Greedy Reductionism


Greedy reductionism [ri-duhk-shuh-niz-uhm] is a term coined by cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, in his 1995 book ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,’ to refer to a kind of erroneous reductionism. Whereas ‘good’ reductionism means explaining a thing in terms of what it reduces to (for example, its parts and their interactions), greedy reductionism occurs when ‘in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers … underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation.’

Using the terminology of ‘cranes’ (legitimate, mechanistic explanations) and ‘skyhooks’ (essentially, fake—e.g. supernaturalistic—explanations), Dennett states: ‘Good reductionists suppose that all Design can be explained without skyhooks; greedy reductionists suppose it can all be explained without cranes.’

A canonical example of greedy reductionism, labelled as such by Dennett himself, is the (radical) behaviorism of B. F. Skinner. It is often said that this school of thought, which dominated Western psychology for part of the twentieth century, denied the existence of mental states such as beliefs, although at least in Skinner’s original version it merely denied the theoretical utility (or necessity) of postulating such states in order to explain behavior. Notably, Skinner himself characterized his views as anti-reductionist: in ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity’ he wrote that while mental and neurological states did exist, behavior could be explained without recourse to either. As Dennett says, ‘Skinner proclaimed that one simple iteration of the fundamental Darwinian process—operant conditioning—could account for all mentality, all learning, not just in pigeons but in human beings. […] Skinner was a greedy reductionist, trying to explain all the design (and design power) in a single stroke.’

In his earlier book ‘Consciousness Explained,’ Dennett argued that, without denying that human consciousness exists, we can understand it as coming about from the coordinated activity of many components in the brain that are themselves unconscious. In response, critics accused him of ‘explaining away’ consciousness because he disputes the existence of certain conceptions of consciousness that he considers overblown and incompatible with what is physically possible. This is perhaps what motivated Dennett to make the greedy/good distinction in his follow-up book, to freely admit that reductionism can go overboard while pointing out that not all reductionism goes this far.

A departure from strict reductionism in the opposite direction from greedy reductionism is called ‘nonreductive physicalism’ or ‘anti-reductionism,’ which denies that a reductionistic analysis of a complex system like the human mind is sufficient to explain all of the phenomena which are characteristic of that system. This idea is expressed in some theories that say consciousness is an emergent epiphenomenon that cannot be reduced to physiological properties of neurons. Nonreductive physicalists, such as British philosopher Colin McGinn, who claim the true relationship between the physical and the mental may be beyond scientific understanding – and therefore a ‘mystery’ – have been dubbed ‘Mysterians’ by Duke philosopher and neurobiologist Owen Flanagan.

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