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Reductionism’s Primacy in the Natural Sciences

Science and Human Dimension 1991

Discoveries of new phenomena at successive levels in matter, living organisms, and mind-brain relationships have led to a more dynamic, emergent, relational view of nature. Are these trends undermining the successful reductionism that has served science and technology supremely well since the beginning of the 19th century? And to what extent is reductionist method shaping, and “reducing”, psychology, social studies, and even the humanities? Speakers included:
  • Nobel Prize Winner Gerald Edelman on Is it Possible to Construct a Perception Machine?
  • Oliver Sacks on Neurology and the Soul
  • Freeman Dyson on The Scientist as Rebel
  • Roger Penrose on Must mathematical physics be reductionist?
  • John D Barrow on Theories of Everything
  • Paul M. Churchland and Patricia Churchland on Neurobiology of the Mind
  • Mary Midgely on Reductionist Hubris
  • Peter Atkins on The Limitless Power of Science

A number of publishers, writers and journalists attended the meeting, including Andrew Brown of The Guardian, John Wilkins, Editor of the Tablet, and Jerome Burne. The meeting concluded that reductionism has its limits, especially when applied to human behaviour and society. While areas of quantum physics appeared to defy traditional modes of reductionism, there was a need to defend reductionism as basic scientific method.

The proceedings are published in Nature’s Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision edited by John Cornwell, Oxford University Press, 1993.