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Sniffnoy comments on Excluding the Supernatural - Less Wrong

37 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 September 2008 12:12AM

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Comment author: Sniffnoy 27 July 2010 10:02:24PM 3 points [-]

I have to wonder if your characterization of people who deny reductionism is really correct. I agree most of them are probably confused and do not have a coherent model in the first place - certainly actual non-reductionism is a confusion - but I'm not certain all of them are confused in the way you say.

From my experience it seems that the claims of the people who deny "reductionism" could be coherently understood if we assume that they are actually confused about what reductionism actually consists of, and that they are not denying actual reductionism, just one particular version of it that they are imagining the term necessarily refers to.

E.g. if we assume that they are simply saying that in some cases, the irreducible components of the universe are complicated rather than simple, and that the lowest level is something that appears to be "high level", then this is, though almost certainly wrong, at least coherent. It is also technically reductionist, albeit possibly trivially so (worst case: entire universe is a giant lookup table). But they don't think of it as reductionism as it doesn't much resemble what they're used to seeing called by that name.

Indeed I would go so far as to say that the people who deny reductionism are very often the same people who are implicitly making the mistake of greedy reductionism! They fail to think in terms of interactions of components, of actual systems, and so make the mistake of inferring angry atoms. They do reduce things, it's just that they reduce everything to supernatural things that can only interact via some sort of superposition principle. This pretty much fails at predicting anything, but it is at least coherent.

I don't know, does this make sense?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 12 November 2010 06:45:51PM 1 point [-]

Mm. It makes sense, but I don't think it's on-point.

Up to a point, I agree with you. The Bohr model of the atom posits a lowest-level description that appears to us now to be "high-level", as you say, but it would not be fair to dismiss Bohr as a denier of reductionism on that basis. Similarly, if 22nd-century physics demonstrates that our current ontology is similarly confused, and there is a yet-more-parsimonious explanation that is consistent with observed data, it would not be fair to claim we deny reductionism.

It's unfair precisely because it elides the difference between (on the one hand) not being able to analyze something in terms of its component parts and (on the other) rejecting in principle any such analysis.

EY seems to be talking here about people who do the latter... who would deny that anything explainable could be their God, whatever surface properties it turned out to have. You seem to be talking about both groups at once.

To put this a different way... suppose Alice, Bob, and Cindy all worship a dryad, who is either Tiiba's dryad or an analog made of quarks, and a scientist comes along to determine which it is. Alice insists that studying the dryad's composition isn't possible/permitted. Bob confidently predicts that the dryad will all be whitestuff. Cindy shrugs and doesn't care; she makes the choice to worship based on surface-level considerations that don't depend on whether it's quarks or whitestuff.

Alice and Bob both make supernatural claims. Cindy isn't making a supernatural claim at all, by this post's definitions.

You argue that Bob is just claiming that some irreducible components are complicated, and the dryad happens to be one of them, and that this is perfectly compatible with reductionism (albeit perhaps trivially so)... even if Bob doesn't call himself a reductionist.

And that's true enough, as far as it goes. Bob is also admitting that his supernatural claim is testable and falsifiable by scientific research.

Meanwhile, Alice claims "separate magisteria."

As far as I can tell, the argument of EY's post relates exclusively to Alice.