The Sophomoric Appeal of Improper Reduction

When I was a sophomore in college, lo these many decades ago, I was totally stoked to be learning about psychobiology, cybernetics, and philosophy of mind. It was intoxicating to feel my understanding growing so rapidly. I could begin to see how experience might be translated into neural circuitry, in principle at least. I kept thinking, “Oh! So this is just that! Nifty!” Once that happened in respect to any particular perplexity, I could stop worrying about it, and move on. The process felt as though it gave me terrific intellectual leverage. It was exhilarating, to find that such complex things – such mysterious things – could be explained so simply.

This is I think why improper reduction is so popular. It vastly simplifies the problem of understanding reality. It makes everything easier.

It is alas a philosophical cheap shot. For, unfortunately, it does this by making everything altogether too easy, altogether too simple. It makes reality too simple, too easy. That makes modeling reality much easier, no?

It is by building an intellectual model of how a thing works that we come to feel that we understand it. The easier it is to build an adequate model of something, the easier it is to understand; and the simpler the thing you are trying to model, the simpler the task of modeling, and the cheaper the understanding you gain from the procedure.

As Einstein said in his famous emendation of Ockham’s Razor:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

The simplest theories are so parsimonious that Ockham’s Razor has sliced away the very sort of entities they were in the first place intended and devised to explain.

Improper reduction reduces only downward to the particular, and takes the particles of the lowest level of the explanatory stack to be the only true reals – and, so therefore, to be the bottom level not only of the explanatory stack, but of the ontological stack, in and by themselves dispositive of all phenomena. Everything superior to the bottom level of the ontological stack is then taken to be irreal.

Why that should be so – why it is, exactly, that the fact that the motions of x can be translated into the motions of subatomic particles entails that there is really no such thing as x – is never quite explained. It is, rather, merely presumed.

Proper reduction on the other hand reduces both up and down the explanatory stack – and, ergo, the ontological stack. Proper reduction translates the motions of x into the motions of subatomic particles, *and vice versa.* X is not thereby eliminated from reality.

On improper reduction, for instance, stellar motion is entirely due to inertia and gravity (and so forth). On proper reduction, the stellar motion we observe, with all its inertial and gravitational components (and so forth), can be construed as the outward and visible appearance of the motions of angels. On improper reduction, angels are written out of reality. On proper reduction, they are written in. There is anyway some room in the ontological stack reserved to them, whether or not they ever check in to stay.

Now, there may or may not be such things as angels. On improper reduction, there cannot be any such things, and it is therefore absurd to try to understand how we might find out about them. On proper reduction, there might be such things, and thinking about angels might not be a complete waste of time; might, indeed, turn out to be crucially important.

Of the two, proper reduction is generally more laborious. It turns out for instance to be insanely difficult to specify biological structures and processes in such a way that the specification may be translated without difficulty or scandal upward and into the terms first of psychology and then – this is much harder – of phenomenology; of experience that people can recognize as like their own.

Because proper reduction is so much harder than the improper sort, it gets short shrift. That does not mean it is methodologically defective. It means only that it is methodologically difficult.

The thing to remember in any case about Ockham’s Razor is that it is a way to compare and evaluate theories that are all good; that, i.e., all succeed in explaining the phenomena under investigation. It is not a way to tell whether a theory is good. It is a way to tell which of several good theories is best.

A better test of good theory – of true theory – than Ockham’s Razor would be what we might call Mandelbrot’s Flower. True theories tend to have applications – to reveal insights – in many departments of knowledge, some of them apparently quite far removed indeed from their first domains of applicability, and to coordinate things sublimely and unexpectedly. The deeper you dive into them, the more they reveal, and the deeper they get – the deeper they show that you the diver shall have to dive, in order to plumb their depths. Diving into a good theory is like diving into the Mandelbrot Set. The beauty and power of it can loom before the eye of the mind, beckoning to fathomless alluring depths.

3 thoughts on “The Sophomoric Appeal of Improper Reduction

  1. Pingback: The Sophomoric Appeal of Improper Reduction | Reaction Times

  2. There is explanation and there is mystery, which, by definition, cannot be explained but can only be — beheld. Mystery is the Urgrund of explanation.

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