second nature metaphor provides the best argument for a materialism that is not reductionist, placing as it does a limit on the objective sciences, while still giving it a lot of strength and breadth, yet acknowledging the subjective reality of values and their use in interpretation instead of or in place of evidence based reasoning.

How does all this relate to spiritual materialism? Spiritual materialism is very much in sync with the idea of second nature. To put my argument in the language of the metaphor; the study of nature shouldn’t deny the reality of second nature, and in fact it doesn’t, but people should not interpret nature based on what their second nature tells them. In this instance second nature has to be constrained by science, but in other, select areas of life it is free to roam.

Spiritual materialism is not scientism either, it does not deny (and has no need to deny) that science has nothing to comment on certain workings of the human world, which Edelman calls second nature. However, spirituality is not one of them. Furthermore, I think science can comment on the nature of second nature; consciousness and the mind are the source of spiritual experience, they are material and science can and has illuminated their workings!

As in the very coining of the phrase ‘spiritual materialism’ I try to balance the objective reality without denying the importance of subjective experience or merit, to combine first nature with second nature in a way that is satisfactory to both. Reality must inform belief, not belief our perception of reality. First nature must inform our second nature rather than second nature twist our view of first nature, but my argument is that first nature can still be satisfactory to our second nature without compromising our understanding and acceptance of it.


– The Spiritual Materialist


4 thoughts on “Science & Values: Is My View of Religion Reductionism or Scientism?

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