The study of nature is reductive

The science of nature must be reductive for two reasons: 1.) nature is a cause and source of natural things; and 2.) we only need a science if the thing we are looking for is not evident. The science of nature therefore exists only because a source and cause of natural things is not evident, which gives rise to the need to reduce the natural thing back to its source.

Nature is a source. People get confused about this: nature is not some thing, like a forest or a volcano or a beating heart. Forests are natural, in the sense of coming forth from nature (there is an extended and romantic sense in which we call the forest “nature”, which is fine, but it not the sense of nature we seek to understand by “the science of nature”) Nature is the source or cause of the coming forth, which is a very different thing. We find nature by tracing things backward to some source from which they arose- a source which they are in some ways only a participation in or a manifestation of (not all reductions are the same).

It is pointless to complain that some account of nature is reductive. If it were not reductive it would not be a natural science- and yes, I do mean “reduction” in the sense that it is now used. The only question is whether the reduction is done rightly, or if one reduction is taken as the only possible one, or if we seek to reduce what is in fact nature, and thus not reducible.

“Reduction” and “reductionism” are words similar to “anger”. Since immoderate anger is so common and well-known, we tend to use the word anger to mean immoderate anger; and since bad reductions are so common, we tend to call “reductionism” an incorrect reduction. But this is an error on our part that we should strive to purge out: just as the Stoics got a very distorted view of moral philosophy by confusing anger with immoderate anger, we can get a very distorted view of natural philosophy by confusing reduction with incorrect reduction.



  1. Edward said,

    April 20, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Most modern reductionism of nature means reduction to more fundamental physical parts and motions of those parts, right?

    This is where the often heard phrase “nothing but” comes from. But no natural thing or material substance is “nothing but” if nothing but means just a particular arrangement of matter. So is it a problem of reduction vs. the wrong type of reduction, or are we merely equivocating on the term reduction. In your sense, it means understanding the causes and sources of a thing without implicitly or explicitly denying either its thinghood or its nature. I don’t think the concept of “nothing but” enters in on this definition.

  2. desiderius said,

    April 20, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Dr. Chastek,

    Was your article in response to this one here:

    Free Will and Biology by William Carroll April 9, 2010 Biological reductionism doesn’t disprove the notion of free will.


    “Here we see Cashmore’s commitment to the philosophical position of materialism (which he simply assumes to be identical with good science). Appeals to what are called ’emergent properties’ associated with neural networks, fail as accounts of free will, he thinks, because there is no mechanism (again identified with ‘free will’) that affects the activities of atoms that is not explicable in terms of genes, environment, and chance. For Cashmore, there simply is no ‘causal component’ which would account for free will. Of course, he limits his notion of cause to some material factor. All of this is the result of his a priori embrace of materialism…”

    “Cashmore sets the stage for his discussion by contrasting Cartesian dualism, which he identifies with vitalism, and modern scientific materialism. Since there is no evidence for the existence of a separate entity, a soul, the only rational option, so he claims, is to accept an exclusively materialist account of the nature of things. Belief in free will, he concludes, “is nothing less than a continuing belief in vitalism—a concept that we like to think we discarded well over 100 years ago!’

    Religion does not escape his analysis. He claims that free will only makes ‘logical sense’ as long as one has ‘the luxury of the ‘causal magic’ of religion. Neither religious beliefs, nor a belief in free will, comply with the laws of the physical world.’ Obviously, once one starts with the premise that there is nothing more than material stuff, claims that deny such a premise are rendered illogical.”

  3. April 20, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    The “nothing but” crowd agree that we must reduce back to find nature- in this they agree perfectly well with Aristotle. The disagreement is over how many kinds of reduction there are. Again, every physicist from Aristotle to Einstein agrees that physics needs to “attain unto the elements”, and that it must go closer and closer to matter. Aristotle, however, wants to start at the very beginning, with the first things we know, and then move on gradually to more dialectical considerations that rely more on hypothesis, experiment, and the use of other dialectical tools. We moderns just jump to the second stage.

  4. April 20, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Again, matter and form- which for Aristotle are nature- are achieved by reduction every bit as much as the fundamental particles are. The essence or substance is reached by a real reduction, though there is more than one kind.

  5. desiderius said,

    April 20, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Dr. Chastek,

    Do you then agree to what is said here concerning matter and form in the above-cited article:

    “Among other things, materialism fails to account for the unity of the whole; for this we need some concept of form. Form (which in living things is the soul) is the principle of actuality of a thing; it makes the thing what it is. To dispense with either form or matter is to misunderstand what is real. Both form and matter are real causes; to ignore either is to fail to account for what we observe in nature. The form is a principle; it is real and is essential to make things be what they are, but it is not a separate entity. Form is not the effect of material causes; it is a cause in its own right.

    Such an analysis takes nothing away from affirming that we are animals that think and choose, or that biology has much to tell us about who we are. Biology, however, needs richer notions of cause than that supplied by a materialist philosophy. In support of his argument, Cashmore cites, for example, developments in imaging techniques which allow “changes in neuronal activity to be correlated with thought processes.” He thinks that such correlation will also enable us to see what we call free will as nothing other than a biochemical process. Ultimately, he seems to identify “to be correlated” with “to be caused.” Surely, a more adequate reflection on “cause” in its many senses is called for.

    Rather than provide here an extensive defense of what is called a hylomorphic (matter and form) approach to reality, I simply want to note that such a view is not a kind of vitalism or dualism. Whether it is true, of course, requires careful analysis; neither its truth, nor the purported truth of the materialism Cashmore affirms, should be accepted uncritically. What Cashmore sees as an uncontroversial scientific claim is in reality a philosophical judgment which needs to be examined in the proper discipline: the philosophy of nature.”

  6. April 20, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    Honestly, I simply don’t know what to make of that quotation. I understand what he is talking about, but I’m leery of telling biologists or physicists that concepts like matter and form could help them out. I know a good deal about matter and form, but I can’t imagine any biologist being interested in them, except as an idle curiosity. Matter and form seem to be answers to questions they aren’t interested in asking- and I’m sure I’d be far more interested in what they were saying than they’d be interested in what I was saying. As far as I can tell, given what most folks want to know about life or nature something like materialism is all they need to satisfy themselves. Though even saying this is tricky: so far as we understand things by mathematical tools we are studying them more in the line of formal cause.

    By the time Cashmore comes around to tell us all that he knows about free will and sugar bowls, my dominant feeling is that he’s many years away from anything I know being able to help him. The answers to the questions he’s raising are found only after one pays a good deal of attention to questions that he isn’t asking, and this is a very great problem. I’m laboring away in the basement of the intellect, trying to get the first thing right, but this depends on any number of odd quirks (like seeing Parmenides as both a genius and a problem; or, more minimally, not thinking that one has sufficiently refuted a position by noting the year it was written)

    Speculative knowledge of nature lives a hidden life. Every now and again some joker like the buffoon in that article will say a bunch of stuff that no scientist would know what to do with during his normal work day; and he’ll make a big splash at a conference or sell a pile of books, which in turn will give smart philosophers like Edward Feser a whole pile of stuff to refute. It’s all part of the academic ecosystem. I really wish I could cash in on it or at least do something about it- I really do, but… oh well.

  7. April 20, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    One last point:

    It’s a very good sign that Cashmore is saying all these things in the National Academy of Sciences journal, which shows he can only be taking his argument seriously up to a point. Many of his points are political, of course, but he knows that he would sound like a fool putting them forth as actual policies, say, in a hearing before congress or a training seminar for cops. That “no one is responsible for anything they do- physics says so!” is all well and good when It’s just a bunch of smart guy talk among all your science buddies, but he knows that all this is completely amateurish if advanced as real politics or insights into human nature.

  8. AT said,

    April 21, 2010 at 2:39 am

    “so far as we understand things by mathematical tools we are studying them more in the line of formal cause”

    I wonder if you can point me to where Aristotle or Aquinas say this. I’ve found only things such as quantity, figure, non-designated intelligible matter, etc in discussions about the nature of math, but nothing that says anything about the formal cause.

  9. April 21, 2010 at 6:24 am

    The locus classicus is Physics, bk. II c. 2. Mathematical abstraction studies form in matter, but not as in matter (more interestingly, he says that in mathematical physics the physicist knows that but the mathematician knows why) . Aristotle’s stock example is “concavity without snub” see also Metaphysics Bk. VI c. 1;

  10. desiderius said,

    April 21, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    “I’m leery of telling biologists or physicists that concepts like matter and form could help them out.”

    That is perhaps why I did not find Mr. Carroll’s response all that convincing when he said simply that:

    “Form (which in living things is the soul) is the principle of actuality of a thing; it makes the thing what it is. To dispense with either form or matter is to misunderstand what is real. Both form and matter are real causes; to ignore either is to fail to account for what we observe in nature. The form is a principle; it is real and is essential to make things be what they are, but it is not a separate entity. Form is not the effect of material causes; it is a cause in its own right.”

    Although all this talk concerning the ‘will’ by Cashmore brings up an entirely other matter which, coincidentally, you yourself had previously brought up concerning the same in a past post of yours:

    The relation from intellect to the real is in the volitional order

    “But for St. Thomas, the relation from man to the real, as real, falls under the order of the will, not the intellect. By intellect, things are properly in the knower; it is by will that the man (and thus the man knowing) relates to the reality of things. This is why there are only two immanent acts in a human being. If intellect sufficed to determine the relation of man to the real as such, will would not be necessary.”

    I can almost anticipate Mr. Cashmore’s response:

    “Free will lacks any “causal component,” therefore it is an illusion; so Cashmore boldly proclaims. As we have seen if we limit the notion of cause to material stuff we are not going to discover a “cause” of free will, even though we might find correlations between physical phenomena and conscious choice. But correlations are not causes.”


  11. April 25, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Hey, I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog!…..I”ll be checking in on a regularly now….Keep up the good work! 🙂

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