Reductionism & Abstraction

Yakaru recently posted the first of a series on Rupert Sheldrake and 10 alleged dogmas of science. I ended up being reminded of some topics, in particular being called “reductionist” by many woos who don’t seem to understand the scientific and skeptical mindset. One troll of yore on my old blog was a woo posing as his straw man view of a skeptic, trying to claim that statements of my emotional state were meaningless because emotion doesn’t exist, only particles do.

I find it disturbing because it’s like they can’t grasp abstraction or choose to be willfully ignorant about the concept to “win” the argument. I’ve heard the phrase “beasts abstract not” used to assert that the big difference between humans and other animals was our ability to think abstractly. Since Carl Sagan was quoting it, he didn’t believe it was an absolute barrier: More likely we just abstract more often and more deeply than other animals. It baffles me that a human can live in a society without understanding something that profoundly affects our way of thinking and interacting, or that a woo can seriously assert that someone carrying on a conversation in a symbolic language about the nature of certain abstractions rejects the existence of abstractions because he chose to explain certain higher level abstractions in terms of lower level ones.

Let’s look at a quark. Metaphorically, and in our mind’s eye, I mean. I’m not up on my particle physics, but as far as I know, you can’t really break a quark further down (though the limits of my knowledge wouldn’t stop the LHC crew from trying and possibly demonstrating the contrary). Now let’s look at two Up quarks and a Down quark interacting with each other. Off the top of my head, they would have a net charge of +1, one AU of mass, and a spin of I don’t know. Of course, a lot of people from physicists to informed layman will know that what I’m describing as three interacting particles can also be described as a proton, which can itself be treated as a distinct entity. For most practical purposes, we don’t have to get into the nitty-gritty of calculating the behavior of that proton’s constituent quarks to figure out what the proton as a whole is likely going to do. That’s one level of abstraction. If protons didn’t behave in a reasonably consistent manner, it’d be a mistake to use the term. But protons are pretty well understood and reasonably consistent, so we can use the term in science as a shorthand for the interacting arrangement of two Up quarks and a Down quark.

Let’s throw in more quarks to make more protons along with neutrons, bind them tightly together with the strong force, and sprinkle in some electrons. Now we’ve got an atom, another level of abstraction. Now let’s take that atom and form electron bonds with other atoms. Now we have a molecule. Now let’s arrange those molecules into a structure, say, a nerve cell. Now let’s arrange that nerve cell to form an array of interactions with other nerve cells. Now let’s take some of those clumps of nerve cells and put them together to form a human brain, and with it, a personality.
Of course, we have to throw in all the systems required to sustain that brain, and you’ve got a human.

You can also do the reverse, looking at one part of a whole, and part of that part, and so on, back down to fundamental particles. Reductionism is when you look at the fine details and how they add up to the whole, while abstraction is how you describe well-known accumulated interactions. The question I have is what’s changed about the whole by looking at the parts and how they interact? Just because we could, in principle, describe a person as an arrangement of particles doesn’t mean we can’t also describe him as a person. The particle arrangement might serve as a more accurate, non-abstracted description, but it would take a great deal more time to transmit and interpret that description, while saying “Bob’s a science fiction fan” would serve to communicate a certain idea about that person more quickly and effectively at the cost of completeness and accuracy. We identify a “person” labeled “Bob” who “enjoys” a “genre” of “literature” called “science fiction.” These are high level abstractions, where a lot of inaccuracies from previous levels build up, but would you call “Bob’s a science fiction fan” a useless or meaningless sentence?

It’s language. It’s how people talk about things. We do it all the time. I’m doing it right now. If I’m talking about something, I don’t have to say every excruciating detail about it for you to understand the general idea I’m trying to convey. If I say “rock,” you might imagine a generic, irregular gray or brown chunk of a hard mineral. If I say “marble,” you’re probably going to imagine a white rock, possibly with some visible layers. Probably a few images of famous sculptures, too. If I were a geologist, I could probably go into greater detail, depending on other factors that might be relevant to the conversation, but in any case, it’s unlikely I’d be able to communicate the idea of that exact chunk of marble. But I don’t need to. I can just say “a rough piece of marble the size of a fist” and what you’d imagine would likely be accurate enough for the conversation’s purpose.

Life, consciousness, emotion, and so forth exist. They’re as real as the idea of “rock.” They’re important to us. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that changing the method of description or even the idea of changing the description is inherently and irrevocably going to destroy the nature or the value of what’s described. But that’s what skeptics like me deal with every time a woo complains about reductionism undermining the value of human life. It’s like they’d suddenly stop seeing the beauty of a rainbow if someone told them that they’re typically formed by light refracting through water droplets. It’s sad.

4 responses to “Reductionism & Abstraction

  1. Pingback: Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion — Part 2: Delusions of Dogma « Spirituality is No Excuse

  2. I remember an esoteric idea which may have influenced Sheldrake and other “hyper-reductionists”. “The whole is contained in each of its parts”, usually accompanied by a picture of a dew drop with the whole sky reflected in it. I guess it’s derived from the famous “As above, so below” idea.

    So the idea that the brain could only be conscious if each atom has a little packet of consciousness in it, fits nicely into ideas about holographs and holograms. Aesthetically I find the idea quite pleasing, and who knows what the fuck might be going on down there in the tiniest places, but to assume that science is dogmatically attached to idea that it is not so, is just intellectual laziness.

  3. I’m not a big fan of the “holographic” fractal universe idea. There’s a mathematical version of a holographic universe, but it’s not quite the same thing.

    What the heck would a “packet of consciousness” even be? Is there a “packet of Windows” somewhere deep in my computer? Pretty sure at base level it’s all magnetic charge and flowing electrons. The operating system is merely an emergent property, but at base level, it’s all just a single logic gate.

  4. Pingback: Hyper-reductionism — A New Science of Life | Spirituality is No Excuse

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