Over at Amazon.com, commenting on a review of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience, an R. Schauer writes, in part: “Through reductionism and accurate brain scans, we have discovered what areas of the brain fire when reading a poem and we know the chemical processes that occur. That’s how reductionism helps us to understand a poem. How did you miss that?” Does not the reviewer understand that if different neurons had fired, a different metaphor altogether would have been chosen in a poem? How can the reviewer be so wrong here? What on earth was going on with his neurons, anyway? Were the synaptic clefts sleeping on the job when he wrote his review?
Okay, R. Schauer. Proceed. Explain, preferably with unassailable exactitude, how a particular sonnet by Shakespeare must have the content it has because of which neurons were firing in the Bard’s brain at the time he crafted it. Explain, too, how it must be impossible for the neurons and the self-regulatory capacity we call volition to interact in other than one-way fashion.
Explain, too, how the introspective awareness we have of freely regulating the focus of our consciousness must be an illusion because of how neurons in our brains conspiratorially crackle and pop to deceive us each and every time we experience ourselves as choosing to concentrate on this rather than that, and as choosing to concentrate at such-and-such level of intensity rather than such-other level of intensity; and as having been able to choose other than we did.
The problem with the thesis of reductionism, the notion that all phenomena at every level can be explained exhaustively in terms only of what is happening at the smallest-constituent-part level—presumably, the banging and jostling of subatomic particles—is that it is an article of faith. If we nonetheless directly observe that certain emergent and causally relevant properties exist only at higher levels of organization in an organism, reductionism must willfully refuse to admit this. A reductionist must close his eyes when any aspects of these emergent features–such as a human’s ability to self-regulate his own consciousness, what we call volition–clearly cannot be reduced to the physical laws of ultimate particles obtaining at subatomic levels. Far from magnifying our understanding of events, an attempt to explain, e.g., the rise or fall of the Roman Empire in terms wholly of subatomic jostling would kill all explanation of the history.
Like other articles of faith, reductionism a) can’t be proven and b) rejects the clear import of evidence that contradicts its fantastical assumptions. Of course, some aspects of wholes can indeed be explained in terms of the properties of the most fundamental constituents. Just not all of them. Science is about investigating the way the world is, not the way it is “supposed to be” in light of a philosophical assumption itself unsubstantiated.