Reality Is Flat. (Or Is It?)

Richardpolt75-thumbStandardRichard Polt follows up on his previous essay, in the NYT's The Stone:

In a recent essay for The Stone, I claimed that humans are “something more than other animals, and essentially more than any computer.” Some readers found the claim importantly or trivially true; others found it partially or totally false; still others reacted as if I’d said that we’re not animals at all, or that there are no resemblances between our brains and computers. Some pointed out, rightly, that plenty of people do fine research in biology or computer science without reducing the human to the subhuman.

But reductionism is also afoot, often not within science itself but in the way scientific findings get interpreted. John Gray writes in his 2002 British best seller, “Straw Dogs,” “Humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals.” The neurologist-philosopher Raymond Tallis lambastes such notions in his 2011 book, “Aping Mankind,” where he cites many more examples of reductionism from all corners of contemporary culture.

Now, what do I mean by reductionism, and what’s wrong with it? Every thinking person tries to reduce some things to others; if you attribute your cousin’s political outburst to his indigestion, you’ve reduced the rant to the reflux. But the reductionism that’s at stake here is a much broader habit of thinking that tries to flatten reality down and allow only certain kinds of explanations. Here I’ll provide a little historical perspective on this kind of thinking and explain why adopting it is a bad bargain: it wipes out the meaning of your own life.