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