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Reductionism as a Key to the Unification of Science

21 Nov 2017Essay Samples

Robert Klee, in his Introduction to the Philosophy of Science - a review of recent developments and controversies in the philosophy of science - argues that "reductionism" is central to the future development of the sciences. The plural "sciences" is employed here to signify how important reductionism is to the unification of the sciences. Indeed, without the possibility of reduction, there could be no unity of the sciences.

It must be acknowledged that Klee is openly an advocate of the reductionist school of thought. As he notes in his preface: "Throughout the text I make no attempt to hide from the reader my sympathies for scientific realism." By "scientific realism" Klee means the approach to science that considers scientific inquiry as capable of discovering "true" explanations of physical events in a fashion that is both internally consistent and capable of replication by other researchers.

Klee contrasts "scientific realism" with the approach of many in the intellectual community - since the publication of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - who argue that scientific inquiry is in actuality a social construct that only "reads into" the external world what the observer's social and intellectual context tells him/her is there. These philosophers, whom Klee dubs "antirealists", subscribe to a theory of "social constructivism" which holds that "the substantive results of science are invented or constructed through organized social behaviour, rather than discovered."

The realists regard the cosmos as a vast and complex web forces. In this analysis, chemistry and physics represent two different approaches to the same object, for ultimately all of the sciences are capable of being reduced to a unity. This approach is termed "reductionism" and is contrasted with the approach of the antirealists who subscribe to "antireductionism" which argues that the sciences cannot and do not comprise anything resembling a unity.

Klee argues that the possibility of reduction has been integral to the unity of science from the very beginnings of scientific inquiry in ancient Greece. In particular, he suggests that "reductionism" first appeared in the speculation of the philosopher (and first scientist) Thales who argued that "the arche (first principle) of all things is water". The fact that this contention is clearly in error according to modern understanding does not undermine the fact that Thales had struck upon the fundamental key of scientific inquiry; the reduction of phenomena to a unifying principle:

. . . Thales' theory was maximally unifying in the sense that it sought to understand qualitatively different phenomena as being due to the same one underlying reality: water. That sort of unification of separate phenomena under a small number of explanatory concepts is one feature that distinguishes science from most forms of speculative scientific wisdom.

From this perspective, it is clear that not only is the possibility of reduction essential to the unity of the sciences today, but that it has always been the primary avenue to unification. Positivists consider science to be the interconnected network of theories that attempt to explain natural phenomena. What unifies these is the possibility that they may be reduced into each other. For example, were we able to reduce chemistry to physics - in the sense that they both describe physical properties of matter, only in different ways - then science would possess fewer basic components and thus minimize the possibility for error in our observation.

While it must be conceded that there continues to exist independent scientific disciplines, nonetheless attempts have been made to reduce one into another. For example, partial reductions have been made of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics and aspects, or all of, psychiatry to neurophysiology. However, relativists might object to this process, contending that the effort of reduction often reflects paradigmatic shifts and social changes more than scientific exploration. The recent effort by some sociobiologists to reduce all of sociology, from questions of love and altruism to ethics, to evolutionary biology remains controversial. It may be observed, for instance, that in their quest to reduce all human relationships to biological principles, scientists may be overlooking data which subverts their arguments. The teleological aspect of reductionism, in this analysis, may itself undermine the claims of the realists that they are objectively assessing external phenomena.

Nonetheless, positivists continue to argue in favour of a unity of the sciences. Putnam and Oppenheim, in the late 1950s, argued for a "Unity of Science" by contending that there are no "special sciences".10 In a sense, this may be regarded as a temporary holding action, designed to buttress the claims of reduction when it was becoming all the more clear, as noted above, that some sciences as they are presently composed simply cannot be reduced into another. 

In the absence of verifiable claims of reduction, realise scientists assumed another tack, arguing that there has to be a unity of the sciences if the universe was originally - just prior to the Big Bang - a singularity. If everything has derived from this singularity, then logically the universe must be homogeneous in its theoretical makeup. This argument is dependent upon certain mereological premises, such as the principle of evolution that posits the universe as evolving from smaller to larger levels of organization over time. More samples here

However, as antirealists and even some realists argue, this principle is dependent upon an objective means of dividing natural phenomena into levels, while it is clear that no such means exists. Rather, the imposition of forms upon phenomena is clearly an arbitrary process, reflecting both the intentions of the researcher and the social context of which she is a part. Moreover, as other critics observed, the Unity of Science was dependent upon broad generalizations. The devil, as the saying goes, was in the details.

Despite the evidence of past reductive success, and the suggestion that cosmology itself undermines the existence of special sciences, anti-reductionists felt their position to be reinforced by the inability of reductionists to reduce certain concepts within theories, let alone reduce one theory into another.

This fact illustrates the significance of reduction to the unification of the sciences. Without the demonstrated capacity to reduce one object into another, then it is impossible to argue for the existence of a unity of the sciences. Indeed, this argument is so strong that Putnam, one of the pioneers of the use of mereological premises, moved to the antireductionist camp and renounced any assertion of the existence of a unity of the sciences. Clearly, in this analysis, one cannot posit the existence of a unity of the sciences without the possibility of reduction.


  • Klee, Robert. Introduction to the Philosophy of Science: Cutting Nature at its Seams. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.  

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