Reductionism and the Limits of Science

I first began to participate on internet forums and chat groups as part of a research project. I had worked out in logic that Buddhist doctrine was almost certainly true, but still knew very little about it. Perhaps there were objections I had not yet spotted, problems it could not address. Accordingly, for some years I travelled around the internet making bold statements in hostile environments in order to encourage objections and learn whether they could be dealt with and how best to do it.

I had many surprising adventures. Quite early on I found myself on the private chat group for a well-known astrophysicist. My background is not academic, and I was extremely nervous. It was my first opportunity to talk to a group of professional scientists about the ideas I was exploring, or, come to that, about anything. It was also the first time I realised that scientists are not immune from being utterly confused about religion and philosophy and tend to assume that everyone else, since they are not scientists, must be equally or even more confused, and therefore feel free to pluck their views out of a hat with almost no thought let alone any honest research. It was the beginning of what quickly became a complete mistrust of professional academics when it comes to matters of religion and philosophy. Over time I have come to see the professors as no better than the priests, keeping the truth from us because they themselves are fearful of discovering what it is, or want to protect their commitment to some pet conjecture or dogma. I remember mentioning Erwin Schrodinger, who preached the truth of the Hindu Upanishads for forty years, in order to give my comments a vaguely respectable background, and was informed authoritatively that Schrodinger chose the religious view that best suited him, just like everyone else, as if he was a brilliant physicist and philosopher and a blithering idiot all at the same time.

I gave up the research project in the end. There is no fault in Buddhist doctrine that I can find. It is perfect. It sheds light on physics, solves metaphysics and is an ideal science of the mind. It is strictly empirical and makes no claims that cannot, according to its metaphysical scheme, be verified in practice. It is easy to defend from telling objections once one has seen why there cannot be any. The logic is unbreakable. Even if it is not true it would be best explanation of everything on grounds of consistency, simplicity, elegance, usefulness, happiness, hopefulness and universal justice. Its explanatory reach is total in respect of what can be explained. Physics looks like a lost infant alongside it. Western metaphysics looks like chaos.

Since then I have been learning, or trying to learn, how to understand and talk about the relationship between the perennial philosophy, of which Buddhism would be one of many examples, and metaphysics, physics, psychology, mathematics, biology and so forth. It is a completely fascinating area of research and although sparsely populated is full of interesting characters and amazing texts. In an earlier post I likened this to playing Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, and although this was only a casual connection at the time it has grown on me as an apt metaphor.

The idea would be to construct an intricate model of the universe from first principles. This is a much easier game than trying to construct the model from the roof down, as it were, in the way that physicists try to do. There is no way to line up the roof with the foundations unless the foundations are already in place, so much better to start where the universe starts, with basic principles. If the principles are correct then the truths of physics, mathematics, psychology and so forth will emerge naturally and fit neatly into place.

To take this approach is not difficult in principle. There is plenty of literature, even if it is often found well off the beaten track of the academic curriculum. The problem would be only that this approach requires that we see metaphysics as coming before and after physics, and although this is how we define metaphysics, and have always defined it, this is not how we treat it these days. Just this week I saw a classic example of the way we ignore metaphysics.

It was a discussion of reductionism, and whether it is plausible that all the detail of the world could be contained, in potential, in the fundamental particles of the standard model and emerge ineluctably. This, so it seems, is what physicists call reductionism. It is as if we have built the whole house except for the foundations, and then tried to sell it to an unsuspecting young couple with a lot of estate-agent hype. Given a moment to think through this matter it becomes obvious that a myriad of particles whizzing about in space-time is not reductionism, not a solid foundation for fundamental theory. The best example of reductionism that I know of, the only successful example of which I am aware, is Middle Way Buddhism and its equivalents. Nothing would really exist and nothing would ever really happen. This is proper reductionism. It is a view that would be too strong for most physicists, however, since for a complete reductionism we would have to concede that physics is non-reductive not just at present, but for all time.

Why can we not simply concede that physics is non-reductive? Do physicists fear for the stature of their discipline? If physics is reductive, fundamental, then what is the point of metaphysics? Why does it exist? It exists because a reduction of the universe that speaks only of physically observable phenomenon cannot reach all the way down. It is certain to fail. There is no hope of success. Until this is widely understood in physics we can have only profoundly naïve conversations about religion and philosophy on internet physics forums.

Thinking that physics is reductive is an elementary error. It would be a more plausible idea if it could be tested, or if it helped explain anything, but as things are it is an idea that clearly does not work. If reductionism (or holism) is ever to work, or be achieved, then it must begin and end in metaphysics. Otherwise it is not reductionism.

In a religious context, reductionism is the idea that religion can be reduced to superstition, misunderstandings, ignorance and so on. Those who endorse the idea that physics is, or ever can be, reductive will naturally gravitate towards this secondary form of it. After all, if we don’t need to reduce physics for a fundamental theory then religious reductionism becomes unavoidable. How a scientist can hold either of these positions is, even after all these years of trying to understand the ways in which people think, quite beyond my comprehension, and I have come to see it as no more than a matter of temperament and prejudice.

Time will tell, but I see no way forward for science, philosophy and religion except a complete reconciliation. I am very sure that this can be achieved by anyone on an individual basis, but it will not be achievable in the academic community until scientists stop refusing to concede the limits of their method of study and grant to metaphysics a reason for existing.

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4 Responses to Reductionism and the Limits of Science

  1. dondeg says:

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    Frankly, Pete, I am a professor and I feel this way without the qualifications of religion and philosophy!

    The funny thing is, it is not what one would expect, yet is exactly what everyone would expect. By this I mean that it has nothing to do with being intellectual. It is simply being a poser. Somehow, through luck, circumstances, perhaps a bit of hard work here and there, these people have bluffed and wheedled their way into academia and found some strategy for surviving in that environment.

    Alan Watts’ statement about the priest applies exactly equally to the professor:

    “I begin to congratulate the priest on his gamesmanship, on the sheer courage of being able to put up such a performance of authority when he knows precisely nothing.”

    It is all like the Wizard of Oz: pull pack the curtain and there is just a little scared man there. Their intellectual authority is nothing but smoke and mirrors, behind which is a squirming worm.

    To survive in that environment, sometimes I must camouflage myself in such disguises. I guess my one saving grace is I know I am doing it, and I know it is a fiction donned for a specific purpose. These others, they take themselves seriously and that is why it is both a joke and tragedy at the same time.

    Yay! (This really is a reference to the “little girl yay on the No Agenda Show (noagendashow.com).

    http://media.phoneboy.com/najingles/Yay.m4r

  2. PeterJ says:

    Thanks Don. What an interesting comment. I felt I may have been a bit too outspoken here but you’ve reassured me somewhat. Your remarks seem even more critical The truth is that I have great respect and admiration for academics in many respects, and am even a little in awe at times, but something seems to go wrong when it comes to religion and philosophy. As you say, a joke and a tragedy. I wonder though, whether things may be slowly changing. (For some reason the link does not work.) .

    • dondeg says:

      Hi Pete

      Thanks for the reply. The remarks are not insubstantial. There are several related topics I’ve studied including the history and sociology of science. As a jumping off point into this realm of thinking, I recommend Henry Bauer’s book “Dogmatism in Science and Medicine”. Search his name; his website has a lot of good material and links to it.

      Henry’s contention, and its not his idea but stems from sociological studies, is that Western science has hit the limits of its growth curve. From about 1650 to about 1950, science grew at an exponential rate. During WWII, science spending accounted for about 2-3% of GDP. Since then it growth has leveled off massively, and decreased as a percent of GDP.

      These macroeconomic events have massive impact on the micro-behavior of individual scientists. People practicing today are in a very unfortunate situation indeed as a big constriction is occurring right now.

      Henry’s point is that ideas of what science is and what scientists think about their profession have not kept up with these developments. This leads to all kinds of corruption of science on many levels, both overt and unintended.

      When I make highly critical comments of my peers, it is within such a context. I get to see the day-in-day-out micro-behavior, and it really is filled with paradoxes in many ways. Even the debates you raise here and the issues you address are, in many ways, warped and distorted by the macro-forces affecting academia. To quote Henry (or at least paraphrase): the pronouncements of modern science are not to be believed, but to be met with the same skepticism as one would have with political propaganda.

      Anyway, I strongly recommend Henry’s stuff. You may not agree with everything he says, but I can say this: the man is sincere and honest.

      Again, thanks Pete.

      Best,

      Don

      • PeterJ says:

        I’ll definitely check out Bauer. Thanks. It must be fascinating to be a dissenter on the inside, as it were.

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