A Letter To My Students:

When you go out into the world, especially the academic world, you will undoubtedly be confronted by something called “reductionism.” Reductionism is when we reduce something to some other thing. It is when we analyze a whole into its parts and then assert that the whole is equal to one of those parts.

For example, when you say you are in love, the reductionist says, “What you call love is actually the experience of endorphins and other biochemicals produced by your body in response to the physical—visual and/or auditory and/or pheromonal—presence of a possible mate.”

“But I’m in love,” you say. “I want to spend the rest of my life with this person!”

“Yes, but what you call ‘love’ is just the endorphin experience I just described, coupled with feelings of love and care that have evolved because of the evolutionary dividend of ensuring that your offspring will survive the harsh world due to the aid and protection of two parental figures.”

“I guess you’ve never been in love!” you reply, exasperated.

The problem is not that the reductionist’s accounts aren’t true, but that they are incomplete. The reductionist almost always become so excited about the fruitfulness of his reductionist theory that he forgets that it is just one aspect of the thing at hand. He becomes blind to the truth of the whole and becomes enraptured with his own little theory. This is easy to do in the case of intangible things like “love.” It is more difficult the more concrete and undeniable the thing in question is, such as when you see your reductionist friend outside after class, enjoying an apple.

“Wow, this apple is delicious!” your reductionist friend says. You decide to have some fun:

“You know, what you are calling a delicious apple is merely the mind’s integration of biochemical responses produced by the malic acid of the apple triggering taste receptors in the mouth, causing the evolutionarily developed habit of salivating, chewing, and swallowing in order to increase caloric intake proportionate to metabolism.”

“You’re a jerk,” your reductionist friend replies.

The reason for your reductionist friend’s anger is that he knows you have called him out on the pitfall of his worldview. You are exposing the fact that if we want to be reductionist in our view of the world, then we have to be reductionist in our view of the whole world. But reductionists tend to reduce only the things they want to reduce. If we saw this conversation continue, we would probably hear you say “What? Isn’t my reduction of your apple the same as your reduction of my being in love?” And we would probably here your friend reply that they are not the same, because the apple is somehow more real than love.

The problem with this reductionist view is that what are allowed to count as “real” are only those things that have objective reality. Love is not real because it is highly subjective and so we call it an epiphenomenon that can be reduced to endorphins and pheromones etc. Apples, on the other hand, are real because we can all see them and feel them and touch them and eat them. While we may all disagree on the merits of the taste of an apple, none of us can disagree that the apple exists.

This view of what counts as real and what does not is the product of what John Clayton called the “Enlightenment Project,” that collective endeavor that took place beginning in the 16th century in Europe in which intellectuals decided that what counts as knowledge is only that which can be established by a combination of firsthand experience and reason, without recourse to any kind of tradition, authority, subjectivity, or emotion. It is this narrow prescription of knowledge that presumably allowed us to break free from the intellectually repressive and human rights-oppressive bonds of religion and allowed us to study the world in such a way that has yielded us all the wonders of modern science and technology.

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment worldview reduced religion to only one aspect of itself (morality) and undermined any claim it may have had to other truths. I speak in the past tense, but this is still the position of religion in much of academia and other public intellectual spheres. I am thankful that after seeking out places to study religion in graduate school, I discovered that there are an increasing number of schools and departments who contain both reductionist and nonreductionist thinkers. These institutions, too, are largely the product of the Enlightenment, and so I don’t want to beat up on the Enlightenment too much. As Clayton once said to me, “The fact that we are able to be here critiquing the Enlightenment Project in a safe, legally protected space is due to the Enlightenment Project!”

Many post-Enlightenment thinkers critiqued religion. They saw that there were many religions with many diverse and conflicting belief and practices. This meant that religion must be subjective and therefore relative, and so not worthy as a source of knowledge or wisdom. These thinkers looked past the subjective aspects of religion and studied only what they had in common, what was objective. Initially this meant the golden rule, which is present in all the major religions. Later, theorists focused on religions’ institutionalized means of social control, and so reduced religion to that. Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are the examples par excellence.

In this reductive view, religion was seen as the enemy of scientific knowledge and of human rights. But we have forgotten—or we never knew—that religion also made space for these same developments. Medieval Islam, for example, saw the world as the “Cosmic Qur’an” or revelation of God, and so studying it was seen as a sacred duty revealing to us aspects of God. This is why so many scientific and mathematical discoveries were made in the Islamic world during that time. On the human rights side of things, we could look back even further within Islam to Muhammad’s revolutionary elevation of the status of women and orphans in the extremely oppressive culture out of which he sprang in the sixth century CE. Or we could note the Buddha’s rejection of caste and gender differences in India way back in the sixth century BCE. Or, more recently, the inspiration toward economic and political revolution that Christianity provided in Central and South America in the twentieth century.

For all of the insights reductionists have given us into religion (for they have – their insights are not false, but only incomplete), they have mostly been unable to see religions in all their aspects. Scientifically, we have a duty to study those aspects as well. Even when someone like Jonathan Haidt studies one of the common positive outcomes of religion as he does in his illuminating book The Righteous Mind, the problem is that is it still remains a reductionist account. Religion becomes a useful adaptation that creates social cohesion and so has the evolutionary payoff of helping us to work together and survive the harsh world. Can that really be it?

You might be wondering if there is a piece of religion that resists reductionism. If scholars have studied the negative and now the positive and have found reductionist theories in both areas, then is there anything left? The answer can be found in an important book of which too many people are ignorant. It is The Two Sources of Morality and Religion by Henri Bergson. Bergson acknowledges the social-control and cohesion aspects of religion and the legitimacy of the critiques of those aspects. But he points out that there is another source of religion and morality, the individual, subjective experiences of individuals. Sure there is the Moses who hands down the 613 laws to the people. But there is also the Moses who stands dumbfounded and in awe of God’s presence at the burning bush. There is the Muhammad who provides Muslims with guidance for almost every major and minor social interaction one can think of, but there is also the Muhammad that was comforted by God’s words to him, that “wherever you experience hardship, this will be followed by ease.” And who could possibly ignore the Buddha’s tremendous introspective insights into the nature of consciousness and reduce him to merely a social reformer?

In academia, there are some who felt there was wisdom and value to be found by reaching back into religious traditions. People like Mircea Eliade and Huston Smith, while respected in academic and in popular circles, were sometimes labeled “traditionalist” or “conservative,” with all of the pejorative connotations that those terms held for those who saw progress as possible only within the confines of the secular trajectory of the Enlightenment Project. However, I would argue that these thinkers were the true progressives, the ones who first rediscovered value in beliefs, practices, and narratives other than their own, who insisted on the value of pluralism, and who saw that diversity is a prerequisite of intellectual, emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth. I use past tense here because it is my (slightly overly optimistic) view that we are beyond the narrow Enlightenment Project view of the world and of religion. I see a re-appreciation of religions and the religious in academia, in spite of the fact that our world is still plagued by the negative as well as positive experiences of this phenomenon.

Do scholars ever transcend the reductive tendency? There are many who have. There are those like Paul Tillich, who are scholars who happen to also be religious, and so they use scholarship to further their religious efforts. There are those like Carl Jung, who saw scholarship as a way of opening up deeper understandings of the spiritual truths of the universe, finding in the common themes and structures of religion a human path that transcends any one particular religion. There are natural scientists like Andrew Newberg who, while using fMRI scans to illuminate the neurological aspect of human experience, know that this is just one aspect of that experience and that we must guard against reducing any of life to this one measureable picture of it. And there are those like Ninian Smart, who emphasize the value of all studies in trying to grasp something that is too huge to ever be fully comprehended even by all lenses, let alone by any one.

And, more generally, there are the writers and poets and artists and musicians who daily do justice and reverence to the particular, the subjective, the mystical. These genres of creativity are more naturally inclined to this (someone once defined the artist as one who makes us notice the universal in the particular), but I find also that it is especially the voices of minority and underprivileged persons who have aided all of us in resisting the tyranny of reductionism (for we are all influenced by it, as it is the dominant narrative). People like Alice Walker and Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman—it is their very underprivileged positions that give them a privileged view from which to break free of the dominant trends of the mainstream. To them we are thankful, as well as to the voices of any worldview different from our own, for they can all help us to see outside of our own boxes. That is, so long as we translate and interpret them with integrity, and not just with an eye to what we want to find confirmed in them.

I should also point out that we are all reductionists in a sense. Any time we analyze a phenomenon and attempt to explain it in terms of something else—a model, or an image, or a series of concepts—we are reducing things. Basically, we are reductionists whenever we open our mouths! Whenever we say that something “is” something else. I think this reductionism is okay and even necessary. Or perhaps it is not necessary, but it is not necessarily destructive. A music scholar might analyze a John Coltrane recording to find the scales and modes and chord substitutions Trane used in his saxophone solo, but this does not mean she loses the power and magic of the experience of the music, or thinks that she can just reduce it to those notes. But so much of our discourse is reductive and analytical that we must be on guard about what the Buddhist Lankavatara Sutra describes as “mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” The only way to avoid this is through using language in an apophatic (“speaking away”) way, insisting that your listener must experience the thing for him or herself, with no delusions that what is being said is saying something in itself or captures the experience of something else.

And so, all of you mystics—and we are all mystics according to the reductionist. At least any of you who have seen God, or felt the oneness of all things, or who have been in love, or who have enjoyed an apple—consider yourselves forewarned of the reductionist voices you will encounter in your future endeavors to make sense of the world. Recognize that they have important perspectives to offer. Finally, know that their reign has ended, and that their voice can exist only as one among many ways of seeing and being in the world.

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One Response to A Letter To My Students:

  1. Danny says:

    What an insightful post! I think you make a very important point in mentioning that even less tangible things like emotions and ideas have reality. The merit of a thing should not be tied solely to whether it is explicable or measurable. I also think that, as a liberal, nonreligious scientist, it is very easy for me to see my perspective as objective and therefore correct. In truth, it requires many different perspectives, some of them “biased,” to gain a fuller, truer grasp of a thing.
    As you say, we all have reductionist tendencies, and I think mine have grown with age. Just as with music and art, I think metaphors are a good way to help explain a thing while avoiding reducing it. For example, when describing a person’s character or decision making process I often resort to metaphors relating to food because my normal reductionist tendencies aren’t suited to characterization. I might describe someone as “an apple pie with a crust that has been rolled one too many times,” or “a hot dog with just the right amount of mustard.” Because I have a less firm or measured understanding of a person’s character, I resort to comparisons that leave many different perspectives open. Especially since I am comparing a person to food, it becomes obvious that my metaphor is just one perspective.
    Thank you for this advice! I will keep a wary eye out for reductionism as I enter college and remember that no one answer must be the answer.

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