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Lennox on reductionism

by Findo on December 15th, 2010

Here are a couple of excerpts from God’s Undertaker: has science buried God? by the Oxford Professor, John Lennox where he critiques materialist reductionism.

I posted these quotes in the discussion about materialist reductionism and Keith Ward but I think they deserve their own post.

The first sees Prof. Lennox explain an analogy makde by Michael Polanyi:

“He asks us to think of the various levels of process involved in constructing an office building with bricks. First of all there is the process of extracting the raw materials out of which the bricks have to be made. Then there are the successively higher levels of making the bricks – they do not make themselves; bricklaying – the bricks do not ‘self-assemble’; designing the building – it does not design itself; and planning the town in which the building is to be built -it does not organise itself. Each level has its own rules. The laws of physics and chemistry govern the raw material of the bricks; technology prescribes the art of brick-making; brick-layers lay the bricks as directed by the builders; architecture teaches the builders; and the architects are controlled by the town planners. Each level is controlled by the level above. But the reverse is not true. The laws of a higher level cannot be derived from the laws of a lower level – although what can be done at a higher level will, of course, depend on the lower levels. For example, if the bricks are not strong there will be a limit on the height of the building that can safely be built with them.
Or take another example, quite literally to your hand at this moment. Consider the page you are reading just now. It consists of paper imprinted with ink (or perhaps it is a series of dots on the computer screen in front of you). It is surely obvious that the physics and chemistry of ink and paper (or pixels on a computer monitor) can never, even in principle, tell you anything about the significance of the shapes of the letters on the page; and this has nothing to do with the fact that physics and chemistry are not yet sufficiently advanced to deal with this question. Even if we allow these sciences another 1,000 years of development it will make no difference, because the shapes of those letters demand a totally new and higher level of explanation than physics and chemistry are capable of giving. In fact, complete explanation can only be given in terms of the higher level concepts of language and authorship, the communication of a message by a person. The ink and paper are carriers of the message, but the message certainly does not arise automatically from them. Furthermore, when it comes to language itself, there is again a sequence of levels. You cannot derive a vocabulary from phonetics, or the grammar of a language from its vocabulary, etc.
As it is well known, the genetic material DNA carries information… [it] can be thought of a a long tape on which there is a string of letters written in a four-letter chemical language. The sequence of letters contains coded instructions (information) that the cell uses to make proteins. But the order of the sequence is not generated by the chemistry of the base letters.
In each of these situations described above, we have a series of levels, each higher than the previous one. What happens on a higher level is not completely derivable from what happens on the level beneath it.”


He follows with the self-refuting nature of materialist reductionism:

“Are we going to say with Francis Crick: ‘You, your joys identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’?
What shall we think, then, of human love and fear? Are they meaningless neural behaviour patterns? Or what shall we make of the concepts of beauty or truth? Is a Rembrandt painting nothing but molecules of paint scattered on a canvas? Crick seems to think they are. One then wonders by what means we would recognise it. After all, if the concept of truth itself results from ‘nothing more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells’ how in the name of logic would we know that our brain was composed of nerve cells? As Fraser Watts has pointed out, Crick himself seems to realize that there must be something more to it than this, for he radically modifies his ‘astonishing’ hypothesis by weakening it to the almost innocuous statement ‘You are
largely the behaviour of a vast population of neurons’. But such a modified hypothesis ceases to astonish. Come to think of it, even if the astonishing hypothesis were true how would it astonish? For how could we begin to know or understand it? And what meaning would ‘astonishment’ have? The idea is intrinsically incoherent.

By far and away the most devastating criticism of ontological reductionism is that it, like scientism, is self-destructive. John Polkinghorne describes its programme as ‘ultimately suicidal. If Crick’s thesis is true we could never know it. For, not only does it relegate our experiences of beauty, moral obligation, and religious encounter to the epiphenomenal scrap-heap. It also destroys rationality. Thought is replaced by electro-chemical neural events. Two such events cannot confront each other in rational discourse. They are neither right nor wrong. They simply happen… The very assertions of the reductionist himself are nothing but blips in the neural network of his brain. The world of rational discourse dissolves into the absurd chatter of firing synapses. Quite frankly, that cannot be right and one of us believes it to be so.’
Precisely. There is a patent self-contradiction running through all attempts, however sophisticated they may appear, to derive rationality from irrationality. When stripped down to their bare bones, they all seem uncannily like futile attempts to lift oneself by one’s bootstraps, or to construct a perpetual motion machine. After all, it is the use of the human mind that has led people to adopt ontological reductionism, which carries with it the corollary that there is no reason to trust our minds when they tell us anything at all; let alone, in particular, that such reductionism is true.”


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