Edward Feser Fails At Reductionism

09 Aug

Now right off the bat, I don’t really have anything to add to this. But I would like posts like these to get wider readership. So here it is.

Feser writes in Concretizing the Abstract:

We abstract when we consider some particular aspect of a concrete thing while bracketing off or ignoring the other aspects of the thing. For example, when you consider a dinner bell or the side of a pyramid exclusively as instances of triangularity, you ignore their color, size, function, and metal or stone composition. Or to borrow an example from a recent post, when aircraft engineers determine how many passengers can be carried on a certain plane, they might focus exclusively on their average weight and ignore not only the passengers’ sex, ethnicity, hair color, dinner service preferences, etc., but even the actual weight of any particular passenger. […]

Abstractions can be very useful, and are of themselves perfectly innocent when we keep in mind that we are abstracting. The trouble comes when we start to think of abstractions as if they were concrete realities themselves — thereby “reifying” them — and especially when we think of the abstractions as somehow more real than the concrete realities from which they have been abstracted. […]

I do not mean to deny that abstractions of the sort in question may have their uses. On the contrary, the mathematical conception of matter is extremely useful, as the astounding technologies that surround us in modern life make obvious. But contrary to what some proponents of scientism suppose, it simply doesn’t follow for a moment that that conception gives us an exhaustive conception of the material world, for reasons I have stated many times (e.g. here). […]

Then there is social science. When we abstract from concrete human beings their purely economic motivations, ignoring everything else and then reifying this abstraction, the result is homo economicus, a strange creature who, unlike real people, is driven by nothing but the desire to maximize utility. Nietzschean analyses of human motivation in terms of the will to power are less susceptible of mathematical modeling (and thus less “scientific”), but are variations on the same sort of error. Evolutionary psychology often combines abstractions of the natural scientific and social scientific sort. Like the neuroscientist, the evolutionary psychologist often treats parts of human beings as if they were substances independent of the whole from which they have been abstracted (”selfish genes,” “memes”), and adds to this reification the abstractions of the economist (e.g. game theory).

As the neuroscientific and sociobiological examples indicate, the Reification Fallacy is often combined with other fallacies. In these cases, parts of a whole substance are first abstracted from it and treated as if they were substances in their own right (e.g. brain hemispheres, genes); and then a second, “Mereological Fallacy” (as Bennett and Hacker call it) is committed, in which what is intelligibly attributed only to the whole is attributed to the parts (e.g. the left hemisphere of the brain is said to “interpret,” and genes are said to be “selfish”). […]

The irony is that while New Atheists and others beholden to scientism pride themselves on being “reality based,” that is precisely what they are not. Actual, concrete reality is extremely complicated. There is far more to material systems than what can be captured in the equations of physics, far more to human beings than can be captured in the categories of neuroscience or economics, and far more to religion than can be captured in the ludicrous straw men peddled by New Atheists. All of these simplifying abstractions (except the last) have their value, but when we treat them as anything more than simplifying abstractions we have left the realm of science and entered that of ideology. The varieties of reductionism, eliminativism, and the “hermeneutics of suspicion” are manifestations of this tendency to replace real things with abstractions. They are all attempts to “conquer the abundance” of reality (as Paul Feyerabend might have put it), to force the world in all its concrete richness into a straightjacket

My first thought when reading this was that Feser was strawmaning “scientism”. But another poster at Less Wrong got his criticism of Feser’s post… well, less wrong:

Feser’s understanding of reductionism is backwards, which is evident by his choice of the verb “abstract” over “reduce.”

We abstract when we consider some particular aspect of a concrete thing while bracketing off or ignoring the other aspects of the thing. For example, when you consider a dinner bell or the side of a pyramid exclusively as instances of triangularity, you ignore their color, size, function, and metal or stone composition.

Abstraction is precisely what Feser says: we find a simple pattern in complicated systems and approximate the system by that pattern. For example, we ignore the motions of every gas molecule in a tank, that’s too many molecules to store even in a computer. Instead, we average that motion and call it heat, now we can describe other properties of the gas, such as average pressure, to some accuracy. We abstract the motion of avogadros of gas molecules into a simple statement about the system as a whole. We started with too many gas molecules to count, now we have a few numbers representing those molecules.

Abstraction fails because our tank has cracks and gas leaks out. The gas slowly loses energy to the tank walls. Some of the gas undergoes radioactive decay and changes the count of molecules in the tank. Feser argues that these problems refute reductionism.

Reductionism is the opposite. To reduce a tank of gas we need to look at every single molecule and record each and every detail about each molecule. The molecule that escapes is recorded. As molecules pound on the tank walls, each one loses some energy, and this is recorded along with the energy increase of the wall. In order to understand the decay we need to reduce even further.

The author doesn’t see the difference.

To put this into programming language talk, Feser is talking about an “object” in OOP. The object, in OOP, isn’t a “reduction” of whatever we instantiate from that object. Reductionism, on the other hand, would be reducing that object in OOP to its individual lines of code (at the least).

Note, that “scientism” is the belief that science is the only means to understanding reality. In reality, I would say that most scientists, and science-minded people, are reductionists. I suppose Feser likes throwing around the word “scientism” because it already has negative connotations that he can exploit.


Posted by on August 9, 2012 in rationality


4 responses to “Edward Feser Fails At Reductionism

  1. Robert

    August 9, 2012 at 4:16 am

    What do you think of LW user Mitchell_Porter's comments?

  2. J. Quinton

    August 9, 2012 at 4:41 am

    His post seems to be leaning towards philosophical zombies territory. I.e. we might know all of the hormones that cause the feeling of "love" but this doesn't mean that a person will actually feel "love".

  3. Robert

    August 9, 2012 at 5:02 am

    Yeah, specifically…If I were to use the sequences as my guide, […] the facts about reality are 1) a lot of strictly physical facts, and 2) "what-it's-like-to-be-an-X" facts. In the first class of facts, I include complex physical facts that can be obtained from the elementary physical facts, like facts about temperature, which are really facts about average energies of large ensembles of particles. Occasionally it's said that the "feeling" facts are of this type – complex but strictly physical facts – but then that was the point of my question: I was daring the reader to make such a claim and to be specific about how it works. I was careful to stipulate that the explanation should be non-behavioristic; thus iDante's later comment, about replicative behaviors, doesn't qualify, and indeed iDante takes care to add that the property described may not actually be the same thing as love, even if it has something to do with the functional consequences and adaptive role of love. Descriptions in terms of function, adaptive value, or physical composition do not say anything about "experience" or "how it feels", and I think people generally recognize this. — A lot of the p-zombie stuff that Eleizer posted did not register with me. I didn't have the patience to read it all and make a judgement. Do you think it's worth the effort to grok?

  4. J. Quinton

    August 9, 2012 at 7:20 am

    Philosophical zombies are unfalsifiable so it's no different than thinking that the world was created last Thursday. Sure, it might be true, but there's no possible observation that could falsify it. So it's epistemically worthless.

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