Exorcizing Reductionism


Because a reductive account of being fails to account for emergence and self-organizing complex systems, an account of non-reductive physical causation is necessary for observing the intricacies of nature—such as humanity’s social abilities. Physical reductionism was a guiding principle for philosophy and science in the 20th century. As a theory, reductionism attempts to eliminate the compounded nature of entities in favor of discovering the components that are ontologically simpler. The attraction of reductionism is its appearance to demonstrate how basic elements of an organism combine into properties whose behavior can be deterministically predicted. However, as the 21st century burgeons, the exploration of emergent phenomena has problematized the methodological approaches scientists once employed.

A zoo tangibly illustrates the failure of reductionism’s logic: the observable behavior of an enclosed animal is significantly different than of a animal in its natural habitat. If living beings were merely aggregates of simpler particles, environmental locations would not produce such unpredictably dramatic disturbances.


Because interactivity in an organism’s physical composition and environmental placement are both vital for creating the meaning of a way of life, complex systems cannot be fully understood by accounting the sum of their parts. Resultantly, ends and means cannot be discussed as isolated subjects because the whole affects the parts. Therefore, dissecting or tampering with a complex system actually destroys part of what can be known about it.The fragility of nature is not scientifically accounted for mystically, but through “emergence.”

Conceptually, emergence connotes a complex organism’s ability to exhibit characteristics not uniquely present in the constituent parts. Further, when a system contains internal complexity and participates in external environments, dynamical patterns form and operate in etiologically distinct ways, thereby increasing the potential capabilities of a system.

Emergent qualities are unpredictable because when a system is complex enough, the characteristics increase but so does the potential for further subtly to develop. Contra reductionism, where causation is understood as a bottom-up process, complex systems are open systems: historical actions not only trigger particular reactions, but also are subsumed into the dynamic social system.


Complex systems that display emergence can generate themselves through autopoiesis (“self-creation”). Autopoiesis involves a contextual sensitivity exemplified in a society’s ability to communicate and alter the uses of language. Linguistic complexity emerges when a feedback loop forms involving a collective memory, language, mimesis, and cultural recognition. The most successful elements in communication recurrence sublate into a body of social understandings that alter the society’s public language; the definitions of ‘transmission’ and ‘transmutation’ of cultural imagination blur. Because characteristics of complexity supervene on the structure, part of what humanity is remains unrecognizable without social interactivity; consequently, ethics of language are not reducible to biology. Thus, meaningful social norms are internally constructed.

For these reasons, reductionism fails to explain natural complexities being discovered. Reductively deterministic accounts of complex emergent qualities are misguided from their origins: systems are made up of multifaceted relationships that rely on their own historical development, making it impossible to separate components without a loss of information. Much like it is impossible to satisfactorily describe a work of art to someone blind, fully recounting complexity and the processes of emergence would involve embodying the process itself.


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