More and more I have come to see in the past few years that the debates in scientific circles seem to hinge on two competing approaches to the world and phenomena: the reductive and anti-reductive frameworks. To really understand this debate one needs to have a thorough understanding of the history of science itself. Obviously in this short post I’m not going to give you a complete history of science up to our time. What I want to do is to tease out the debates themselves, rather than provide a history. To do that entails to philosophy and history rather than to specific sciences. For better or worse it is in the realm of the history of concepts that one begins to see the drift between these two tendencies played out over time. Like some universal pendulum we seem to see the rise and fall of one or the other conceptual matrix flit in and out as different scientists and philosophers debate what it is they are discovering in either the world or the mind. Why? Why this swing from reductive to anti-reductive then back again in approaches to life, reality, and mind-brain debates?
Philosophers have puzzled over this question from the time of Pre-Socratics, Democritus, Plato, Aristotle onwards… take the subject of truth: In his book Truth, Protagoras made vivid use of two provocative but imperfectly spelled out ideas: first, that we are all ‘measures’ of the truth and that we are each already capable of determining how things are for ourselves, since the senses are our best and most credible guides to the truth; second, given that things appear differently to different people, there is no basis on which to decide that one appearance is true rather than the other. Plato developed these ideas into a more fully worked-out theory, which he then subjected to refutation in the Theaetetus. In his Metaphysics Aristotle argued that Protagoras’ ideas led to scepticism. And finally Democritus incorporated modified Protagorean ideas and arguments into his theory of knowledge and perception.