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What is reductionism?


Like many terms in philosophy, reductionism can be applied to a variety of interrelated ideas. All of these concepts share a common theme. According to reductionism, seemingly more complex events and things can be entirely explained and understood in terms of seemingly less complex events and things. For example, reductionism says that the mind-boggling complexity of the human brain can only be understood by examining the individual chemical reactions within the brain. Once we understand the individual pieces, the entire puzzle falls into place.

The application of reductionism most meaningful to religion or spirituality explains a thing in terms of its components with the implication that the thing described carries no more meaning than any of the individual components themselves. The meaning of any system depends not on the inherent qualities of the system but on its individual parts and their relation to each other. A belief in reductionism is usually expressed using variations of the phrase nothing but. For example, a reductionist might describe a river as “nothing but” a large collection of moving water molecules. A book could be reductively explained as “nothing but” a series of ink marks on paper.

Spiritually speaking, reductionism is a view that claims that meaning is entirely derived from mechanisms. In other words, if something can be explained in terms of some series of smaller components, then that subject is said to be “nothing but” those smaller events. The reductionist most often implies that the subject holds no more meaning than the separate parts; in some cases, he implies that the subject does not really exist, for all intents and purposes. A reductionist might reject the validity of spiritual experience by saying, “Your religious beliefs are nothing but the sum of human evolution, cultural mythology, and your own psychological make-up.”

Two important points immediately come to mind when considering reductionism. The first is the difference between explanations and values. As used most often in religious or spiritual debate, reductionism attempts to use an explanation of how something occurs, or what causes it, as an excuse to dismiss the value of that thing. Therefore, morality is dismissed as “nothing but” a social construct. Love is “nothing but” a chemical reaction. DNA is “nothing but” a tangled arrangement of molecules. Leaving aside the argument of whether or not those explanations are complete, the implication of reductionism is that morality, love, and DNA have no inherent value or meaning since we can identify and explain their components.

This form of reductionism is an almost self-refuting idea. While it’s true that a book is, physically, made up of ink marks on paper, there is a tremendous difference between a collection of random words and a novel. While reductionists admit that arrangement is an important consideration, concepts such as design and information present a major challenge to the reductionist view. This leads many reductionists to simply dismiss the ideas of design and information as imaginary: if it cannot be explained, it does not exist; if it can be explained, it has no meaning; and so on, and so forth.

The second point to consider about reductionism is the difference between characteristics of parts and characteristics of the whole. Combining certain components often results in properties not found anywhere in the constituents. Alloys of different metals, for example, often have properties that neither of their parent elements possesses. The properties of table salt are nothing like the properties of sodium or chlorine, individually. Attempting to dismiss life as “nothing but” chemical reactions fails to address the fact that living things have properties and abilities that their constituent chemicals don’t.

Spiritually speaking, reductionism is frequently arrogance masquerading as analysis. The dismissal of certain ideas as “nothing but” some lesser mechanism often comes in the context of rejecting those ideas as false or meaningless. As applied by some critics of religion, reductionism is rooted in a common human assumption: that which I cannot understand cannot be understood; that which I can understand is beneath me.

As a philosophy, reductionism flatly contradicts the Bible. Man is explicitly said to be made—physically—of dust (Genesis 2:7), yet we are something more than dust. In fact, we are more than “just” a crass combination of a body and soul; we are whole persons uniquely created by God (Genesis 1:27). In an even higher sense, the biblical concept of the Trinity conflicts with reductionism: God’s existence as one Being in three Persons defies a reductionist explanation of parts and wholes.

While reductionism has many other possible definitions and implications, its validity in spiritual matters is almost nonexistent. Not all things can be reductively defined as the sum of their parts, and not everything that can be explained is irrelevant.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022