Monday, 8 July 2013

Reductionism Again

I was in Turkey for all of last week and part of the week before, which is why I haven't posted anything in a while.  I've got some posts lined up, however, and shall be back to regular posting soon.  Istanbul, by the way, is an amazing city, perhaps the most amazing I've ever visited, and I hope to put up a few photos from inside the Hagia Sophia when I have the time.

I've recently been reading, among many other books (including The Oxford History of Byzantium and the latest edition of Coe and Koontz's fabulous Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs), Roderick McIntosh's Ancient Middle Niger: Urbanism and the Self-Organizing Landscape (CUP 2005).  My aim in purchasing the book was to find out more about the ancient history of the west African savanna, and it fulfills that aim tolerably well.  Unfortunately, there are two problems: First, McIntosh, an eminent Africanist and archaeologist, uses far, far too many exclamation marks!  Second, he repeats a number of frankly silly claims about reductionism.

This reminded me that not everyone - in fact, barely anyone in arch and anth - is on board with the concept of reductionism.  Reductionism is the simple idea that nothing is more than the sum of its parts.  All things are ultimately the result of other, smaller, things coming together, and the properties of everything that exists reduce to the properties of the constituent elements.  This is a simple idea, and it is one we know and use all the time.  It is key to science, and it is important to remember that scientific investigation has not, thus far, ever had to explain a phenomenon in terms of something other than its constituent elements.  Reductionism seems to be key to understanding the universe and everything in it.  The simplest demonstration of reductive reasoning is:

1 + 1 = 2

Holism, the inverse, is the idea that some things have properties that don't reduce to the sum of their parts.  They have properties that originate, in some mysterious way, from the interaction of the parts, and that aren't due to the internal properties of the parts.  This is not a realistic or sensible idea.  It says that some properties come from somewhere other than the properties of the constituent elements.  It says that something is going on other than what is actually and demonstrably going on.  The clearest example of holist reasoning is:

1 + 1 = 3 (or >2, at any rate)

This has yet to be demonstrated in any field, in any context.  No properties of any kind seem to arise in any circumstances in this way.  Everything seems to reduce to the properties of the atoms that compose everything, and this is true all the way up to human phenomena, including social facts.  It would take a lot to demonstrate that holism operates at any level of magnification.  Unfortunately, holism is a key tenet of plenty of peoples' views of the universe, including those of religious people and New Agers, among whom the 1 + 1 = 3 principle would not necessarily be seen as ridiculous.  The idea that a tree or a rock or anything else has an intangible essence apart from the atoms that make it up is a holistic idea.  It is also clear that some archaeologists and anthropologists hold to a non-naturalistic, holistic view of the world and the humans in it, which may be part of the explanation as to why some of these same people do not want to be in the science camp (I do not believe Roderick McIntosh to be among this latter group).

Instead of defining or promoting holist thinking on its own dubious merits, these people instead prop up holism by slurring reductionism, claiming that it is something other than it is.  McIntosh, for instance, claims that a reductive explanation of urbanism would rely on a single principle, like the power of an elite.  'Elites cause urbanism' is his example of a reductionist explanation.  But that's not reductionism at all.  It's just simplistic and stupid.  The conflation of reductionism with simplistic arguments based on one or two obviously incomplete variables is common in assaults on reductionism.  This kind of thinking is rightly attacked as an incomplete explanation.

Let's say we have a complex phenomenon made up of multiple parts - like the number 5.  5 is made up of 5 parts - 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1.  McIntosh, and others, are justifiably attacking arguments that try to make the number 5 from 1 + 1 alone.  We need to take account of all the variables - all the component parts that actually make up the number 5.  We can't focus only on one, because that will only lend an incomplete explanation, or even no explanation at all.

It's important to note that these arguments are not reductionist arguments.  They are simplistic, incomplete arguments, and refuting such simplistic arguments is not a justification for believing in holism, as McIntosh appears to.  Reductionism is perfectly acceptable, and the stigma attached to the name (and, to a lesser extent, the concept) is unjustified and absurd.

McIntosh's book is certainly interesting, but it's one of the strangest archaeological works I've ever read, and ranks as easily the most bizarre of all the works I've read published by CUP.  I think I'm forced to recommend it, due to the lack of other exceptional material on the region.  But do bear in mind that what passes for reductionism in the minds of many archaeologists isn't really reductionism at all.

Here are some other posts on topics similar to this:

Ontology: Reductionism

Holism (again)

'Embedded in the Social'

Naturalism and Anthropology


I saw a recent post somewhere (I can't remember where) by an anthropologist, saying that if an anthropologist likes the Indiana Jones movies, their research is not to be trusted.  I understand why this was said - Indiana Jones is far from the greatest role model for archaeologists or anthropologists, and the idea of the white guy who goes and solves problems for brown people (especially in Temple of Doom) is troubling.  It may have been mentioned in the context of the interview with Napoleon Chagnon in which he claimed that his fieldwork experiences were so extreme and, well, adventurous, that Indiana Jones had nothing on him (which many people took to be Chagnon's approval of Indiana Jones' methods, although that seems like a dubious interpretation).

But the Indiana Jones movies are fantastic entertainment.  They may be the best adventure movies of all time, with genuinely iconic scenes, great soundtracks, memorable characters, and so on.  They're clearly great movies, even if you disagree with the central point of them.  I will concede, however, that if you're an anthropologist and you think of yourself as Indiana Jones, you are misguided and maybe your work should be questioned, but that's a different issue to liking the movies themselves.

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