Reductionism in New Atheist Thought

| By and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Ted notes: In his first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins announced his central thesis in the fourth sentence of the preface: “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” This is a prime example of reductionism, the idea considered in today’s column. Photograph by David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons (image source)

Introduction by Ted Davis

Stephen Snobelen’s series on the New Atheists and science resumed last week after a hiatus overlapping with the BioLogos conference in Houston. Previous columns have critiqued New Atheist uses of the Conflict Thesis and the Myth of the Medieval Gap and examined some of the ways in which New Atheist writers exhibit intolerance of religion.

Today the topic is “reductionism,” a fancy term for a simple, but controversial notion. What does it mean? Merriam-Webster defines it as “explanation of complex life-science processes and phenomena in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry,” or “a procedure or theory that reduces complex data and phenomena to simple terms.” That’s accurate as far as it goes, but it fails to spell out that reductionism often involves not just simplification, but oversimplification; and, it largely misses the powerful emotional impact carried by the idea, especially when it pertains to human beings. For example, from a purely chemical point of view, a human being might be described in basic terms as amounting to just a few dollars’ worth of chemicals, mainly water—thus failing to capture almost everything that makes us human. The attitude that we really are no more than a bunch of molecules is the topic of this column. The words after the next heading are those of Dr. Snobelen.


Ted notes: British brain scientist Donald M. MacKay very helpfully labeled reductionism “nothing-buttery,” for its tendency to claim that a complex thing was “nothing but” something much simpler. As he said in one of his many insightful books, The Clockwork Image (1974), such a view “is characterized by the notion that by reducing any phenomenon to its components you not only explain it, but explain it away. You can debunk love, or bravery, or sin for that matter, by finding the psychological or physiological mechanisms underlying the behavior in question” (p. 43). I heard MacKay speak just once, at the Oxford meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation and Christians in Science in 1985, two years before his premature death deprived us of one of the most incisive thinkers of the last century. Among many other accomplishments, MacKay delivered the famous Gifford Lectures in 1986; his wife Valerie MacKay published them posthumously in 1991. Photograph by Edward B. Davis


Reductionism (by Stephen Snobelen)

Two further characteristics of the New Atheism—reductionism and essentialism—are related. This week I discuss reductionism and next week essentialism.

At least three kinds of reductionism are associated with the New Atheism. One is their reductive view of religion, religious institutions and religious people. A second form of reductionism is the argument that all explanations ultimately reduce to scientific explanations. A third is reductionism in science itself, seen for example in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976), which reduces life to the function of genes. Another example of this kind of reductionism is the argument that everything reduces to matter, whether it be minds, laws of nature, or what have you.

This first kind of New Atheist reductionism has been dealt with in part already, when I discussed their caricatures of religion, including their understanding of faith as just blind faith. Religion reduces to nothing but dogmatism, hypocrisy, intolerance, and authoritarianism. God reduces to an evil, sadistic being. Dawkins’ (in)famous description of the God of the Bible (quoted in a previous column) is but one of the more striking of numerous examples of reductive thinking about theological concepts. These kinds of assessments make little or no attempt to contextualise and treat holistically biblical descriptions of God or expressions of faith.

Another example of this type of reductionism views belief in God as the same as belief in fairies, leprechauns or Santa Claus. Thus, in the Intelligent Design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Dawkins says: “I think that God is about as unlikely as fairies, angels, hobgoblins, etc.” (listen here at 1:03:16). This not only displays a tone deaf attitude toward theology, but involves a subtle sleight of hand. Whether or not one believes in God, it is hardly fair to equate belief in fairies with the God of classical theism, whose scope is meant to surpass that of the universe, of which God is believed to be the ultimate cause. No one holds conferences or writes academic tomes about the fine-tuning of the cosmos and offers fairies as the answer. Nor for that matter are the New Atheists penning books attacking the concept of fairies or elves.

The second kind of reductionism is part of the agenda of scientism, which will be discussed more fully in a later column. The following statement by Oxford chemist Peter Atkins usefully encapsulates it:

reductionist science is omnicompetent. Science has never encountered a barrier it has not surmounted or that we can at least reasonably suppose it has power to surmount and will in due course be equipped to do so. There is no explicitly demonstrated validity in the view that there are aspects of the universe closed to science (quoting “The Limitless Power of Science,” in Nature’s Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, p. 129).

In the very same book, however, philosopher Mary Midgley points to the dangers of excessive reductionism in science—something she has often done most skilfully. Although she does not reject reductionism outright, she also notes that materialist reductionism is associated with subjective anti-religious stances (to which she herself is apparently not altogether unsympathetic) rather than objective truth. As she points out, “formal reductions don’t spring up on their own, like weeds in a garden. They are not value-free. They are always parts of some larger enterprise, some project for reshaping the whole intellectual landscape, and often our general attitude to life as well” (quoting her essay, “Reductive megalomania,” in Nature’s Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, p. 133). Both Atkins’ stance and Midgley’s observation are profoundly relevant to understanding the New Atheism.

As for the third kind of reductionism, a well-known example comes from Richard Dawkins’ book, River Out of Eden: (1995):

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference (p. 133).

Dawkins’ work in the biological sciences makes him familiar with the importance of holistic understandings of the environment. He would certainly embrace that kind of holism. But, when considering the world around us metaphysically, intentionally or not, Dawkins appears to take a reductive view: his use of the phrase “at bottom” is particularly noteworthy: it means there isn’t really anything to say about any “higher” dimension to reality. By contrast, a religious perspective will not simply leave matters there. Even if a religious thinker starts at the bottom (as some do), she or he will still work upwards, ending at a transcendent purpose or a personal God. This metaphysical difference between examining the world reductively versus seeing it holistically may help explain the respective philosophical positions of the atheist and the theist.


Ted notes: Physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne describes himself as a “bottom-up thinker,” because “I like to start with the phenomena, with things that have happened, and then try to build up an explanation and an understanding from there.” This is exactly the opposite approach to the reductionism of the New Atheists. (image source)


ADDENDUM by Stephen Snobelen: In making these observations, I am aware that a reader might contend that by laying out identifying characteristics of the New Atheism, I am myself guilty of making reductive or essentialistic claims about atheism. In fact, I want to avoid this very thing. For example, I have tried to note when individual New Atheists depart from the rhetoric of their fellow New Atheists. If anyone believes that I am being unfairly reductive or setting up straw men in my descriptions, I am happy to be corrected by compelling evidence. Here it might be useful to remind readers that my focus is almost entirely on the popular culture phenomenon of the New Atheism, not metaphysical or philosophical atheism more generally. That said, offering a careful description of a cultural or intellectual phenomenon (which is what I hope I am doing) is not in itself reductive or essentialistic—if the evidence is presented and the descriptions are nuanced rather than set out in superficial sound bites.

Looking Ahead

Next time, Dr. Snobelen explores another dimension of the New Atheism, essentialism—the idea that there is (in Snobelen’s words) “an essence of either science or religion that holds true across time and cultures,” from which the New Atheists construct their version of the Conflict Thesis. As Dr. Snobelen will point out, “This kind of essentialism is particularly grating to historians.” Be sure not to miss his critique!


Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "Reductionism in New Atheist Thought"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 27 Apr. 2017. Web. 13 December 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2017, April 27). Reductionism in New Atheist Thought
Retrieved December 13, 2017, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/reductionism-in-new-atheist-thought

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

An earlier version of this essay was published as Stephen D. Snobelen, “Science, Religion and the New Atheism,” in The New Atheism, ed. Susan Harris (Charlottetown: St. Peter Publications, 2013), pp. 109-44. BioLogos and the author are grateful to St. Peter Publications (the only source for purchasing this book) for permission to publish this updated, expanded version online.

About the Authors

Dr. Snobelen's research and teaching interests include history of science (early modern and nineteenth century), science and religion, science in popular culture, the popularization of science, radical theology in the early modern period, and millenarianism. His primary research efforts are currently devoted to interpreting Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts and understanding the relationships between Newton’s science and his religion.

Dr. Snobelen has consulted for and appeared in television documentaries on Isaac Newton, including Newton: The Dark Heretic. His most popular course is on science fiction film, which he uses to introduce historical, philosophical, and ethical themes about science and technology to undergraduates in the humanities, sciences, and engineering. He and his wife Julia have four children who help keep them grounded in the more important things of life.

 

More posts by Stephen Snobelen

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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