shatter-clingIn a comment, my friend Matt Brown raises some interesting points about science and my criticism of Latour’s principle of irreduction.

Me:  Because to explain is to reduce.

Matt:  This is wrong from a philosophy of science point of view, or at least, an oversimplification. It is noteworthy that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Scientific Explanation ( includes no mention of reduction or reductionism. It is true that in order to explain we need to make some relation between the phenomenon and its explanans, but the explanans is not generally thought of as a reduction to phenonema at a more basic level. Main candidates for explanans include laws of nature (at the same level as the explanandum), causal mechanisms (most of which again are not reductions, e.g., mary throwing the rock explains the broken window), or unifications (again, many of which are not reductions, e.g., Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism).

It is also worth pointing out that one of the most canonical articles on reductionism (Oppenheim & Putnam’s “Unity of Science as a Working Hypothesis”) argues that microreductions can be explanatory, but takes other things (deduction from explanatory law) as definitional of explanation.

Me:  The sciences explain the powers of H2O by reference to the features of hydrogen and oxygen.

Matt:  This example actually doesn’t work for you. While some features of hydrogen and oxygen, and some quantum mechanical principles like the Pauli exclusion principle, are part of the explanation of the features of water, but there are other chemistry-level parts of the explanation, including especially chemical bonds and related structural properties which are not part of atomic physics.

Me:  Indeed, even Latour’s own actor-network analyses are reductions.

Matt:  This looks true if you only focus on one moment in ANT analysis. (I just did Reassembling the Social w/ my grad class so this is fresh.) When Latour turns to look at actants, he recommends that we follow all of the connections that “make up” the actants, that make them do things. So while he might have us follow all of the parts of the Corporation as part of an ANT study of the Corporation, he’d also point out that the actants themselves aren’t themselves on a more basic level. Also, his point about the ways the Corporation “speaks” (wholly in documents) vs. how the person in the customer service department speaks to you on the phone seems relevant.

Unfortunately I wasn’t quite clear in my post on Latour and left out the central point I was trying to make:  there’s a difference between explanatory reduction (ER) and ontological reduction (OR).  Let’s take the materialism of Peter van Inwagen to illustrate OR.  If I understand Inwagen correctly, only elementary particles (whatever they turn out to be) and animal individuals truly exist.  Thus, for example, when a baseball shatters a window, neither the window nor the baseball really exist.  These are just fabrications of our crude perceptual apparatus.  What’s really occurred is an interaction between a plurality of different elementary particles.  There are no windows nor baseballs, only elementary particles.  This is an ontological reduction insofar as it’s basically making the claim that baseballs and windows don’t exist, only elementary particles.  OR’s deny the existence of some set of entities.

read on!

Covalent_H2OAn explanatory reduction is entirely different.  An explanatory reduction doesn’t deny the existence of the entity to be explained, but merely says that the entity being explained has the powers it has because of the powers of the entities that compose it.  Returning to the example of H2O I used in my previous post, H2O has the powers it has because of the powers of hydrogen and oxygen and what takes place when these elements bond.  Why is this not an erasure of H2O?  For the simple reason that the parts that compose H2O don’t have these powers when taken in isolation.  You have to have the relations between these elements for powers such as freezing, boiling at certain temperatures, putting out fires, etc., to emerge.  All that’s said is that this entity wouldn’t have these powers without these parts.  This doesn’t somehow conjure water out of existence.

Here I disagree with Matt.  In my view, every explanation is a reduction in the sense that it traces one thing back to more elementary elements and laws.  Take the example of a dream my partner had when I was writing my dissertation in graduate school.  During this time I was writing 6-8 hours a day and became more or less autistic or dead to the world because I was so absorbed in my thoughts.  One night she had a dream that went as follows:

I’m being chased by a faceless man who has cerebral palsy and who is trying to rape me.  He catches up to me and we begin to struggle and fight.  I break his left-hand and then wake up.

For Freud, every dream is a veiled wish or desire (veiled because often these wishes are things our egos don’t feel proud of and that our superego forbids).  To interpret a dream and find the veiled wish (and they can have multiple, contradictory wishes), you break the dream down into its elements and associate on each element, i.e., “what’s the first thing that comes to mind, no matter how seemingly unrelated, when you think of that element?”  The reason you break the narrative apart into its elements is because the dream-story or manifest content is part of the veil or lure to draw attention away from the latent dream-thought.  When she began to analyze the dream (no one can analyze your dreams for you) the first thing she zeroed in on was “cerebral palsy”.  At this time, I went by the name “Paul” and she often referred to me as “Pauly”.  “Cerebral palsy” is an association by resemblance to “cerebral Pauly” or “brainy Pauly” (I was writing a dissertation).  Yet why had her unconscious transformed my alleged braininess into a disease?  Because, she said, my research and writing was taking me away from her and was therefore a sickness.

This association provided the key to the rest of the dream.  I was faceless, she said, both because I hadn’t been around (even though my body was there), but also so she could exercise violence on me (one of the dream-wishes) without guilt.  She breaks my left hand in the dream because, being left-handed, he would not be able to write and would then pay attention to me.  In the dream I was chasing her to rape her both to give her a guilt-free alibi for taking revenge on me for neglecting her, and also so that I might desire her (no matter how twisted the desire to rape is).  The explanatory reduction we can thus give for the dream– if Freud is right –is that the dream is the wish to 1) take revenge on me for neglecting her, 2) the wish for me to stop writing so I might pay attention to her, and 3) the desire to be desired.  This is a reduction of the complexity of the dream to a simpler set of dream thoughts.

I personally think that Latour is much closer to an ontological reductionist like Inwagen than an explanatory reductionist.  It’s just that where Inwagen’s truly real entities are elementary particles, Latour’s tendency is to privilege mid-sized entities like staplers, memos, people, speed bumps, etc.  I know that Latour says he believes that entities like corporations, government agencies, churches, etc., are real actants, but take the example of his critique of Marx.  Again and again he critiques things like Marx’s concept of classes, effectively saying that they don’t exist and that what’s really real are networks of individuals and persons.  This is an ontological reduction.  If it weren’t an ontological reduction it would be very difficult to explain Latour’s hostility to Marxist analysis given that it seems so amenable to actor-network theory.  I hasten to add that I also think that Latour’s ontological reductions are often very illuminating and valuable, even if I think he’s ultimately wrong to erase the existence of these larger aggregates.

There can, of course, be extremes between these two poles and all sorts of intermediary variants.  On the one hand, there are radical ontological reductionists like Inwagen that seem to deny the existence of emergent entities altogether.  On the other hand, there are radical anti-reductionists that seem to see emergent entities as a sort of magical leap that can’t be explained at all in terms of the power of their more elementary parts.  Most of us, I think, are probably a combination of OR’s and ER’s.  In my case, for example, I’m an OR when it comes to things like rainbows.  I just don’t think that rainbows have any substantial ontological existence of their own and that in the absence of organisms that have the right perceptual wiring they just aren’t there at all.  Rainbows are variants of optical illusions.  While they have material conditions (raindrops and the properties of light) they’re in us, not “out there” (people have taken umbrage with this thesis in the past; boo!).  On the other hand, I’m only an explanatory reductionist when it comes to things like trees and corporations.  Trees can be explained in terms of their cells, molecules, atoms, etc., but as aggregates they have powers that only exist when these things are combined in these particular ways.  They can’t be conjured out of existence by saying that “elementary particles are really real”.

A lot of this discussion about irreduction arises from ways in which I see OOO put to use.  I’ve sometimes heard people say that the mere relation between two entities is sufficient to establish the existence of a third entity.  I don’t think this is the case.  In my view, we only get a new entity out of a relation between other entities if new powers emerge.  Others, following Whitehead, have said things like sunsets are intrinsically beautiful regardless of whether anyone is about to perceive them.  I don’t think this is the case as things like beauty strike me as relational qualities that only exist through the coupling of a sentient entity and other entities.  My cats seem delighted by the odor of my shoes, me not so much.  Yet others want to use these sorts of arguments to say that entities like God exist.  They say that you’re tendentiously reducing God if you explain him in terms of peoples beliefs rather than treating him as a genuine independent substance.  However, if ontological reductions of this sort are barred, then we’re led to the conclusion that the mere fact of imagining and thinking about something is sufficient to establish that the thing exists as a substance.  We’d have to say that John Nash’s belief in a communist plot and the existence of his college roommate, the general, and the young girl refer to real things that exist in their own right, rather than being creations of his mind.  We’d have to say with the Nazi’s that there really was a Jewish conspiracy and that this wasn’t just a fantasy of their own paranoid  minds.  I’m just not willing to go there.  Latour doesn’t tell us reduction is impossible or always false, but that we have to do the work of showing how one actant can be explained in terms of a set of other actants as in the case of my partner’s dream.  As in mathematics, you have to show your work, the series of transformations, and not just conjure things out of thin air through vague appeals to “power”, “social forces”, “capitalism”, and so on.