Monday, July 27, 2009


Readers of Reformed Academic may be interested to know that I also contribute to another blog, by faculty at Trinity Western University. Below is a piece I wrote there a year ago, which is also relevant here, and so I am re-posting it here; I welcome your interaction.

One problem with blogging is that sometimes you have so much to say on a topic that you can’t reduce it to a few paragraphs… Which leads me to think about the very topic of reductionism, which I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. I’m not exactly sure where the following quote originates, but I’m told that one of our chemistry professors shows what reductionism is by saying, “Psychology is just biology, biology is just chemistry, chemistry is just physics, physics is just math, and math is just…hard.” Actually, I think the last part of this quote is due to one of our math profs. Another apt description is due to Donald MacKay, author of A Clock Work Image (InterVarsity, 1974), who calls such notions “nothing-buttery”. We encounter, nearly every day, the idea that “X” is nothing but “Y”:

  • A person is nothing but a collection of protoplasm.
  • A person is nothing but a pile of atoms.
  • Beethoven’s 5th is nothing but vibrations in the air.
  • Love is nothing but chemistry.
  • A photograph is nothing but pixels on a screen.

Sometimes the words “nothing but” are left out, but the problem remains: it is supposed that “X” doesn’t really exist since science has shown that it’s actually just “Y”. Two of my main goals in teaching are to expose the problems with reductionism and to open students’ minds to the much broader perspective offered by a Christian worldview.

A few years ago, one of my students mentioned that TWU’s English Department has as its polemic motto, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” This quote due to Muriel Rukeyser unfortunately remains reductionistic, because it’s not either/or: both are true. The universe is made of atoms, and it is made of stories. Both — and more — are needed to provide anything approaching a full description and explanation. It’s important for scientists to know that there is more to any phenomenon or event than the physical compositional story.

University education can often lead students into thinking that their particular area alone holds the true key to final knowledge; this was true in my case, until I discovered the “liberal arts and sciences” as taught at Trinity Western. I keep reminding my students that, unlike Ernest Rutherford’s quote that “In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting” (which remains hanging outside our lab as a conversation piece), each discipline considers just one aspect of the multi-faceted universe crafted by an amazing Creator as an integral whole. These aspects relate to one another in various ways, but no single discipline can claim to be the most fundamental or basic. It is both humiliating and empowering to know both that our work matters and that we need one another. Perhaps you recognize similarities with Romans 12:3-5 and I Corinthians 12!

For further reading, see my piece “A Physicist’s Reformed Critique of Nonreductive Physicalism and Emergence”, Pro Rege v. 33, n. 4 (June 2005) pp. 20-32 (available online here).


Tony Jelsma said...

"University education can often lead students into thinking that their particular area alone holds the true key to final knowledge; this was true in my case, until I discovered the “liberal arts and sciences” as taught at Trinity Western."

Arnold, are you saying that you were a reductionist while at Dordt, before you returned to the Great White North? :-)
I remember your chiding me for my own reductionistic tendencies when I first arrived at Dordt!

Arnold Sikkema said...

The Christian “liberal arts and sciences” are taught both at Dordt and TWU (and a few other places). Dordt cured me of reductionism within a year, or perhaps even before I arrived, due to the faculty recruitment process. By 1998, I had learned why physics was not reducible to mathematics through M.D. Stafleu, Time and Again (Wedge, 1980), and posted a review here. I am glad to see that my chiding of you in your early days at Dordt has had its desired effect! At the time, I couldn’t articulate precisely in what way biology is not reducible to physics, but fully expected that you as a biologist would soon find a way to do so. J. Klapwijk, Purpose in the Living World (Cambridge, 2008) does an excellent job of showing the irreducibility of biology to physics (among other things). Perhaps you should post (and discuss) your 2005 (?) piece about biotechnology on Reformed Academic, which (as I recall) also includes such a discussion.

baartman said...

Somewhere around the year 1975, I went to a talk sponsored (I think) by the ICS. I forget the talk totally, but picked up two valuable books from their table of book sales: Mackay; A Clock Work Image, and M.D. Stafleu; Time and Again. Both affected me as they did Arnold.

rick Baartman

Arnold Sikkema said...

Rick, it must’ve been later, as Stafleu’s book wasn’t published until 1980. Yes, Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies, while it has had certain controversies, remains a valuable resource for Reformed Christian thought.

Another great source on reductionism is Roy Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality (Notre Dame, 1991, rev. 2005). And if you want to get at Dooyeweerd, upon whose ideas Clouser is based, a good starting point is L. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian Philosophy (Wedge, 1975).

baartman said...

Too right. My edition of Stafleu is 1980, sorry.