Category Archives: Reductionism

Thomas Nagel’s Case Against Reductionism

The currently most widely held view of the world is materialist. According to this view phenomena which appear immaterial have, or could only have, a materialist explanation. These phenomena could, in other words, be reduced to causal chains as physics and chemistry present them.

If we accept that view, mind, consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought and value are mere appearances. And of course the only sciences that could legitimately deal with humanity would be physical sciences. And only medical therapeutics could deal with mental health problems. There would be no place for a psychotherapy which operated mind-to-mind.

There has always been a stubborn belief that such reductionism does not hold water and in 2012 there was published a cogent work of philosophy which revisited this ancient philosophical territory, Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press).

Quoting from page 13: The conflict between scientific naturalism and various forms of antireductionism is a staple of recent philosophy. On the one side there is the hope that everything can be accounted for at the most basic level by the physical sciences, including biology. On the other side there are doubts about whether the reality of such features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level only of physical facts – facts, however sophisticated, of the kind revealed by the physical sciences.

And from page 16: My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought, or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature.

This short book is recommended as a rewarding read, revealing the gaping hole in the materialist conception of the world. Science’s great challenge is to find a conception of the world that has a place in it for the mind, and an explanation both of its existence and its emergence.

Why should psychotherapists be concerned about this argument? Why shouldn’t we leave this argument to the philosophers and the scientists? Because the materialist prejudice invades our own territory. We too are prone to reductionism. The most insidious is not actually the crass reduction to physical causes but the assumption that only psychological mechanisms are at the root of human functioning and suffering: psychologism. We are prone to omit the social-embeddedness of humans, and their connectedness with the cosmos.

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