Reductionist anti-reductionist debate

In debates, the reductionist anti-reductionist debate is a debated surrounding the question of whether or not the biological sciences can be reduced to the physical sciences.

In large part, the reductionist anti-reductionist debate seems to be nothing but a variant of the life vs non-life debate.

In the hmolsciences, the question or rather accusation of reductionism (as though this were some sort of crime?), usually brought up by antireductionists, often comes to the fore in topics where physical science terms are applied to the humanities. In the 2010 Human Chemistry 101 video “Sexual Heat: Pop Quiz”, by American electrochemical engineer Libb Thims, wherein physical sexual heat is equated with enthalpy, for example, one responder commented “is this not just reductionism?” [1]

The essential problem here seems to be that as children we are never taught that many physical principles (e.g. Boerhaave's law, collision theory, spontaneity principle, chemical bonding, Gibbs free energy, enthalpy, entropy change, exchange force, etc.), but not all physical principles (e.g. Pauli exclusion principle, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, etc.,) apply to us as socially, and that some may or may not apply to us (e.g. wave particle duality).

Provincialists vs. autonomists
In 1972, American biophysicist Lila Gatlin devoted a chapter section to the “Reductionist—Anti-reductionist Controversy”, in which she summarizes as being on the question of whether or not life can be reduced to the “laws of physics and chemistry”. She sites Francis Crick (Of Molecules and Men, 1967) as being the reductionist spokesperson with his comment:

“So far everything we have found can be explained without effort in terms of the standard bonds of chemistry—the homopolar bond, the van der Waals attraction between non-bonded atoms, the all-important hydrogen bond, and so on.”

The spokespersons for anti-reductionism view (which seems to be her inclination) are physicists Walter Elsasser (The Physical Foundation of Biology, 1955; “The Atom and the Organism”, 1966) and Eugene Wigner (Symmetries and Reflections, 1967) who supposedly find difficulty with the view that living systems obey the fundamental laws of chemistry and physics (in particular quantum mechanical laws) and go on to postulate the existence of higher “biotoic laws” said to govern living systems. [2]

In 1985, American philosopher Alexander Rosenberg classified the two debating parties as either “autonomists”, who believe that the biological sciences are sufficiently different form the physics sciences that biological theory and practice must remain permanently insulated from distinctive methods and theories of the physical sciences, and the “provincialists”, who hold that biological science is a subset of the physical sciences and that biological findings and theories must be not merely compatible with those of physics but must actively cohere with its theoretical achievements. [3]

In his 1988 chapter “Entropy and Evolution”, American systems ecologist Edward Wiley elaborated on Rosenberg’s bipartisan model arguing to the effect that provincialists have the correct logical and philosophical attitude:

“What there is in biology that cannot be accommodated in principle to physical sciences should be jettisoned.”

as expressed by Rosenberg, with the exception that, as Wiley surmises, “provincialists must understand that biological systems are hierarchical and disjunctive and thus may elude satisfactory reduction.” [4]

See also
Francisco Ayala

1. Thims, Libb. (2010). “Sexual Heat | Pop Quiz”, Nov 18. Human Chemistry 101,
2. Gatlin, Lila L. (1972). Information Theory and the Living System (pgs. 14-). Columbia University Press.
3. Rosenberg, Alexander. (1985). The Structure of Biological Science. Cambridge University Press.
4. Wiley, Edward. (1988). “Entropy and Evolution”, in: Entropy, Information, and Evolution (pgs.173-88). Eds. Weber, Bruce H., Depew, David J., and Smith, James D. MIT Press.

External links
Reduction/Anti-Reduction Debate (2009) – Philosophy of Biology, University of Idaho.

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