Thinking Scientifically/The role and limitations of scientific reduction

Thinking scientifically, sometimes more narrowly characterized as scientific reductionism, is a powerful approach to verifying or falsifying propositions. It has an impressive track record, bringing us the periodic table of chemical elements, the standard model of particle physics, our understanding of chemistry, the building blocks of biology, genetics, and an explosion of new technologies including GPS systems, smart phones, video conferencing, and space exploration.

Although thinking scientifically remains the most reliable way of knowing, it is difficult to apply in several important domains.

As powerful as it is, scientific reductionism seems to lack soul. Reducing our bodies to a bag of chemicals challenges the meaning we find in life, love, friendships, and exploring why we are here. Furthermore, philosopher David Hume recognized that knowing what is does not help us know what we ought to do.

Although thinking scientifically remains the most reliable way of knowing, it is difficult to apply in several important domains. The stance of antireductionism contrasts with reductionism by advocating that not all properties of a system can be explained in terms of its constituent parts and their interactions. The stance of natural inclusion synthesizes elements of reductionism and holism.

Karl Popper was a famous proponent of antireductionism. In his essay Of clouds and clocks, Popper classified phenomena into two types: “clock” phenomena with a mechanical basis and “cloud” phenomena which are indivisible and depend upon emergence for explanation.

Complex systems, emergent phenomenon, subjective experiences, and questions of aesthetics,  virtue, values, and norms may be cloud phenomena beyond the realm of scientific reductionism yet remain some of the most important concerns of humanity.

Complex systems include weather systems, biological systems (especially including humans), the mind, consciousness, cultures, civilizations, economic systems, social systems, political systems, the universe, and other systems that include many dynamically interacting parts and intricate feedback loops. Despite the difficulty of analyzing these systems some progress, such as improved accuracy of weather forecasting, is being made in these areas.

Emergent phenomena include air pressure, temperature, rainbows, hurricanes, swarming, life, the mind, consciousness, cultural movements, and other phenomenon where an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own; properties or behaviors that emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.

Subjective experiences include feelings such as hot, hungry, painful, lonely, cozy, or awe. They also include our sense of redness, our memories, our affective states, our private thoughts, dreams, imagination, aspirations, what it is like to be you, and other private factors that influence, inform, and bias people's judgments about truth or reality.

Virtues, values, and norms are normative judgements that describe what we ought to do. Each of us gets to decide what matters. While these are often considered to be outside the realm of scientific study, Sam Harris argues in his book The Moral Landscape that many practical moral decisions have objectively right and wrong answers grounded in empirical facts about what allows people to flourish. None-the-less the people of the world remain far from achieving consensus on moral reasoning.

Hence, we are brought to another example of both and. Scientific reductionism is essential yet limited. We need to continue to work within the constraints of reality, as revealed by scientific thinking, while we continue to explore all that has meaning in life along with the meaning of life. Although there are many mysteries, there is no magic. Science tells us what there is, and hints at what is not. The human spirit continues to search for meaning in the world, and may rely on subjective experience, complex systems, beauty, awe, and wonder as we seek real good together.