Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Parable of the Reductionist

When I first started reading Rorty, I found essays about all sorts of philosophers and little schematic maps splitting the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophy into groups. I was always attracted to learning about other philosophers and I love little schematic maps. I learned later that Rorty picked up this technique from his teacher, Richard McKeon--Pirsig's infamous Chairman. I tend to think that Pirsig misunderstood McKeon, though. David Hall (in his book on Rorty) suggested that we really shouldn't be reading McKeon as trying to find the architectonics of philosophical discourse (like some of his similar colleagues were doing), but as performing a kind of interpretive reading. Sometimes people think that "isms" hamper our ability to understand, but I think they're looking at them the wrong way. Categories, like "realist" and "pragmatist", arise only after you've tried to understand them and are part of the attempt to understand by classifying patterns of linguistic similarity and conceptual work. McKeon was misunderstood by Pirsig because of this kind of antiprofessional prejudice against "classification," the one we see all the time when the hippie/stoner says (saying it preferably as Tommy Chong would say it), "Don't put me in a box, man." Except, what else is understanding than classification? How else are we to understand unless we differentiate? The problem is taking the classifications as written in the stars, as Platonists are wont to do. But good pragmatists don't do that. We use them as a map with which to make our way around philosophy. As new bumps appear, you change the map.

But this little anti-antiprofessionalist screed wasn't why I was writing today. Rather, it was about one of the things I found out about Rorty as I read more of him (though, its not about that either). Originally, I found other philosophers and little maps. The more I read, though, the more I started seeing a general pattern in Rorty. One of the earliest things I picked up from Rorty (probably to my detriment) was the sense of when someone was "begging the question," a locution I began to use more and more. The sense I was gradually given by Rorty in his essays was how arguments at a certain point break down and there isn't anything argumentative left to do. As I read back into Rorty's corpus, into his essays in the 60s and 70s that aren't collected into books, I was given a much stronger sense of how important this was to Rorty's project. In his earlier days, I saw much more clearly how seeing patterns of argument, of reasoning, played into his becoming a fully fledged pragmatist. And I saw that this was what attracted me to Rorty: it was the attraction to metaphilosophy, of how we do philosophy. And likewise, that's what attracted me to Pirsig, his ability to display lines of thought and then move backwards to undercut them (like in the S/O Dilemma).

One of the things that's being talked about in the MD recently is "reductionism". And this is something that is in the back of people's minds a lot. One of the problems people have with reductionism is that it seems so deadening. Reducing everything to one kind of thing seems to take all the fun out of life, all the plurality of normal, everyday existence. This, by itself, isn't a philosophical defense, but it does lead to one. When scientific reductionists reduce everything to physics, one of the replies is that they can't reduce our actual experience of reality to physics. Our experience of eating an apple or seeing a sunset is irreducible to firing neurons and bouncing particles. One becomes a realist and says, "No, all this stuff I experience is real." Its the old antireductionist move to "save the appearances" that we've had ever since Aristotle reacted to Plato's divided line metaphysics. Antireductionism is probably one of the most important philosophical instincts that have pushed philosophy forward--the other being reductionism. More on that later.

To stop the endless cycle of reduction, to stop physics from gobbling everything up, my realist from above has made an antireductionist move towards phenomenology, what we phenomenally experience. That barrier is roughly what they call nowadays in anglophone philosophy "qualia". And this does have prima facie resonance with Pirsigians. What we see, though, is that to create this barrier with qualia, the realist has to make the traditional metaphysical distinction between essence and accident, text and context. The antireductionist move is saying that our qualia, our phenomenal experience, is irreducible to neurons because the qualia are the essence of the experience, that the quality of the experience is irreducible to the pattern of it arising. This kind of distinction is a mistake. By using phenomenal qualia as an antireductionist stop gap, the realist resurrects the black box of consciousness, the duality of mind and body.

There is an alternative way of saving the appearances, however. The first thing we need to do is to stop resisting the power of redescription. One of the most important things that Rorty impressed upon me is the notion that anything can be redescribed into anything else. The power of redescription is the power of analogy, metaphor, the genius of imagination. It is, in fact, one of the philosopher's classic tools. Reductionism (which I above somewhat misleadingly called one of the most important philosophical instincts) is a special case of the more general power of redescription. What reductionism adds to its redescription (in terms of Idea, Matter, Spirit, Quality, etc.) is--as everyone can probably guess--"and this is the way things really should be described."

The realist instinct--the antireductionist instinct--is to say, "No, no. That can't be described that way." The question is, why not? What is it hurting? The traditional realist tactic (which has taken many forms, from Aristotelianism to Husserlian phenomenology to defenders of qualia) has been to say that the reductionist is hurting the essence of the thing. This causes the reductionist to bridle and reply, "Well show me this essence!" When the realist can't (because to do so would be to do something no one has ever been able to do, fulfill the destiny of Platonic metaphysics), the reductionist feels smug. The realist, pissed that he failed, then turns to the reductionist and says, "Well, if you're so smart, prove to me that your reduction is the essence of the matter!" And, of course, the reductionist can't either. That's why the quarrel between reductionists and realists, Platonists and Aristotelians, has lasted 2500 years.

The pragmatist sees these two quarreling and suggests that they calm down. She tells them that the problem, so it seems to her, is that neither one can cash in on their proclamations of essence. So why not drop the proclamations? To the reductionist she says, "Go ahead and make all the redescriptions you want." To the realist she says, "And if there's a redescription you don't like, don't use it." What the pragmatist is suggesting, as I did above, is that reductionism is a special case of redescription and realism (in the sense of pluralism, the attempt to "save the appearances") is a special case of pragmatism. What both special cases hinge on is a so far fruitless and conversation stifling essentialism. After brushing aside essentialism, what is left is our ubiquitous power to create new descriptions and our particular power to choose which descriptions we use for which purposes. This means that a scientist can go on reducing color to wavelengths in the laboratory without worrying about whether red doesn't exist and that a poet can go on writing sonnets about love without worrying about whether the Freudian next door will say that its all in his id.

I think this is roughly the position that Dennett calls heterophenomenology. It roughly means that there are as many things that exist as there are ways of speaking, that our ontology is coextensive with our speech patterns. It is, in effect, a kind of insouciance towards ontology. You can proliferate as many different kinds of speech patterns as you want, but the ones that catch on are the ones that are useful and the objects of those speech patterns become, roughly, the ones that we are going to say "exist". This is how pragmatists brush aside questions about whether molecules, electrons, and quarks really exist or are just useful heuristics for science. Another instance, demons. Do demons exist at bars and pubs? Can't say that they do, but they do tend to exist in fantasy novels. Does love exist? Sure it does, because "love" is a very important word in the web of speech patterns that we use in life. Does God exist? That depends. In scientific studies God doesn't play a big role (we are all atheists in the laboratory), but at Church He does.

So if someone says that love and compassion are not reducible to chemicals in the brain, I think we should be inclined to say that they are just insofar as we are capable of correlating brain activity with "love behavior". However, the reason why we don't usually reduce love and compassion to chemicals outside of physiological studies is because when your lover asks you to talk dirty, saying "You make my C-fiber quiver" usually doesn't turn them on. (Come to think of it, that actually does sound kinda' dirty.) And if a Pirsigian reads too much Freud and starts to wonder, "Are there such things as values? Or could we just as easily talk in terms of desires?", our instinct should be to say, sure, there are values and there are desires, and for many things we could follow Freudians like Lacan and just translate values into desires, but I would think there are some forms of discourse, a few practical distinctions in the area, where we could cut a difference between values and desires that makes some sense and would be profitable to do. In those cases, we can easily slough off Freud and Lacan and say that what they say is besides the point right now.

I think the important thing to get over is our fear of redescription. When people start crying "Reductionist!", I think all that means is that they don't like the redescription for a particular reason, that what was redescribed into different terms seems to leave out a distinction they would like to see in place. However, what is often not explored by the knee-jerk reactionary is whether or not one could still make the distinction he wants in the now redescribed terms. Its still left open whether or not the redescribed distinction is suitable or not for the purposes desired, but I think people should follow through a little bit further into what a redescription means for their desired distinctions. It doesn't always mean something bad. Redescriptions are made for just as particular purposes as distinctions are made.

1 comment:

  1. Matt, I'm also pretty certain Pirsig misunderstood McKeon. (I picked up the Rorty overlap too.)

    When you say
    "Categories, like "realist" and "pragmatist", arise only after you've tried to understand them and are part of the attempt to understand by classifying patterns of linguistic similarity and conceptual work."

    This is my "Every picture [word, token] paints a thousand words [but only after a million have been exchanged]" adage. The shorthand only makes sense AFTER the analysis, as you say.

    The problem is on one exchange - you can't be sure how someone is using such a label at you or about you (in the Pirsig / McKeon case) - which is the same area as your piece on rhetoric of argumentation. One, or a small number of usages of a given rhetorical trick (like an "ism" label) can't be decoded without a few strange loops or a period of time. People do make "category errors".

    Categories are "emergent" from life, not the metaphysical fundaments of it.


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