Nothing-Buttery

One problem with blogging is that sometimes you have so much to say on a topic that you can't reduce it to a few paragraphs... Which leads me to think about the very topic of reductionism, which I've been thinking about quite a bit lately. I'm not exactly sure where the following quote originates, but I'm told that one of our chemistry professors shows what reductionism is by saying, "Psychology is just biology, biology is just chemistry, chemistry is just physics, physics is just math, and math is just...hard." Actually, I think the last part of this quote is due to one of our math profs. Another apt description is due to Donald MacKay, author of A Clock Work Image (InterVarsity, 1974), who calls such notions "nothing-buttery". We encounter, nearly every day, the idea that "X" is nothing but "Y":

  • A person is nothing but a collection of protoplasm.
  • A person is nothing but a pile of atoms.
  • Beethoven's 5th is nothing but vibrations in the air.
  • Love is nothing but chemistry.
  • A photograph is nothing but pixels on a screen.

Sometimes the words "nothing but" are left out, but the problem remains: it is supposed that "X" doesn't really exist since sciences has shown that it's actually just "Y". Two of my main goals in teaching are to expose the problems with reductionism and to open students' minds to the much broader perspective offered by a Christian worldview.

A few years ago, one of my students mentioned that TWU's English Department has as its polemic motto, "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms." This quote due to Muriel Rukeyser unfortunately remains reductionistic, because it's not either/or: both are true. The universe is made of atoms, and it is made of stories. Both --- and more --- are needed to provide anything approaching a full description and explanation. It's important for scientists to know that there is more to any phenomenon or event than the physical compositional story.

University education can often lead students into thinking that their particular area alone holds the true key to final knowledge; this was true in my case, until I discovered the "liberal arts and sciences" as taught at Trinity Western. I keep reminding my students that, unlike Ernest Rutherford's quote that "In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting" (which remains hanging outside our lab as a conversation piece), each discipline considers just one aspect of the multi-faceted universe crafted by an amazing Creator as an integral whole. These aspects relate to one another in various ways, but no single discipline can claim to be the most fundamental or basic. It is both humiliating and empowering to know both that our work matters and that we need one another. Perhaps you recognize similarities with Romans 12:3-5 and I Corinthians 12!


For further reading, see "A Physicist's Reformed Critique of Nonreductive Physicalism and Emergence", Pro Rege v. 33, n. 4 (June 2005) pp. 20-32 (available online here).

Last updated Jul. 19th, 2008 at 10:23pm by Arnold Sikkema