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.