Reductionism: to computer science from philosophy

A biologist and a mathematician walk together into their joint office to find the rubbish bin on top of the desk and on fire. The biologist rushes out, grabs a fire extinguisher, puts out the blaze, returns the bin to the floor and they both start their workday.

The next day, the same pair return to their office to find the rubbish bin in its correct place on the floor but again on fire. This time the mathematician springs to action. She takes the burning bin, puts it on the table, and starts her workday.

The biologist is confused.

Mathematician: “don’t worry, I’ve reduced the problem to a previously solved case.”

What’s the moral of the story? Clearly, it’s that reductionism is “[o]ne of the most used and abused terms in the philosophical lexicon.” At least it is abused enough for this sentiment to make the opening line of Ruse’s (2005) entry in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy.

All of this was not apparent to me.

I underestimated the extent of disagreement about the meaning of reductionism among people who are saying serious things. A disagreement that goes deeper than the opening joke or the distinction between ontological, epistemological, methodological, and theoretical reductionism. Given how much I’ve written about the relationship between reductive and effective theories, it seems important for me to sort out how people read ‘reductive’.

Let me paint the difference that I want to discuss in the broadest stroke with reference to the mind-body problem. Both of the examples I use are purely illustrative and I do not aim to endorse either. There is one sense in which reductionism uses reduce in the same way as ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’: i.e. reduce = use less, eliminate. It is in this way that behaviourism is a reductive account of the mind, since it (aspires to) eliminate the need to refer to hidden mental, rather than just behavioural, states. There is a second sense in which reductionism uses reducere, or literally from Latin: to bring back. It is in this way that the mind can be reduced to the brain; i.e. discussions of the mind can be brought back to discussions of the brain, and the mind can be taken as fully dependent on the brain. I’ll expand more on this sense throughout the post.

In practice, the two senses above are often conflated and intertwined. For example, instead of saying that the mind is fully dependent on the brain, people will often say that the mind is nothing but the brain, or nothing over and above the brain. When doing this, they’re doing at least two different things. First, they’re claiming to have eliminated something. And second, conflating reduce and reducere. This observation of conflation is similar to my claim that Galileo conflated idealization and abstraction in his book-keeping analogy.

And just like with my distinction between idealization and abstraction, to avoid confusion, the two senses of reductionism should be kept conceptually separate. As before, I’ll make this clear by looking at how theoretical computer science handles reductions. A study in algorithmic philosophy!

In my typical arrogance, I will rename the reduce-concept as eliminativism. And based on its agreement with theoretical computer science, I will keep the reducere-concept as reductionism.
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