Sloppy Reduction

That an event is composed entirely of transactions among subatomic particles does not mean that it is nothing but subatomic particles – does not mean that its character is exhaustively specified by the specification of the trajectories and interactions of those particles. If it did, there would be no discernible difference between, say, jumping off a bridge for the fun of it and jumping off a bridge to save a drowning child. If the jumps in question were nothing but subatomic particles moving about, then we would not be able to discern the different meanings of the two jumps; they would look absolutely identical to us in every respect, because, there being in fact no difference between them there would be no way to tell any difference between them.

Likewise with homo economicus. That marriage, e.g., is a legal contract governing an exchange of resources does not mean it is not also an occasion of love, and a sacrament, or that a marriage is not a living organism in its own right. Or again, a bond is a legal and financial instrument, to be sure; but it can operate as such only because it is in the first place, and ultimately, an agreement of souls about the duties they owe to each other under heaven, and a pledge of honor.

So likewise with any words, of any sort, exchanged between people: texts are eo ipso instruments of social power, yes, of course (how not?). Words are bonds. But to think that analysis of language in terms of the power relations it expresses exhausts its meanings, intentions and operations is to indulge in intellectual sloth, or aesthetic blindness, or emotional autism, or all three.

Reduction can be successful, in the sense that within limits we can indeed specify the character of an event in the terms of some realm of discourse; but that does not mean that we have thereby succeeded in a complete specification of the event in question. Gödel has shown that such complete specifications are not logically possible.

Reality is bigger and deeper than anything, or everything, that we might say about it.

To analyze anything, then, we must abstract from it some features of particular susceptibility to the mode of analysis in which we are engaged. Having thus abstracted – i.e., treated the object of our investigations as if it were nothing but the features we have identified as peculiarly interesting at the moment – we have no warrant then to turn and insist that the object of our study really is nothing but the features we have abstracted.

So, then, traditionalists need not worry that the transcendences by which they understand the world and guide their lives are at all threatened by reduction as such. The threat comes, not from understanding phenomena in these terms or those, or yet some others, but rather from foolish minds who confuse their heuristic simplifications for wild anfractuous reality.

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4 thoughts on “Sloppy Reduction

  1. Pingback: Sloppy Reduction | Reaction Times

  2. I think nothing-buttery comes from that kind of empiricist approach that tries to find the most predictive variables in everything. The issue with that is that it is easy to overlook some other variables, sometimes the easiest prediction is not the kind of prediction we want to make, and sometimes our analysis of a thing is not even for the purpose of prediction at all.

    I also suspect that it is because the easiest prediction is basically seeing what breaks a thing. People who have no power usually cannot get their ideas through, so their speech breaks? Then speech is just about power! Blow its constituent particles apart and any being or object ceases to exist? Then they are just nothing but particles! Marriages can’t work without the appropriate legal background? Then they are nothing but that!

    So yes, I think this kind of thinking comes from trying to find the “breaking conditions” of things / systems. This sometimes works, and has uses – if you want to protect anything you must figure out what conditions break it – but it also has its limits, the fact that the Mona Lisa painting is flammable says just about nothing important about it that would help understanding it.

  3. > If it did, there would be no discernible difference between, say, jumping off a bridge for the fun of it and jumping off a bridge to save a drowning child.

    A materialist could always point to the presence/absence of the drowning child and the differing brain configurations in the jumper as physical differences between the two cases. However, your example could still stand in its intended purpose, as an example of how the abstraction involved in considering only certain aspects of events (e.g. rate of humans jumping off a bridge without regard to their circumstances or motives, regardless of whether these are encoded in physical properties or not) is legitimate but by definition gives incomplete pictures.

    > Gödel has shown that such complete specifications are not logically possible.

    Could you say a bit more about this sometime?

    • A materialist could always point to the presence/absence of the drowning child and the differing brain configurations in the jumper as physical differences between the two cases.

      Yeah, I thought of that, but decided that there would be countless physical differences between any two real cases: the ripples of the water, the state of the leaves, the temperature at the surface of the north pole of Alpha Centauri, and so forth. The materialist could point to any of those and say that it would be easy to differentiate between the two events by referring to them. But what I was getting at was that even if, per impossibile, you could nail down every one of those differences, including the presence and distress of the child and the firing patterns in the jumper’s brain, that still would not get you to a strictly physical specification of the meaning and intent of the jumper’s act. All it would get you is a schedule of momenta, charges, and so forth. As between two such schedules, there would be no way to tell which one pertained to the jump intended to save the child and the one intended for fun, unless you first smuggled the knowledge of those intentions into the analysis to begin with. To tell which schedule of physical factors referred to the case of the jump for fun, you’d first need to know which jump was taken for fun, and that prior knowledge would then inform your interpretation of what the schedule of physical factors was revealing. Without that prior knowledge, you’d have two schedules, and no way to tell what either of them indicated about the meaning of the jump. Between the schedules, then, there would be no difference that made a difference. That’s another way of saying that their differences would not be informative; they would be noise.

      Re Gödel, I discussed it some here. If you want more, let me know. The basic idea is that you can’t form a perfect account of anything using a logistical calculus unless the logistical calculus is itself perfect: consistent, coherent, and complete. In no other way can we be absolutely clear on what all the terms of the calculus mean, exactly; so that all you will have accomplished with your account is to kick the explanatory can down the road. And no logistical calculus is completable.

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