The Philosophy of Reductionism

 I’ve been longing to write this post. It describes most closely how I make sense of the world.

Throughout many posts, I’ve shown examples of some simple concepts that I think are fairly universal. Those concepts are related in a kind of hierarchy. For example, here are three concepts related to one another:

  • Change: change is good; it’s fundamental and more powerful than any of us; it happens all the time (despite our perception bias related to viewing things, for example history, in a very narrow way)
  • Cyclical behavior: a lot of the change the happens is cyclical (in fact, if one is to take anOccam’s razor view of things, the simplest change in nature is a cyclical one because of the balance that is held between many competing factors; or in math, the simplest function that changes all the time is a sine wave). New ideas are just permutations of old ideas; we often take diametrically opposite views and switch back and forth many times
  • Equivalence: things are instances of higher concepts; those who can see it (we call those people conceptual thinkers, can make more out of the world because they can take the specific things they learn everyday, convert them to learnings about the concepts, and then apply the concepts back to the specific.

If you take the concept of equivalence to its logical conclusion, you will realize that everything is related in some kind of hierarchy. In fact, this idea of recursively reducing concretes into concepts is a very powerful one — you can build an entire life philosophy on it. Let’s call it reductionism.

According to reductionism, you begin understanding that everyday complexity can be lessened by relating things to one another. In other words, by taking concrete things, creating equivalence classes of them by grouping them by which concepts they represent, and then grouping those concepts together, you can travel up that ladder where the concepts are few, simple, and very fundamental. The feeling of understanding the fundamentals of the world is a very satisfying feeling. It can also help you make decisions: start with the fundamental concepts, derive the consequences, and keep going until you get to the level of specificity you require. In a way, reductionism is a wonderful framework for knowing what to do, and it’s a wonderful way for you to feel connected to everything.

Of course, there is a trade-off implied in reductionism. The higher up the hierarchy you go, the bigger the distance between your thinking and everyday life. This means that to make specific decisions (and, operating in a very concrete world, we have to make specific decisions every minute of every day), you have to do a lot of thinking: derive a lot of information from the few highly conceptual ideas. While some people I know can do it very well and almost automatically, it seems to me that nature prepared us to deal with the concrete very well — by giving us relatively more scratch space (a kind of cache to keep the details in) than computational ability (there’s only so fast that we can derive these concepts). It probably makes sense, evolutionarily — when you’re chased by a predator, you want to be able to trust your intuition rather than re-derive the idea to jump on a tree from the concepts of survival, physics, and the physical characteristics of the predator.

There are other caveats too. There is more than one way to create a hierarchy of concepts, to reduce a set of things into a much smaller set of more abstract things. There is no right answer when it comes to the most fundamental concepts (after all, those are the different philosophies that, just like apples and oranges, cannot be compared) despite what people tell you. There is no canonical arrangement of all things in the known Universe in a hierarchy of concepts, although a poster that shows one example of such a thing would be a wonderful idea.

In other words, reductionism reshuffles the risk: from millions of tiny errors you could make in the realm of the concrete, to one humongous error you could make in the realm of the super-conceptual. A small difference in the definition of the concept at the very highest level propagates down the ladder in a nonlinear way and can produce an entirely different picture of the world (and thus can easily make you pick a totally opposite view to the one you had before the correction).

What if, despite these caveats, we want to reduce everything that’s around us to as few concepts as possible? At first it seems pretty easy. We reduce a lot of behavior to human nature; we reduce nature to evolution; we reduce the fabric of the Universe to a small set of rules. We reduce the different religions to one concept. Then we reduce the concept of religion and science. We reduce art to feeling (synthesis) and science to understanding (analysis).

In fact, I believe that we can reduce anything to a set of two concepts that are opposites. Above, synthesis and analysis are opposites. Many things can be reduced to good and evil. Other good opposites which things can be reduced to are change and stasis.

All these concepts are themselves an equivalence class. Let’s conveniently call them yinand yang. So we can reduce the infinite number of objects, ideas, thoughts, words into just two.

Then what? Can we reduce Two to One?

We can, but reducing Two to One is infinitely more difficult than reducing Infinity to Two.