A Bad Bargain Indeed

This essay, which is a follow-up to a previous essay and post, dovetails nicely with my last post.  If we reduce everything to matter-in-motion swirling around in a purposeless and meaningless universe, we eventually disappear.  One could say that the pyramids, Rome, America, all empires, art, music, literature, poetry, and other creative powers and demonstrations, past and present, are our tributes to the fact that we don’t believe we are just matter-in-motion blown about in a meaningless universe.   The materialist-reductionist philosophy runs up against the reality, the brute fact, that no one, in the past or now, has ever lived like they believed it to be true.  We have the creative powers of centuries as a witness.

In principle, though, is reductionism ultimately true? Serious thinkers have given serious arguments on both sides of this metaphysical question. For great philosophers with a reductionist cast of mind, read Spinoza or Hobbes. For brilliant emergentists, read John Dewey or Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Such issues can’t be settled in a single essay.

But make no mistake, reductionism comes at a very steep price: it asks you to hammer your own life flat. If you believe that love, freedom, reason and human purpose have no distinctive nature of their own, you’ll have to regard many of your own pursuits as phantasms and view yourself as a “deluded animal.”

Everything you feel that you’re choosing because you affirm it as good — your career, your marriage, reading The New York Times today, or even espousing reductionism — you’ll have to regard intellectually as just an effect of moving and material causes. You’ll have to abandon trust in your own experience for the sake of trust in the metaphysical principle of reductionism.

That’s what I’d call a bad bargain.
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5 Responses to A Bad Bargain Indeed

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    An OK essay, but I would say he is making a straw man of reductionism. Reductionism is a method and an approach. It does not exhaust the universe human arts and phenomena. JK Rowling is not a reductionist, but reductionism (in various modes- Freud, Jung, other psychological theories, etc..) offers a way to understand some of her methods and effects, if we care to analyze them at all.

    Offering this false choice between emergentism and reductionism is typical of your correspondents. Emergentism is not a separate model of reality, just another approach to the same thing that reductionism approaches, appreciating that complexity can come in such great scales that we can not in any practical way understand say, the brain, via quantum mechanics… even though the brain does not in any way violate quantum mechanics and in some ideal Leplacean sense could be reduced to it had we infinite effort and time.

    There is no need to “choose” between them- they are both valid tools and concepts for understanding complicated things. The one tool we don't need is the I-can-make-it-up tool to describe empirical reality.


  2. Darrell says:


    The writer is a professional philosopher, so I think he knows what’s talking about when he uses the term reductionism. You are confusing methodological naturalism with reductionism.

    And, again, emergentism and reductionism are two different things and his point is that there is an alternative to reductionism. The entire essay is addressing a well known problem and issue within philosophy and he is using and handling the terms correctly as they figure in that conversation.

    Reductionism is what one ends up with if he believes the material is all there is. It is the view that we are only or “just” (we can reduce everything to) matter-in-motion. It is not a method—it is the end result of a philosophy (philosophical naturalism or materialism) as he is using it here. Reference is first essay. It is a part of that same conversation.


  3. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Looking over the wiki definition, I see that you are mostly right.. there is a philosophical definition distinct from the more concrete definition i used. But in my view it is a good example of how philosophy does a poor job defining things, leading paradoxically to a reduction of understanding and a lot of unnecessary conflict. Perhaps the professional's aim is to keep themselves occupied, but it is a disservice to the rest of us.

    This deserves a whole blog at some point, but basically, no one thinks that they can “understand” everything by entirely reductionistic means. That is a straw man. The question is really whether the world is causally closed, or whether there are magic phenomena you can appeal to to explain phenomena that you are unwilling or unable to bring into a normal, naturalistic account, however sketchy, outline-ish and not fully reductionistically worked out.

    That is to say that in the normal naturalistic account, causes all follow regular laws that, even if they are not understood at the moment, (dark energy, say), are not perverse in how they act in relation to us (i.e. not personal, animistic forces). And if they are random (like some quantum phenomena) again are really random, not personally or teleologically driven.

    Now, there is basically no reason a priori to grant such magic on the basis of what is actually known about the world. The most we can grant is that many things are unknown, and many things are so complex that we can only understand them using relatively broad heuristics or abstract rules. But what we have come to know all follows the naturalistic paradigm. So this question about whether reductionism works or not is a matter of how one chooses to fill in the gaps in our knowledge- by magic, or by an overarching assumption of causal closure and understandability in principle.


  4. Burk Braun says:

    … And needless to say, however traditional and psychologically satisfying, the route of invoking magic as an explanation for gaps in our knowledge leads exactly nowhere, other than to empower a clique of charalatans who claim special knowledge where none exists, either by tarrot cards, by aural readings, by gospel truth, etc…


  5. Darrell says:


    There isn’t a single area of knowledge, at the deeper levels, where most people wouldn’t say that the proponents should do a better job of defining and explaining. That is true whether it is philosophy or micro-biology. But often, people just don’t want to do the hard work of thinking this stuff through, learning the terms, reading the best works, and knowing the history and context of Western philosophy. What are we to make though of the person who writes off entire areas of knowledge, great minds, and university departments (centuries of work) as “magic’’? Is that just willful ignorance? Pride? Narrow-mindedness? Fear? Bad form?

    “…to empower a clique of charalatans who claim special knowledge where none exists, either by tarrot cards, by aural readings, by gospel truth, etc…”

    You forgot those who claim the special knowledge (the true Gnostics!) of “knowing” that there is no God or transcendence, the atheists, the philosophical naturalists amongst us. You know -that tiny minority who “knows” the truth while the vast majority has been wrong since time immemorial. Who are you to talk about aural readings? You forget your own outlandish claims such that phones have emotions and that we can track and prove “love” by sensors and wires. We might as well be talking tarot cards. Talk about “magic.” Good grief.


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