Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reductionism in History


In my article 'Neuroscience and the Reductionist Temptation', I point out that throughout the history of the modern world, a recurring temptation among scientists and psychologists has been to posit reductionist explanations for of what it means to be human.

For example, in the early twentieth century Freud had some remarkable insights about the unconscious, but Freudianism becomes reductionist precisely when these insights are taken to be an all-purpose explanation covering all of human behavior. There is more to being human than simply the unconscious.

B.F. Skinner
In the mid twentieth century, B.F. Skinner had some insights into the role our environment plays in conditioning human behavior. Skinner and his followers went wrong when they assumed (or acted as if) all human behavior could be explained in terms of environmental factors (a theory known as behaviorism). There is more to being human than simply behavior.

Throughout the twentieth century to the present, the Christian counselor Jay Adams had some insights about the role confrontation can play in a counseling context. Where he and his followers went wrong was when they assumed this was the only way counseling should operate (a view known as “neuthetic counseling”, which I discuss here.) There is more to inner healing than the neo-behaviorism of the rigid neuthetic paradigm.

In the scientific realm, the temptation of reductionism has been equally pervasive. In the seventeenth-century, new machine metaphors began to emerge for describing the world: the world began to be seen as a giant clock and God as the great watch-maker. Descartes compared the coming of the swallows in spring to clocks, while early English anatomists like William Harvey (1578–1657) described the heart as a pump (a metaphor that Descartes extended to both the brain and the human nervous system). All of this was well and fine until the “Enlightenment” period came along and men began to take these metaphors a little too seriously, assuming that all of reality could be explained in purely mechanistic terms.

When Isaac Newton (1642-1727) succeeded in explaining the laws of motion by which the universe operated, a number of thinkers assumed that all of reality could be explained by these laws and that Newton’s discoveries had somehow eliminated the need for the supernatural or human free will. (J.R. Lucas discusses this in his book The Freedom of the Will.)

The temptation of reductionism is now apparent in the realm of brain plasticity. The reason reductionism is so tempting is because brain plasticity touches almost every aspect of how we behave as human beings, as David Brooks showed in his fascinating book The Social Animal. The science of brain plasticity really does explain a lot, but there are non-material aspects of being human that it does not, and cannot, ever touch upon.

Read entire article HERE.
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