Reducing Reality

Man must at last wake out of his millenary dream; and in doing so wake to his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. Now does he at last realize that, like a gypsy, he lives at the boundary of an alien world. A world that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes as to his suffering or his crimes.  —Jacques Monod

Reductionism does not deny other types of explanation, but holds that it is the reductionistic explanation that is fundamental or primary. “Why did I scratch my nose just now?” The reductionistic explanation is something like, “An excitation of a nerve receptor in the mucosal lining of my nose sent a bioelectrical impulse to a neuron in my brain, which was transmitted to another neuron via a synaptic release of neurotransmitters, and then to another, eventually causing a set of muscle fibers to twitch in a particular sequence that lifted my hand to my nose.” Of course, another explanation is “because it itched”, but this higher-level phenomenon is nothing more than the sum of various (ultimately biochemically characterizable) states of nerve cells and so on. That is what “itched” really means, right?

And, why did I hug my five-year-old son when he was crying? Again, through a long sequence of completely deterministic chemical and electrical cause-and-effect, sound waves stimulated neurons which triggered a set of neural firing patterns and hormone releases; these in turn stimulated other neurons which caused the various muscular contractions that produce comforting facial expressions, sounds, and hugging. Of course, I could say, “I hugged him because I wanted to comfort him,” but like everything else, this “wanting” reduces to a certain state of matter. “Yes, you wanted to hug him, but what that really means is a secretion of hormones A, B, and C, neurotransmitters D, E, and F, a particular firing pattern in the reticular formation of the brain, etc. That is what ‘wanting to hug’ really is.”

The absurdity of the above reveals reductionism as an ideology, and not necessarily the way science is really practiced. Even if we fully reduced a hug to an ensemble of elementary particles and forces, that would not explain anything at all unless we interpreted various states along the way as higher-level functions like love, comfort, and so forth. Moreover, teleological explanations in science are quite common, as in “Why are the salmon swimming inland? To get to their spawning grounds.” The ideology of reductionism says that such statements are mere code words for “deeper” explanations; for example, that some set of genetic factors generate biochemical “mechanisms” to produce the spawning behavior.

Living up to its name, reductionism attempts to explain the complex in terms of the simple. Just as Newton used one simple formula to explain Kepler’s complex empirical laws of planetary motion, reductionism assumes that all complex behavior arises from the summation of a few types of simple interactions. The kinetic theory of gases, for example, is derivable from the statistical properties of lots and lots of small particles (molecules) bumping into each other. The higher-order laws of pressure, volume, and temperature arise from the lower-level, more fundamental laws of Newtonian kinetics. These are the reality underlying the appearance. Having reduced the complex to the simple, we can then follow Leibniz. Let us calculate.

To avoid an infinite regress catastrophe, the reductionist program must eventually rest on fundamental, irreducible building blocks or “elements”. The frequent appearance of that word in introductory textbooks (“Elements of . . . “) bespeaks our reductionistic assumptions. Start with the basics and build up from there. This approach to pedagogy is not only dull but also ineffective, as anyone who has struggled through a course on organic chemistry or differential equations can attest. A much better way to teach math and science is from an historical context. In an introductory course in abstract algebra, for instance, don’t start by listing the axioms that define a group. Start with a key historical problem, say the algebraic insolubility of the quintic, and trace the steps toward increasing abstraction by which it was solved. Imitating history, the axioms are arrived at as the end point, not the starting point, of a field of mathematics. “The basics” acquire context, interest, and motivation.

The idea that all appearances are merely different permutations of a few basic elements goes back to ancient times—the five elements of the Chinese, the four elements of the Greeks, the three doshas of the Hindus—but it is mostly associated with the Greek Atomists.[14] It fosters the belief in the possibility of complete control of nature: all we have to do is master these few building blocks. Whether to a Greek physician reducing the body to the Four Humors, or a modern nano-engineer seeking to build matter atom by atom, Reductionism offers the same vision of unlimited power over nature.

Reducing the complex world of our experience to the simplicity of a finite number of elements parallels Chapter Two’s reduction of the unique to the generic through language and measure. Uniqueness is an illusion: all objects are merely different permutations of identical, generic protons, neutrons, and electrons (let’s keep it simple for now). The Reductionist program considers two examples of a single element to be identical. An electron is an electron is an electron. The same goes for a proton, a neutron, and thus everything built from them—all atoms, all matter. Certainty and control both demand this genericness. Once we reduce a thing to its elements, then we have fully characterized it. There are no more variables, no individuality or uniqueness beyond our grasp. Reductionism says that the reduction of infinite reality into a finite set of labels and data is not actually a reduction at all. If taken far enough, label and number can fully encompass reality, leaving nothing out.

It would be a disaster for Reductionism, then, if each bit of matter in the universe were unique, if each drop of water were different from any other, if each electron had its own personality. Of course, this is precisely how pre-technological people see the world. Animists see a spirit in everything, so that no rock is just a rock, no dandelion is just a dandelion, no drop of water just a drop of water. Each has an individuality that no fineness of labeling can ever capture. Strangely enough, quantum mechanics appears to confirm precisely this. In identical experimental circumstances, two electrons will behave differently, as if each had a different personality. Conventional interpretation deals with this situation probabilistically, insisting that the two are still identical. The possibility is rarely considered that any two bits of matter in the universe are irreducibly unique, for this would torpedo the Reductionist program and put reality forever beyond complete description and control. Quantum mechanical interpretations such as that of David Bohm, whose “hidden variables” encode an admission that electrons that behave differently are different, are therefore anathema to the scientific establishment. In the end, they lead us back to animism.[15] The same goes for the dawning realization that water is not a uniform fluid but that, indeed, each drop of water on the planet is structurally unique. Mainstream science has long ignored this information, because it does not accord with the program of reducing reality to a handful of generic elements, or “building blocks”. In this phrase we see again the program’s motivation: that we too might use these “building blocks” to construct an improved reality of our choosing.

The power and certainty we get from reducing nature to its elements only applies to the extent that these elements are indeed fundamental. Perhaps that explains the enormous institutional resistance to the research of Louis Kervran, an eminent French chemist who produced, back in the 1960s, compelling evidence for the routine, low-temperature biological transmutation of certain elements.[16] It also drove the (successful) attempt to explain the seemingly arbitrary, messy, complex properties of the chemical elements in terms of just a few simple subatomic particles, followed by the (less successful) attempt to unify various subatomic forces—with their apparently arbitrary values—into a single unified force comprising the “Theory of Everything” referred to above. Today, the ambition to reduce everything to a few basic building blocks is in deep trouble as a burgeoning menagerie of “fundamental” particles, outnumbering even the original 92 chemical elements, is required to account for all the observed interactions of physics. We are told that physicists are closing in on a Unified Field Theory that would reduce these particles, again, to just so many permutations of something even more fundamental. The parallel between this Theory of Everything, just around the corner since the time of Einstein, and technological Utopia is quite striking. It’s just a matter of a few more discoveries.

Can we build a better version of reality with finite building blocks? Only if reality itself is finite too. Can we build a tower to heaven? Only if the sky is a finite distance away. Interestingly, the cosmology that is orthodox at the time of this writing posits a finite universe: bounded in the macroscopic direction and discrete in the microscopic. The first limit is the product of Big Bang cosmology; the second of the quantization of time and space. All possible variables in the universe have a finite range of values. The number of resulting permutations is more than astronomical, and for all practical purposes infinite, but it reinforces a conceit that has been with us since the seventeenth century: the entire universe is nothing but a number. There is no aspect of reality that might not someday be brought into the human realm.

At the heart of the reductionist program is a deep assumption about the nature of reality. Contrary to the argument of Chapter Two, that we reduce and impoverish the world through our labeling and numbering of it, reductionism assumes that nothing essential is lost. That means that whatever appears to have vanished—sacredness, beauty, meaning, spirit—must never have really existed to begin with. They are illusions, human projections, not part of cold hard reality. When we take the world apart, they are not there. If they exist, where are they?

Where is the human spirit? It is not, contrary to Descartes, in the pineal gland. It is not in the heart. It is not in the pituitary gland, the liver, the stomach. Take a person apart and it is not there. Reductionism holds that if something exists, we can extract it, isolate it, separate it out. (Notice that here again, religion agrees with science. The soul is distinct from the body and can be separated out.)

Where is beauty? It is in a butterfly, but when we chloroform it, lay it out on the dissecting table, and cut it apart, beauty is gone. Beauty is in a poem, but when we over-analyze the poem to find exactly what is beautiful about it, beauty disappears from that too. Beauty is in a painting, but can we reduce it to quantitative measures of color and proportion, and then apply these to the standardized production of beauty? No. Beauty is a relationship, not an objective property, and the mass-production of generic relationships produces, necessarily, an aesthetic that is equally phony, generic, and cheap.

Where is sacredness? Following the same deep ideology as their scientific brethren, the religious authorities have sought to isolate sacredness as well, limiting it to Bibles, crosses, and churches. The furthest extreme of this separation coincides in its genesis with its scientific counterpart, originating in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Protestant movement progressively excluded the divine from more and more of the human world. Earlier, the Catholic church had removed divinity from ordinary people; now the Protestant reformers began to remove it from Mother Mary and the saints as well, so that all that was left of our original panentheistic world was a single, isolated mote of divinity embodied by Jesus Christ.

Can anything really be understood in isolation from the rest of the universe? The culture of science that emerged 400 years ago says, “Yes.” We explore reality by dis-organizing it: isolating pieces, eliminating variables, shielding outside influences. Thus the entomologist brings dead “specimens” back to the lab; the geologist brings back samples; the physiologist dissects cadavers and the chemist seeks purified substances purged of the chaotic contamination of the world. Such methods have their uses. Indeed they have created a world far different, at least superficially, from what we knew 400 years ago. They are, however, incapable of apprehending anything that exists only in relationship, anything that, when you disassemble the whole and isolate the parts, is no longer there. What are those things that exist only in relationship, that are properties of wholes and not of parts? Here are a few examples: consciousness, spirit, sacredness, life, beauty, selfhood, divinity, love, truth, emotion, purpose, transcendence, will; in short, all that makes us human. Yet when you take the human apart, none of them are there. The epigons of the Scientific Revolution conclude, therefore, that they don’t “really” exist. They cannot countenance the possibility that these properties, in Mumford’s words, “are not accidental by-products of mass, energy, and motion, but are aboriginal components of the same system.”[17]

Think about the phrase I used a few paragraphs back, “cold, hard reality,” and notice how naturally it rolls off the tongue even today. Such is the legacy of Galileo, for it reveals which qualities we consider real, and which we do not. Scientifically obsolete long ago, the conception of reality as the summation of a near-infinity of tiny, hard masses lives on in our metaphors and intuitions.

The attempt to understand the universe and thereby bring it into the human realm often proceeds by way of metaphor. We project human creations onto the world at large. We cannot avoid doing this; even by using language, we connect words to things. Not accidentally, the technology that began to dominate Europe as the Scientific Revolution progressed also provided its thinkers with their most potent metaphor: the machine. Like the Newtonian universe, a machine is something we understand by taking apart. Like the Newtonian universe, it too is composed of a finite number of generic, interchangeable parts. Like the Newtonian universe, it too runs along deterministically according to the designs of its maker. No wonder that “the universe is a gigantic machine” was a constant refrain of scientific pioneers from Galileo and Descartes onward.

It gets worse. Can you think of a machine that does not do anything? A machine whose only function is to function, and to do so precisely and unvaryingly? All machines are meant to do that, but this machine does only that. It is the epitome of eternal, regular, yet pointless movement, of repetitive routine. The machine I speak of is, of course, a clock. Think then of what a clockwork universe connotes. Think of what is implied by the watchmaker conception of God. The universe, and our own lives within it, ticks on and on, pointlessly. (No wonder we, living in a society ruled by the clock, so often feel like we are just marking time.)

Galileo and his contemporaries drew great inspiration from the clever automatons of the day, whose clockwork animated whole scenes. In likening living beings to these clockwork simulacra, they imputed to life the very qualities of the clock: automatic, preprogrammed, mechanical. Not life at all, but a semblance of life. The society we live in is also an outgrowth of the clockwork conception, wedded to technologies that themselves embody the regularity, precision, and automaticity of the clock. Such a society offers a life that too is but a semblance of a life. Galileo’s conception of the real stripped reality of all subjective content, depositing us in a forlorn shell of a world whose empty, repetitive routines can never compensate for our lost belongingness.

Universe-as-machine finds an unlikely ally in theistic religion. A machine is something designed by an intelligence for a purpose. The metaphor of machine is inherently teleological. How ironic, considering that the determinism that motivates that metaphor explicitly denies any such purposiveness. Moreover, as Mumford observes, “By turning man into a ‘machine made by the hands of God’, he [Descartes] tacitly turned into gods those who were capable of designing and making machines.”[18] The mechanical metaphor for life turns human beings into gods. No wonder we so brazenly aspired to the Olympian powers of flight, control of the weather, eternal youth, and so on. Some of these, including the power to immolate the planet in nuclear destruction, we have achieved; others remain forever on the horizon. Hubris, we know, carries an inevitable price, and in our aspiration to conquer the universe and supplant God we have inflated ourselves to the furthest imaginable degree. Let us hope the the final price is less total than our degree of hubris portends.

Here is another great irony: While the quantification of the universe and the reduction of reality to mathematics brought all existence into the human realm, it also excluded from reality everything that makes us human. The most significant parts of life became secondary, reduced to force and motion, chemistry and electricity, or their existence denied altogether. I am not saying that some other element infuses human emotion, consciousness, and perception—an immaterial spirit added to the electrochemical-physical mix. No. My issue is with what is primary. Galileo’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities is nothing but an ideology. We could equally call motion, force, and extension secondary, and say that these are but how the human qualities are enacted. Matter, we could say, is the mere agent for enacting what is primary: emotions, beliefs, ideas, perceptions, consciousness, dreams, spirit, poetry, art, love, beauty, divinity.

What a monstrous doctrine it is, to declare all these things unreal, and what a monstrous civilization it has produced. How can it be that we have created a religion—science—that explicitly denies the very fabric of human experience? I want you to be amazed and aghast. Implicit in this doctrine is the devaluation of everything that makes us human, and our reduction, therefore, to the status of automatons. It is a doctrine that robs us of life itself. Can you see the audacity of this robbery? We will take your emotions—they are, after all, mere configurations of hormones, blood vessels, and neurons. We will take your perceptions—they are, after all, merely the neurological result of absorption spectra and other properties of matter. We will take your sacredness, your poetry, your art. We will exile you to the cold hard world of force and reason.

If I have exaggerated the psychological effects of the doctrine of reductionism, I have not exaggerated by much. The evidence is all around us. What is it that drives our society? What is it that makes the world go ’round? What provides the units by which we reduce more and more of the world to numbers? The answer, of course, is money. The Galilean presumption that everything real can be described by numbers takes practical form in the world we live in today, in which nearly everything has a value, a price tag, and in which human beings act according to their “rational self-interest”. Money is the unit-of-account for determining what, indeed, our rational self-interest is. It is what denominates the “cold hard world of force and reason” into which we are thrust. (And what is the realest kind of money? Cold, hard cash.) The practical person “looks at the numbers” and tries to see whether things “add up”.

The world has been turned upside down. Numbers, the ultimate in abstraction, have become more real than our subjective experiences. Try explaining that to the Piraha! Yet collectively, we act as if it were true. In economics, for example, an object or activity doesn’t even count as a “good” or a “service” unless it has been exchanged for money. Gifts freely given do not count. Reread that last sentence, please. Do not count. Here again, embodied in our language, is the very assumption I am questioning. If something “counts”, it is real.

The growing ubiquity of the money economy, and the underlying dynamic that drives its growth, are the subject of Chapter Four. As you read it, notice how the progressive monetization of life over the past few centuries parallels the progressive conquest by science of the former realms of the subjective.

Clearly, the effects of Galileo’s ontological exclusion of human subjectivity go far beyond philosophy. It generates (or at least reinforces) an alienation that erodes the heart out of everything our civilization has ever achieved. The banishment of the human being takes concrete form in the outright replacement of human labor by machines, in the mechanization and dehumanization of even those tasks still performed by humans, and finally, in the commodification of more and more forms of human relationship. Conceptually and practically, science and technology have extended the qualities of the machine further and further into organic life.

Paradoxically, the same principles of mechanism, reductionism, and determinism that promise certainty and control also afflict us with feelings of powerlessness and bewilderment. For when we include ourselves among the Newtonian masses of the universe, then we too are at the mercy of blind, impersonal forces that wholly determine our life’s trajectory. In the ideology we inherited from the Scientific Revolution, free will, like all the other secondary qualities, is a mere construct, a statistical approximation, but not fundamentally real.

To recover meaning, sacredness, or free will apparently requires dualism, a separation of self out from the deterministic laws of the universe—an ultimately incoherent solution which alienates us all the more. Yet the alternative is even worse: nihilism, the Existentialist void—philosophies which, not accidentally, emerged at the peak of the Newtonian World-machine’s reign in the early 20th century. This worldview so deeply imbues our intuitions and logic that we can barely conceive of a self that is neither dualistically distinct from matter, nor a deterministic automaton whose attributes of mind or soul are mere epiphenomena. Prior to the 20th century, these were the only alternatives science presented us, a bleak choice that remains with us today like a burr in the shoe and will continue to generate existential unease until the day comes when we finally digest the ramifications of 20th century science.

This choice reflects an apparent incompatibility of science and religion. Intuitively rejecting the “deterministic automaton” of science, evangelical friends of mine choose instead to disbelieve vast swaths of science—all the physics, biology, archeology, paleontology, geology, and astronomy that conflicts with the Biblical story of creation. Meanwhile, scientifically-oriented people occupy the equally unenviable position of denying their intuitions of a purpose, significance, and destiny to life. I often detect a wistfulness in self-described atheists, as if they wished there were soul, God, purpose and significance—Wouldn’t it be nice!—but that unfortunately, sober reason dictates otherwise. Sometimes they cover up this wistfulness or sense of loss with an aggressive display of self-righteousness along the lines of “I can handle the merciless truth, but you need to comfort yourself with fairy stories.” Others are aggressively cynical and reflexively derisive. The emotions, anger and sadness, that underly these responses arise from the monstrous robbery I describe above. Again, this robbery is not the removal of God from Heaven—it is the removal of divinity from the world. Whether God has been removed to Heaven, as by religion, or extirpated altogether, as by science, matters little.

One purpose of this book is to establish an organic conception of divinity that draws strength from the wonders science has discovered rather than depending on their denial. Related to this is an organic conception of self as an emergent property of complex relationships, not a separate soul merely passing through the world and thus alien to it, not a mote of consciousness merely observing the world from within a prison of flesh, and yet, neither a soulless biological machine programmed by its genes to survive and reproduce. It is to the scientific origins of the modern sense of self that we turn next.


[14] Actually, the ascription of an atomistic ontology to the Chinese is somewhat of a misnomer. The five elements (wu xing) are better translated as the “five phases”; they are interdependent and, like yin and yang, do not have a separate and independent existence.


[15] The reason that they lead back to animism is that these hidden variables are unknowable. They are a mathematical artifice for deriving the results of quantum mechanics, but can never be experimentally isolated. Thus, while the hidden variable theory seems to advance the reductionist program, it actually buries it.

[16] Kervran’s work is hard to find in English, but I refer the reader to Biological Transmutations, published by Happiness Press, 1989. I also searched for a convincing refutation of his work, but mostly what I found were accusations of elementary errors, based on the logic: “The result could not be true, so he must have failed to account for XYZ.”


[17] Mumford, ***


[18] Id., ***