A Philosophical Critique of Reductionism and a Plea for a Holistic
Department of Philosophy, Madras Christian College, Tambaram, Chennai 600 059
Reductionism as a method has serious implications in many fields such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy and theology. It certainly makes inroads into moral philosophy. Because, if man were to be regarded as a collocation of atoms and molecules, his sense of morality i.e., the ability to discern between good and bad, between right and wrong, would be understood as one accidentally arisen out of the piecemeal biological and psychological systems.
In this paper, an attempt is made to briefly
dwell on biological reductionism and psychological reductionism
and trace how these two methods together would land man in ethical
relativism. Finally a strong plea for a holistic ethic is made.
1. Biological Reductionism
Rapid strides in biological sciences since the middle of the 19th century have accelerated the pace for reductionism. First it was closely associated with Rudolf Virchow's cellular anatomy and pathology, which would look at any organism as a complex of organs, and the organs as a complex of cells (3). Biologists were soon confident that the basic laws of living can be unraveled through a careful study of cells. Man is looked at as a physico-chemical mechanism. Reductionism had gained world wide popularity at the time of Watson and Crick discovering the molecular basis of heredity in DNA. In fact, Francis Crick asserted that, "the ultimate aim of the modern movement in Biology in terms of physics and chemistry" (4).
The new science of molecular psychology tries to understand human behaviour on the basis of the interplay of molecules across the surface of the Brain cells. Molecular psychologists believe that the mental processes are all qualifiable in chemical terms and that the underlying causes for violence and criminality, or emotionality and normal craziness can be ascertained. New drugs which would enhance memory, heighten creativity, increase intelligence can be developed. Even the chemistry of pain and sorrow could be unraveled (5).
Likewise, all recent attempts in neurosciences
could be termed reductionist, because they all approach brain
not as one single unit by one made up of many divisions. Paul
Mac Lean argued in 1962 that man possesses three brains which
coexist in each one of us. The oldest is basically reptilian,
the second is like the lower mammals such as horse and the third
represents the most recent phase of evolution which culminated
in primates and gave man his superior intellect. The animalistic
tendencies of sex, hunger, fear and aggression stem from the more
primitive brains inside, and these conflict with the newly acquired
powers of reason (6).
2. Psychological Reductionism
The emergence of behaviourism in psychology has furthered the cause of reductionism. Man has been looked at as a nexus between stimulus and response. Behaviour is reduced to these two factors of stimulus and response. J.B. Watson became a staunch advocate of the environmental conditioning of man. His famous quote reads: "Give me a dozen infants... I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant - chief and yes, even beggar - man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors" (7). Thus Watson argued that all complex human behaviour is the sum of simple conditioned reflexes, thus he was distinctly reductionist.
The most radical among the psychological reductionists has been B.F. Skinner, who popularized behaviour engineering, according to which human behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences. Therefore a technology of behaviour based on the principles of operator conditioning is now possible. Behaviour is contingent upon reinforces, both positive and negative. Food is a positive reinforcement for a hungry organism, while moving under the cover when the sun is hot is a negative reinforcement. Rewards and punishments can account for whole of our behaviour (8).
Skinner rules out all the `unobservables'
such as motives, drives, emotions or traits. Personality for him
is a mere collection of reinforced responses. Creativity is due
not to the man but to the environment, which initiates. Skinner
once said that Poets are no more creative when they `create' poems
than the women who deliver babies or hens which lay eggs. They
merely provide a fertile ground for a `creation' (9).
3. Reductionism - Ethical Relativism
Reductionism per se is not undesirable as long as it is a means to understand the reality of man. However when it becomes an end in itself it would raise grave ethical questions concerning human freedom, dignity and individuality.
Reductionism and ethical relativism go hand in hand. When a person is looked at as a mere physico-chemical mechanism, their nature as a moral agent comes into question. Human ability to discern right and wrong is not confined to any one part or organ or system. It is a collective ability, which involves all parts of our body and mind. It is for ever beyond the reach of any reductionist to predict that cells and molecules of a particular type would incline a human to more goodness or badness, more altruism or aggression. It is not the cells and molecules that control the `Moral man' within, but vice versa.
Reductionism, both biological and psychological, could trigger several moral dilemmas. Because, when human's wholesome nature is reduced to cells and atoms, our core reality can never be known and we becomes a splintered reality. Today, biological reductionism is largely responsible for issues such as abortion because the pro-choice activists do not look at fetus as a wholesome individual life, but as an appendage of yet another organ of the body. Much abuse in genetic engineering is largely due to the reductionist tendencies which look at genes with only a manipulative or exploitative value and not as purposeful and sacred blueprints for life.
Likewise, psychological reductionism reduces humans to mere reflexes and responses, and their dignity as an individual is lost. If everything is conditioned and controlled by the environment, are we free to choose? Does we have a purpose in life? Why right is right, and wrong is wrong? Is a person a hapless victim of circumstances? Can the unique and complex mental phenomena be reduced to mere S-R equation?
Another danger or reductionism is that
it treats humans as a mechanical system. People are not an object,
much less a machine. A person is a conscious being, capable of
deliberating, feeling, willing, choosing, etc. The reductionist's
description is not the whole truth; it is one aspect of the whole
truth. In the words of Denis Alexander, "The whole truth
must also include the person's own subjective self-awareness of
their environment with all that it entails in terms of rational
thought, feelings, emotions and decision-making" (10).
4. Plea For A Holistic Ethic
The need of the hour is to look at humans as a whole, a whole which is more than the sum of its parts. A Gestalt Ethic, which upholds the holistic nature of human beings very relevant today. Goodness is more than good acts; rightness is more than right acts; a human is more than the sum of their cells and molecules. Reality is more than the reduced.
A reductionist ethic is in turn a relativistic ethic, which makes humans and humankind fragmented. People are and always want to be whole, not only physically and mentally, but also spiritually. Therefore, a holistic ethic i.e., one which posits a human being and their moral actions in comprehensive wholeness, would alone restore to human existence a value which is far more than a mere survival value.
The more the biologists and psychologists
advance research in to the nature of man, the more they stumble
on the fact that every bit in a human is dexterously and deliberately
designed for a purpose. Reductionism must lead to and end up in
holism, and not vice versa. This attitude made Salvador Dali remark,
"And now the announcement of Watson and Crick about DNA.
This is for me the real proof of the existence of God" (11).
1. See Richard L. Gregory (ed.) The Oxford Companion to the Mind, O.U.P. Oxford, 1987, P.675.
2. See Authur Peacock, God and the New Biology, J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1986, PP 5-20.
3. See Richard L. Gregory (ed.), op cit, P.675.
4. Francis H.C. Crick, Of Molecules of Man, Univ. of Washington Press, Seattle, 1966, P.10.
5. See Jon Franklin, Molecules of the Mind, Lawrd, NY., 1987, PP 37-38.
6. Quoted in Denis Alexander, Beyond Science, Lion Pub. Kent, 1972, PP 128-129.
7. J.B. Watson, Behaviour: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, NY, 1967.
8. B.F. Skinner, "Beyond Freedom and Dignity", Knopf inc. NY, 1971, PP 27-28.
9. B.F. Skinner, "A lecture on having a poem" in Cumulative record: a selection of papers, Appleton Century - Crofts. NY, 1972.
10. Denis Alexander, op cit, P.52.
11. Quoted in A.R. Peacock, op cit, P.60.
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