Has Scientific Reductionism Failed?

Yesterday, I began reading Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  This book has generated a lot of controversy and I wanted to comment on some of the author’s statements as I encountered them rather than waiting until I had finished the book.

In Chapter 1, Nagel lays out his basic argument.  He is asserting that the central concept about the nature of the universe held by most secular-minded persons is not true.  That concept is that life began from a chemical accident several billion years ago and once life began to evolve, it proceeded by random mutation to develop new species arriving at humankind all within a time frame set by the age of the earth and the age of the universe.

According to Nagel, the reason that most secular-minded people hold this view is that many scientists present this view as the only possible scenario: “But among the scientists and philosophers who do express views about the natural order as a whole, reductive materialism is widely assumed to be the only serious possibility.”

Nagel goes on to say that reductive materialism has failed: “The starting point for the argument is the failure of psychophysical reductionism, a position in the philosophy of mind that is largely motivated by the hope of showing how the physical sciences could in principle provide a theory of everything.”

Later, Nagel qualifies this by saying he is mainly speaking about materialist reductionism as it applies to biology (and mind, presumably).  And here is where some clarification is needed.  Nagel uses several phrases to describe the type of reductionism he is speaking about.  In Chapter 1 they are:  “psychophysical reductionism,”  “physio-chemical reductionism,” and “materialist reductionism.”  What they all have in common is reductionism, so it will help to understand what reductionism is.

Reductionism is the idea that any complex entity can be completely understood and explained by analysis of its parts.  It is like peeling back the layers of an onion to reveal the innermost layer which presumably is the fundamental layer from which everything can be explained.  Within the physical sciences this approach has been very successful.  The innermost, fundamental layer for the physical sciences is the layer described as the “Standard Model of Particle Physics.”  This model describes the fundamental particles such as the electron and proton (quarks) as well as the fundamental forces such as the electromagnetic force.

The standard model has been very successful.  Its most recent achievement was the prediction and tentative confirmation of the Higgs Boson, also known as the “God particle,” a name suggested by a journalist, not a scientist.  So I was taken aback when I first read that reductionism had failed.

I think that Nagel is referring to the current inability to explain biology and particularly mind in terms of the features of the standard model.  I think that is an accurate statement:  living organisms cannot be fully understood or explained by appealing to their constituent particles and fundamental forces, if those entities are understood mechanically.

What I think is missing is the realization that the standard model may not be the most fundamental layer of scientific reductionism.  It is simply the layer that is best understood.  The standard model describes phenomenon at the quantum boundary.  Its particles and forces are the smallest measurable entities on which science can perform experiments.  The components of the standard model are conceptual entities.  But they are conceptual entities that have a huge advantage over the layer beneath them: they are measurable.

One could argue that the quantum layer is more fundamental than the standard model.  The huge problem is that the quantum layer contains conceptual entities that cannot be measured, even in principle.  The conceptual entities of the quantum layer are quantum states and they cannot be measured.  But quantum states are the mathematical entities that are essential for the success of the standard model.  So who is to say that quantum states are any less real than electrons and protons?

At the quantum boundary, science has encountered the absolute limit on what can be measured.  So, in that sense, science has reached the limit of what it can confirm experimentally.  But, if one believes that the quantum world is real, then an entirely different picture emerges from the standard model.  Instead of mechanistic particles, the quantum world suggests that elementary particles are computed entities.  One does not need to attribute classical computation to these tiny bundles of energy.  What is important is that there exists a decisional process in the universe that determines the specific outcome whenever one of these particles participates in the transfer of energy from one place in space-time to another place in space-time.

In other words, the fundamental particles are more mind-stuff than material-stuff.  I think that counts as a success for scientific reductionism, not as failure.  Of course the problem is that one must make a leap of faith to the point of view that the quantum world represents reality.  That might be a leap too far for the many who have been trained in the classical view of reality.

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