Essay 08 - Epis/Meta Reduction

26 October 2000 


Reduction is such an important method in modern science that, as a new student, I found myself under the distinct impression that all sciences used reduction to explain every bit of the knowledge we have today. I was first taught the natural sciences, the 'hard' sciences, which all seem to be focusing towards the reduction of all of some thing to the lowest possible levels.

It is easy to see why a new student might get this impression, considering that those are the only sciences that we are taught at first. Or they were, at least, the only ones that we actually called sciences. To make matters worse, in each of those we were given (more or less) a complete, coherent version of the knowledge in each field, so that it all appeared to fit together, like a puzzle. Does this sound familiar? And so, as a child, I began thinking of science like that impossibly large puzzle to which we have all the pieces that we will continue to solve, seeing more of the picture, forever.

The puzzle interpretation, however primitive, is really not too far off, but can be interpreted differently depending on whether the interpreter's reductionism is metaphysical or methodological. All things that we can see in it are made up of pieces, and so everything must be made of the same simple pieces, says the metaphysical reductionist. A methodological reductionist would probably agree that everything is made from pieces, but argue that those pieces alone are not always useful in seeing the big picture. It was only as I got older and learned that there was more to science than Physics, Biology, and Chemistry that I realized not all scientists share the idea that literally everything can be explained by reduction.

What do atoms and chemical bonds have to do with the study of human beings? Arguably some, but would taking a human mentally apart and looking at how the physical laws affect the smallest units of his body yield all the information that talking to him about his past would?

On the other hand, the principle of reduction may be usefully applied to particular aspects of his life which he does not entirely understand to yield a better grasp of his actions. This second approach is that of a methodological reductionist-reduction where possible, if possible, but not everywhere, for everything. In any case, whether one believes that reduction is the only possible explanation of the universe, it remains probably the most important part of science today.


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