Methodological Reductionism

“Reductionism has been contested not only in recent times: already in the past century it was often admitted that the ontological monism which it implies is too heavy a metaphysical presupposition. Nevertheless, the necessity was put forward of a seemingly more neutral reductionism, which may be described in the following way. Let us well admit that each discipline busies itself with its specific objects. Nonetheless, we want to distinguish the disciplines that treat of their objects in a scientific manner from those which do so in a non-scientific manner. What does it mean to attribute to a discipline the honorable qualification «science»? The response has been: this discipline must be modeled after the sciences which have already merited this title, namely, after the natural sciences. This condition, in its own turn, has been explicitated in two different ways: certain authors have conceived it within the framework of epistemic reductionism, that is, in the sense that a discipline becomes scientific from the moment that it is reduced, practically, to a chapter of a natural science and, in particular, of physics, such a reduction furnishing, so to speak, a criterion for measuring the «degree of scientificity» it was capable of attaining. According to this perspective, chemistry is a bit less scientific than physics, but already well advanced upon the right path, biology – to the extent that it is inclined to be reduced to chemistry and, by this bias, to physics – appears to have good hopes to be capable of arriving some day at being strictly scientific, psychology is still quite far from this ideal, but if it should prove capable of being reduced to biology (and by this bias to chemistry and physics) it will have attained fUlly scientific status. And the other disciplines, such as history, law, economics, linguistics, sociology? The response has been: well, if they cannot satisfy these conditions, they shall remain outside of the frame of the sciences, though they retain interest in so far as forms of the cultural activity of men, beside the arts, morality and religion.

Another position, more tolerant and «liberal», has nevertheless manifested itself. According to this position, to be scientific, one no longer demands of a discipline that it be able to become a chapter of a natural science; it is sufficient that it adopt the methods of these sciences, that it be constructed after the experimental method, that it use instruments of measure, that its concepts be translated in a series of measurable magnitudes, that it have complete recourse to mathematization, that its explanations take the form of deductions performed from general laws, that it be in a position to offer verifiable predictions. Clearly, we can call methodological reductionism the ensemble of conditions here layed-out. But does this represent a legitimate pretension?

Against all appearances of plausibility, this pretension is not legitimate. In reality it disregards that every science is specifically occupied with its specific objects and that these objects are a structured ensemble of predicates dependent upon an explicitly adopted point of view. Now, it can sometimes happen that these predicates are able to satisfy the relatively complex mathematical conditions permitting us to translate them into magnitudes, but this is not obligatory, and if this is not the case, one can no longer pretend that these sciences adopt a genuine mathematization, that they express their propositions and their laws in the form of equations and disequations, that the pertinent deductions assume the form of calculations. Of course, we shall have the right to demand that these sciences offer criteria of objectivity and rigor, but these criteria depend on the nature of their objects. One should demand that they permit the testing of their affirmations, but this does not imply that the tests be exactly of the experimental type; they will have to furnish explanations by means of correct arguments, but this does not impose in advance the kind of deduction and logic that they must employ. In brief, while fully admitting that there is a certain «normativity» in the activity of scientific research, one must see to it that it emerges from the domain of investigation in concern, and one can not erect a method, which has been successful in a domain, as an obligatory normative criterion for all sciences: without falling into a «methodological anarchism», a «methodological pluralism» appears just as reasonable as the ontological pluralism and the epistemological pluralism we have defended up to here.”

E. Agazzi


Bowing to logic (and being inclined)

“…among philosophers and scholars, who are so accustomed to bow to logic in speculative matters, and are thus inclined to believe that in all matters, and for the whole humanity, logic must be accepted as the sovereign authority. But because science must respect the logic of things and logic in general if it wants to succeed in its researches, because such is the interest of the scientist, it is not to be concluded that we are obliged always to conform to logic in our conduct, as though such were the interest of man in general, or even the interest of the scientist as man.”

Henri Bergson

Evolution of consciousness

“Philosophy gains by finding some absolute in the moving world of phenomena. But we too shall gain in our feeling of greater joy and strength. Greater joy because the reality invented before our eyes will give each of us, unceasingly, some of the satisfaction which art gives at rare intervals to the privileged; it will reveal to us, beyond the fixity and monotony which our senses, hypnotized by constant need, at first perceived in it, ever-recurring novelty, the moving originality of things. But above all we shall have greater strength, for we shall feel that we are participating, creators of ourselves, in the great work of creation… By getting hold of itself, our ability to act will become intensified. Until now humbled in an attitude of obedience, slaves of vaguely-felt natural necessities, we shall stand once more erect.”

“An intelligent being bears within itself the means to transcend its own nature.”

“Now, the more we fix our attention on this continuity of life, the more we see that organic evolution resembles the evolution of a consciousness, in which the past pushing into the present causes a new form of awareness, incommensurable with what went before.”

Henri Bergson
from Le Pensée et le mouvant (1934) and L’Évolution créatrice (1907)

Mystical states

“Mystical states merely add a supersensous meaning to the ordinary outward data of consciousness. They are excitements like the emotions of love or ambition, gifts to our spirit by means of which facts already objectively before us fall into a new expressiveness and make a new connection with our active life. They do not contradict these facts as such, or deny anything that our senses have immediately seized. It is the rationalistic critic rather who plays the part of denier in the controversy, and his denials have no strength, for there never can be a state of facts to which new meaning may not truthfully be added, provided the mind ascend to a more enveloping point of view.”

“Mystical states indeed wield no authority due simply to their being mystical states. But the higher ones among them point in directions to which the religious sentiments even of non-mystical men incline. They tell of the supremacy of the ideal, of vastness, of union, of safety, or rest. They offer us hypothesis, hypothesis which we may voluntarily ignore, but which as thinkers we cannot possible upset. The supernaturalism and optimism to which they would persuade us may, interpreted in one way or another, be after all the truest insights into the meaning of this life.

W. James

The Varieties of Religious Experience