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perils of reductionism

The Perils of Reductionism (Dualism of the Brain and Mind)


In an effort to try to understand entities with complex interdependent parts naturalism has fallaciously tried to reduce them to mere constituent parts. Since every piece of truth must pass through the brain in order to be understood, the human brain has been the biggest target. But, as Rene Descartes postulated, the mind is separate from the body; it is a separate entity. The mind is not physical; it is metaphysical. The mind has a separate realm of mental states and cannot be explained in merely physical terms. The mind is capable of willing action, thinking, predicting, comprehending, and even controlling the brain and the body. These are acts that are qualitatively different from their constituent neurons. And what of the notion that abstract concepts, such as thoughts, can act on natural things? That is completely out of the realm of the cause and effect relationship that most of the natural world appears to be operating under. There is, in reality, a dualism with separate orders of phenomena that at its core is very counter-intuitive and problematic for science alone to uncover. And were it not for this dualism of the brain/mind phenomenon, psychology would be a superfluous undertaking.What are we actually doing by reducing the mind to mere biochemistry? The person carrying this out is essentially saying, ‘I (the non-existent concept of the self or the ego) am nothing but a mere composition of atoms, elements, chemicals.’ But, if this is true then we should have no cognitive capabilities or reason for postulating that “reality.” Mere chemicals do not have cognition or trustworthy reasoning capabilities to make such claims. Reductionism is, therefore, self-defeating at its core.

But how far will we really take the absurd naturalistic reductions? Will we continually reduce everything to mere body parts, organs, tissues, chemicals? Or will go further and reduce everything to the cellular level? Or perhaps go even further and see the entirety of reality on the atomic level? We could elaborate further with countless other examples, but it may prove to be a lesser experience than the brilliant exposition of Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov,

“Secular science, which has grown into a great force, has investigated, particularly during the past century, everything that has been handed down to us in the sacred books. That is something you must always remember, young man. After their thorough, merciless analysis, there was nothing sacred left in the hands of those secular scholars. That was because they analyzed only the parts and failed to study the whole, showing thereby a truly astonishing blindness. And the whole still stands today, firm and unassailable before their eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Hasn’t it survived nineteen centuries and isn’t its existence apparent today in the spiritual emotions experienced equally by individual men and by masses of people? And in the hearts of the very atheists who are trying to destroy everything, that spiritual emotion lives on to this day. This is so because even those who have renounced Christianity, even those who rebel against it—even they, in their essence, were created in the image of Christ and have remained in His image. Their combined wisdom and their desperate efforts to create a nobler man with greater dignity, the ideal set by Christ, have come to naught.”

Can Reductionism Help Us Define Reality

We can not define life by merely its composing physical properties. If composing parts could define the full essence of the thing, then our biochemistry is all that composes our brain. But can we really use a brain that is nothing but biochemistry and that we can not trust in light of such reductionism, to be able to reason and argue for defining anything, anything at all? Clearly not! Then why do we buy into these claims? But the buzz of the television beckons us back to the covert invasion of our minds that do not pause long enough to question the claims made on the nightly news. Reductionism hypnotizes us. Should we just put up your hands horizontally with a slight limp, freeze our glare on an object some distance away and walk to the beat of the heart of the enchanting buzz of naturalism?

Please also see reductionism and problems with methodology.

About the Author Arthur Khachatryan

Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.

lcoye2002 says August 8, 2011

 It seems to me your disjunctive goes something like:

1. Human minds either get their mental states/emotions/reliable reasoning capacities from the abilities of their physical parts, or they do not (and some additional, non-physical component is necessary).
1. Molecules, the physical parts of Human minds, don’t have mental states/emotions/reliable reasoning capacities.
–> Therefore, these capacities/abilities do not come from molecules.

The problem I see immediately is that you fail to recognize that arrangement matters.  Look at a similar issue of reductionism:

1. Plants either get their ability to photosynthesize from the abilities of the physical parts(molecules), or they do not (and some additional, non-physical component is necessary).
2. Molecules, the physical parts of plants, don’t have the ability to photosynthesize.
–> Therefore, this ability does not come from molecules.

I feel confident that you don’t think plants need souls to perform photosynthesis.

This mode of reasoning is subject to the Fallacy of Division; in this context, it is a form of false reductionism.  I can readily agree that some forms of reductionism do not explain adequately the phenomenon presented to our senses, but that does not mean that an additional component of the non-natural variety will therefore provide an adequate explanation.  Often, you have to take arrangement into account.  No piece of an airplane can fly on it’s own, yet when arranged in a particular manner, the finished product can fly at upwards of 2200 miles per hour! (check out some of the stories of SR-71 Blackbird pilots).

I humbly submit that you reread the excerpt from Dostoevsky, paying particular attention to this bit:

“That was because they analyzed only the parts and failed to study the whole, showing thereby a truly astonishing blindness.”

What you would need, and what would intrigue me greatly, in order to make this argument go through, is evidence for why the arrangement of neurons and other chemicals in the brain can’t produce consciousness. It is perfectly true that we don’t know how this occurs, nor do we know what it is about the particular combination that produces consciousness, but leaping from ignorance to impossibility seems premature (at least to me).


    Arty says August 12, 2011

    Lee, apologies for the late approval and answer. I’ve been extremely busy.

    Perhaps I should have made a couple of short qualifications. I wasn’t necessarily inferring that there is no place for reductionism in science, but for the sake of brevity I jumped right into the areas that I saw problems with.

    I’m not necessarily interested in making an argument against reductionism in terms of how it may explain function. My main intent was to demonstrate that there is more to the essence of the human experience than can be explained merely by natural processes and parts reduced down to their constituent parts, regardless of their arrangement.

    I think what Dostoevsky was getting at (I hope I’m doing proper exegesis) by saying “they failed to study the whole” was that certain forms of inspection into human nature were methodically excluded as a radical form of reductionism was presupposed to have the ability to explain the entirety of the human essence.

    Could conscience arise out of a specific arrangement of neurons? It’s possible, but the possibility has quite a few problems in my opinion. The mind is a metaphysical entity in that it is differentiated from the biological faculties of the brain. The mind is ontologically different from the brain. The mind knows of itself as the self (ego). I don’t think biology can account for non-physical realities. To say that mere biochemistry that has no such non-physical properties can blindly give rise to metaphysical realities is extremely difficult to believe.

    Since we now know that behavior has the capability to change biochemistry, it becomes even more difficult to maintain that we are simply the product of our biochemistry. We are as much if not more, the product of our experiences as we are of our biochemistry.

    These are the selfsame reasons why many have suddenly adopted the position that consciousness is an illusion. And how precisely one would consciously postulate such a position is beyond me 😉

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