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Tuesday, March 15, A.D. 2011
The Hubris of Reductionism

I occasionally read Dennis Mangan’s blog, which has a humorous subtitle—Adventures in Reaction. Like John Derbyshire, Steve Sailer, and other “human biodiversity” enthusiasts, Mangan offers many interesting ideas that are appropriately dismissive of the reigning idiotic idols of the tribe. However, like Derbyshire, Sailer, and friends, sometimes Mangan wanders into uncharted territory where his overconfidence in contemporary natural science leads him to say bizarre things. Last week, for instance, Mangan posted “The Biological Basis of Music,” which he ends thus:

Music has long been considered something of a conundrum in philosophy and psychology, but the main result of this and other studies seem obvious in retrospect. How could music not have a biological or evolutionary basis?

Schopenhauer, one of the best philosophical theorists on the arts, thought that music was the highest and greatest art, since it is “about” nothing, but at least in its higher forms is pure abstraction. However, he lived before the age of Mendel and Darwin, and though he anticipated some of their findings, for instance in assertions of the heritability of character and the clash of will in nature, all his theorizing was just that: theorizing. He had little science on which to base his ideas.

Much the same could be said about many other philosophers in the past, e.g. John Locke’s idea of the tabula rasa, which surely made a lot of sense at the time but which we know now to be completely wrong. Kant’s notions of what can be known a priori vs. a posteriori were likewise uninformed by biology.

Studies like this show that the revolution in our knowledge of the biological basis of human culture and psychology is only beginning.

Leaving aside the other comments, let us just consider “Kant’s notions of what can be known a priori vs. a posteriori were likewise uninformed by biology.” What can this mean? I am no Kantian, but it appears to me that Kant’s distinction between what can be known through examining the structure and nature of reason itself and what can be known from experience is an appropriate and fundamental distinction. Increased knowledge of human biology cannot add to or alter that distinction. As we come to understand human evolution and the development of our cognitive faculties better, we might be able to grasp why and how human beings came to be aware of such distinctions, as we might be able to learn why and how human beings became rational beings, but the distinction itself is not attributable to evolution or biology. The distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge is like the principles of mathematics. The relationships between numbers and geometric figures did not evolve. Our biological evolution did not produce them. Rather, we evolved to be able to know them. Our biology developed so that we became animals capable of mathematical reasoning. Reason itself cannot be reduced to biology; reason just is. I think that it is telling that Mangan did not write that Newton’s Principia Mathematica was uninformed by our superior biological knowledge after Darwin, Watson, and Crick. Why not?

I am a great admirer and supporter of natural philosophy, but natural philosophers—“scientists”—have appropriate objects for their work. When natural philosophers attempt to reduce larger spheres of knowledge such as underlying metaphysics or prior considerations of epistemology to the limits of their discipline, they speak folly. Husserl noted that modern intellectuals tend to reduce all other disciplines to their own. The enthusiasts of mechanistic science frequently err in this way. When postmodern literature professors reduce other disciplines to their “narrative speak,” it is idiotic but not that surprising. Consider the rigor and standards of their discipline, where truth itself has been rejected as a matter of principle. Yet, when rational natural philosophers make the same mistakes, I find it tragic. For these folks should know better.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, March 15, Anno Domini 2011
Philosophy | AestheticsAnthropologyEpistemologyMetaphysicsPhysicsComments
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