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the politics of reductionism

My obsession with politics seems to have extended for several years past when I figured it would taper off. Maybe I just have been up to enough other real-life things (like getting engaged, woohoo!) that I haven't had the time to get bored with this obsession or cultivate a new one.

I've still been thinking a lot about value, and I think some of my views have been shifting there, and I'm seeing a bit more clearly the way different aspects of the debate intersect. So I should probably write a followup to previous things I've written about it. I've also been thinking a lot about so-called "mental illness" and how that ties in with questions of value and politics. Also have been reading two of James R. Flynn's books (one on intelligence and the other on intelligence, race and politics).

But yesterday, perhaps via some of the stuff about IQ tests Flynn was saying, I happened upon another thought which I wanted to explore before I forget about it. How do ones views on reductionism affect ones politics? It seems there is a good bit of political relevance here, and I have noticed it a little before but never really spent a long time thinking about it.

Flynn mentions that a lot of what IQ tests measure requires one to have a scientific worldview and to think in terms of categorization and abstraction instead of more concrete terms. According to Flynn, this results in both an underestimate of the intelligence of people living in pre-scientific cultures today, as well as to the continually measured increase in IQ's of people in scientific cultures across generations (as more and more people in these cultures learn to look through "scientific spectacles"). In his view, it's a useful way of thinking, but you have to be trained to think in this way from an early age, otherwise you're just not going to score highly on these tests, no matter how much potential for intelligence you might have.

But this made my mind drift off to a few related things. How about the difference in approach between humanities departments (typically far left) and science departments (typically center-left)? How about the tendency for artists, musicians and creative types to lean more to the left, while bankers, businessmen, and to some extent engineers, tend to lean more to the right? How about all of the organic food loving Californians who complain about overly reductionist "nutritional" approaches to health and we'll-being How about left wing critiques of capitalism and economics that worry about the commodification of life, art, value, meaning, and about the industrial revolution being overly "mechanistic" and therefore dehumanizing and alienating?

There seems to be a pattern here, with the right being more associated with certain types of reductionist thinking, and the left more critical of it, and at least some portions of it even actively advocating "holistic" approaches to medicine, food, ecology, etc.

I've always considered myself a reductionist in that I believe in scientific reductionism. That the world is governed by mathematical rules at its most fundamental level, and that the things we perceive as objects in the macro- world can ultimately be reduced to microscopic things and ultimately to surprisingly simple mathematical rules. In other words, that most of the apparent complexity of the world is illusory-- there are not nearly as many independent degrees of freedom as we think there are.

However, as I've grown older I have drifted increasingly more to the left politically. I'd still consider myself a reductionist philosophically, but I have become much more aware of the existence and extent of the problem of "greedy reductionism" whereupon seemingly clever theorists try to model the world with a set of assumptions or rules which is simply too simple to be accurate.

I can even see some of the biases I had when I was younger in terms of my tendency to be overly greedy in my reductionist approach. I appreciate literature, philosophy, and art much more as an adult than when I was in high school. My high school self tended to have a strong preference for mathematically based subjects, and either a lack of interest or outright contempt for the humanities. I think the lack of interest part was due to a feeling that these subjects were too complex for me to understand or to be able to make any reasonable progress on. And the contempt part was due to a feeling that most of the supposed progress in these areas was due to people "making up bullshit". I figured at least half of it was no better than reading tea leaves, people will see whatever they want to see, and each person will interpret a particular literary work, historical event, or philosophical argument the way they want to, but little objective progress can result.

But perhaps I just have a mind that has a natural tendency toward categorization, in the sense that Flynn associates with the scientific perspective. And perhaps there are other ways of thinking which can make more rapid progress in these other areas.

I now see my libertarianism in early college and some of grad school as a result of this bias. I thought too much in terms of atomic interactions between individuals and not enough about aggregate, systemic properties of the economic system. I think that fields like economics tend to have this bias to some extent but generally don't take it as far as I did. Other fields of science such as ecology tend to focus more on the holistic view (although I guess you could say this is what macroeconomics does? speaking of which I remember taking microeconomics in high school but not macro, because I bad the impression it wasn't interesting for the same reasons the humanities weren't-- I could learn everything I wanted to know from looking at the micro, or so I thought).

I think that the field I chose to study in the most depth, physics, is the one where the reductionist approach works the best. but the more I hear about the way economics and social sciences work, the more I realize why some of the critiques of science coming from the humanities might have real importance. I used to get really mad when I would hear post structuralist or post modernist leaning people attacking science and the enlightenment, but what I didn't realize at the time is that most of what they have in mind when they think of science is what they see going on in the social sciences, which is closer to their direct experience than "hard" sciences like physics.

In physics and chemistry, there is no question that mathematical rules and reductionism was the right approach to take. But even when you get to biology and earth science it seems less clear-- the scientific method seems right, but it will be a while before we can fill in all the gaps and guesses with solid theory-- we're still kind of stumbling in the dark. The social sciences are even a step down from that. And I'm not really sure where to put economics, it seems like reductionism is important there, but there may be a lot of unjustified assumptions-- in particular the value-laden terms in which it is discussed-- that cry out for the need for more input from the humanities.



domino plural

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