Posted by: Brian Robinette | March 2, 2009

To Be or Not To Be a Reductionist?

One of the greatest challenges to scientific reductionism is its inability to ground (or “justify”) itself without an appeal to something extra-scientific. In our reading for Monday, we find John Haught speaking to this issue, among others, with great clarity, especially in response to Dawkins’ attempt to explain morality and religion on a strictly biological basis. Not only is Dawkins’ scientific reductionism ultimately unable to ground itself without creeping into explicitly philosophical analysis, willy-nilly, but at very critical moments we find his explanations wobbling and eventually buckling under the pressure, at which point he moves rapidly to a discussion of biological “misfirings,” or the (still very controversial) notion of “memes.” (See pp. 55-60 in Haught’s God and the New Atheism for more. One could also benefit from engaging more extensive treatment in his Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in an Age of Science.)


Leon Weilseltier makes the same observation in his New York Times review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (“The God Genome,” Feb. 19, 2006). Here is one of several choice quotes from the review, which you can find in full here:

Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the fourth page of his book. Watch closely. “Like other animals,” the confused passage begins, “we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal.” No confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are animals. The sentence continues: “But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives.” A sterling observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the same fine antideterministic vein: “This fact does make us different.”

Then suddenly there is this: “But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science.” As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett’s telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind — a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.


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