Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Requiem for a Nightmare: The Rise and Fall of Reductionism

I've mentioned Reductionism several times on this blog. And more recently, I've labeled Reductionist philosophy as the inspiration for the Game/HBD phenomenon. But admittedly I haven't done a very good job of explaining what Reductionism is - at least in the literal sense of the word, independent of any moral judgment. Hopefully, this new essay can remedy that.

But before I dive into explaining Reductionism in more detail, I want to highlight 2 Ayn Rand quotes which explicate the fact that our "inner life" (the thoughts, ideas, and values which swirl inside our heads) has a direct impact on our success and happiness.

To quote Rand:

As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.


Philosophy provides man with a comprehensive view of life. In order to evaluate it properly, ask yourself what a given theory, if accepted, would do to a human life, starting with your own.

Remember Ms. Rand's warning as we trace Reductionism from a scientific theory to a comprehensive philosophy of life.

To explain all that, I'll be replying on the famous writer Tom Wolfe, who wrote 2 essays on this topic: Digibabble, Fairly Dust, and the Human Anthill and Sorry But Your Soul Just Died.

Oh, and what about the title of my post: Requiem for a Nightmare? It's a play on the movie Requiem for a Dream - an excellent film about the dangers of drug addition.

In fact, I've broken down Wolfe's essays into 4 parts, with each part titled after a song in the Requiem soundtrack.

Actually, before we tap into Tom Wolfe's brain, let's hear from Steve Sailer, a pro-Reductionist leader of the HBD Movement.

In his essay, A Miracle Happens Here: Darwin's Enemies on the Right, Sailer tells us...

Edward O. Wilson, founder of Sociobiology...argues that the future of science resides in "reductionism." Sociology should ultimately be reduced to... its underlying sociobiological mechanisms. In turn, sociobiology needs to be reduced to biology, which will eventually be completely explicable by chemistry. Ultimately, all knowledge can be explained by physics.

This is a magnificently ambitious agenda, and its value is clear... Evolution instilled different reproductive goals in males and females...[And] those contrasting sociobiological drives emanate from chemicals like testosterone and estrogen, which can be understood in terms of the physics of protons and electrons.

So what happened when E.O. Wilson's ground-breaking book, Sociobiology, was published in 1975?

To answer that, I'll quote from Wolfe's essay, Digibabble, Fairly Dust, and the Human Anthill.

Part 1: Ghosts of a Future Lost

Overnight, Ed Wilson became the most famous biologist in the United States. He was soon adorned with the usual ribbons of celebrity: appearances on the Today show, the Dick Cavett Show, Good Morning America, and the covers of Time and The New York Times Magazine

In 1977 Wilson won the National Medal for Science. In 1979 he won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for the third volume of his sociobiology trilogy…

A field called evolutionary psychology became all the rage, attracting many young biologists and philosophers who enjoyed the naughty and thrill of being Darwinian fundamentalists. The influence of genes was absolute. Free will among humans, no less than among ants, was an illusion. The “soul” and the “mind” were illusions, too, and so was the very notion of a “self…"

From Wolfe's second essay: Sorry But Your Soul Just Died...

Neuroscience, the science of the brain and the central nervous system, is on the threshold of a unified theory that will have an impact as powerful as that of Darwinism a hundred years ago. Already there is a new Darwin: Edward O. Wilson...

The issue this time around, at the end of the twentieth century, is not the evolution of the species, which can seem a remote business, but the nature of our own precious inner selves...

Neuroscientists involved in three–dimensional electroencephalography will tell you that there is not even any one place in the brain where consciousness or self–consciousness (Cogito ergo sum) is located. This is merely an illusion created by a medley of neurological systems acting in concert. The young generation takes this yet one step further. Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system—and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth—what makes you think you have free will? Where is it going to come from? What "ghost," what "mind," what "self," what "soul," what anything that will not be immediately grabbed by those scornful quotation marks, is going to bubble up your brain stem to give it to you?...

Part 2: Ghosts of Things to Come

Which brings us to the second most famous statement in all of modern philosophy: Nietzsche's "God is dead." The year was 1882. (The book was Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft [The Gay Science].) Nietzsche said this was not a declaration of atheism, although he was in fact an atheist, but simply the news of an event. He called the death of God a "tremendous event," the greatest event of modern history. The news was that educated people no longer believed in God, as a result of the rise of rationalism and scientific thought, including Darwinism, over the preceding 250 years. But before you atheists run up your flags of triumph, he said, think of the implications. "The story I have to tell," wrote Nietzsche, "is the history of the next two centuries." He predicted (in Ecce Homo) that the twentieth century would be a century of "wars such as have never happened on earth," wars catastrophic beyond all imagining. And why? Because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt, since guilt is an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before the age of reason. As a result, people would loathe not only one another but themselves. The blind and reassuring faith they formerly poured into their belief in God, said Nietzsche, they would now pour into a belief in barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods: "If the doctrines...of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal, doctrines I consider true but deadly"—he says in an allusion to Darwinism in Untimely Meditations—"are hurled into the people for another generation...then nobody should be surprised when...brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of the non–brothers...will appear in the arena of the future."…

Nietzsche said that mankind would limp on through the twentieth century "on the mere pittance" of the old decaying God–based moral codes. But then, in the twenty–first, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of "the total eclipse of all values" (in The Will to Power). This would also be a frantic period of "revaluation," in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old. But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not."

Why should we bother ourselves with a dire prediction that seems so far–fetched as "the total eclipse of all values"? Because of man's track record, I should think. After all, in Europe, in the peaceful decade of the 1880s, it must have seemed even more far–fetched to predict the world wars of the twentieth century and the barbaric brotherhoods of Nazism and Communism. Ecce vates! Ecce vates! Behold the prophet! How much more proof can one demand of a man's powers of prediction?

A hundred years ago those who worried about the death of God could console one another with the fact that they still had their own bright selves and their own inviolable souls for moral ballast and the marvels of modern science to chart the way. But what if, as seems likely, the greatest marvel of modern science turns out to be brain imaging? And what if, ten years from now, brain imaging has proved, beyond any doubt, that not only Edward O. Wilson but also the young generation are, in fact, correct?...

Despite their best efforts, however, neuroscience is not rippling out into the public on waves of scholarly reassurance. But rippling out it is, rapidly. The conclusion people out beyond the laboratory walls are drawing is: The fix is in! We're all hardwired! That, and: Don't blame me! I'm wired wrong!...

The notion of a self—a self who exercises self–discipline, postpones gratification, curbs the sexual appetite, stops short of aggression and criminal behavior—a self who can become more intelligent and lift itself to the very peaks of life by its own bootstraps through study, practice, perseverance, and refusal to give up in the face of great odds—this old–fashioned notion (what's a boot strap, for God's sake?) of success through enterprise and true grit is already slipping away, slipping away...slipping away...

The genetic fix is in, and the new message is now being pumped out into the popular press and onto television at a stupefying rate. Who are the pumps? They are a new breed who call themselves "evolutionary psychologists." You can be sure that twenty years ago the same people would have been calling themselves Freudian; but today they are genetic determinists, and the press has a voracious appetite for whatever they come up with…

Where does that leave self–control? Where, indeed, if people believe this ghostly self does not even exist, and brain imaging proves it, once and for all?...

Eventually, as brain imaging is refined, the picture may become as clear and complete as those see–through exhibitions, at auto shows, of the inner workings of the internal combustion engine. At that point it may become obvious to everyone that all we are looking at is a piece of machinery, an analog chemical computer, that processes information from the environment. "All," since you can look and look and you will not find any ghostly self inside, or any mind, or any soul.

Part 3: Meltdown

Thereupon, in the year 2010 or 2030, some new Nietzsche will step forward to announce: "The self is dead"—except that being prone to the poetic, like Nietzsche I, he will probably say: "The soul is dead." He will say that he is merely bringing the news, the news of the greatest event of the millennium: "The soul, that last refuge of values, is dead, because educated people no longer believe it exists." Unless the assurances of the Wilsons and the Dennetts and the Dawkinses also start rippling out, the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase "the total eclipse of all values" seem tame…

We live in an age in which it is impossible and pointless to avert your eyes from the truth...

“[Nietzsche] predicted that eventually modern science would turn its juggernaut of skepticism upon itself, question the validity of its own foundations, tear them apart, and self–destruct…

I suddenly had a picture of the entire astonishing edifice collapsing and modern man plunging headlong back into the primordial ooze.

Part 4: Lux Aeterna (The Eternal Light)

And what is "The Eternal Light?" It's that everything E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Daneil Dennett, and the rest of the "Reductionsts" bullshit.

To quote Heather Manning...

In the last few decades, there has been a quiet revolution in the scientific community – especially in the areas of physics and biology – whereby a growing body of evidence leads to an inevitable and surprising conclusion: it is “rational” to believe in God, and even better, a personal God who has a loving interest in our lives.

Despite the hopes of millions of atheists who hoped that science would eventually destroy God, today there is more “reason” to believe in God than at any time in history.

The Reductionist paradigm is starting to unravel. At the same time, however, those who find a perverse pleasure in Reductionism (the Gamers, for example) will cling to it like dear life itself. They refuse to forfeit the self-confidence that comes with knowing "Da Truth," a "Truth" that justifies their superiority over the proles.

But sadly for them, "Da Truth" is a "Lie." And the only thing left is to give it a proper funeral.


Chuck said...


leaving the reductionism of evolution aside, you're not overturning the truth that you abhor so much...

so if it's the truth, which nietzsche accepts and which wolfe doesn't dispel, should we blind ourselves to it just for the sake of society? that's assuming of course that without "the lie" society and science would unravel.

Todd White said...

CR: "So if it's the truth, which nietzsche accepts and which wolfe doesn't dispel, should we blind ourselves to it just for the sake of society?"

TW: No, of course not. I believe we should always seek the truth.

Luckily, "The REAL Truth" is NOT Reductionism, and thus we can avoid the unhappy fate that Nietzsche and Wolfe forsee.

Chuck said...


but they are offering that the "real" truth is evolution and not theism...

how does that match up with what you've been writing?

Todd White said...

CR: "How does that match up with what you've been writing?"

TW: The Reductionists have been very aggressive in promoting their philosophy as "The Truth." And they don't allow dissent. I read a story yesterday about a candidate for Mayor of St. Petersberg, Florida who's been attacked for doubting Darwinism (which begs the question: What the hell does Darwinism have to do with filling potholes?).

Tom Wolfe is a Reductionist. But he's not mean or aggressive about it. Why not? Because he's honest enough (like Nietzsche) to know how corrosive Reductionist doctrine is to the human soul and society. It is a "Nightmare." But he can't see a way out of it.

Here's where my views come in. Over the last few decades, there has been a quiet schism in science. The vast majority of scientists (90%+) accepted - a priori - materialism as an ideology, and thus, helplessly went along as Reductionists like Wilson, Dawkins, Dennett, etc. reduced human beings to mindless meat puppets orchestrated by selfish genes.

Meanwhile, other scientists - unchained by ideology, eager to follow the facts wherever they go - were chipping away at the materialist edifice until it's reached a point of intellectual collapse. Breakthroughs in physics and biology have shattered the materialist paradigm (I've written about those breakthroughs in previous essays).

And here's the funny thing: Almost nobody knows about them. Why? Because the Reductionists are protecting their naked Emporer. See the story about the St. Petersberg Mayor above.

Even so, more and more people are noticing the Naked Emporer, anyway. This year, James Le Fanu, an Award-winning "mainstream" science journalist, published a book called, "Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves."

Reductionism has been turned upside down. And we are once again left with Mystery. The search for the true nature of man and the universe isn't close to being settled. In a lot of ways, it's barely begun!

And when the search begins in earnest, the "Nightmare" will come to an end.

Chuck said...


"The Reductionists have been very aggressive in promoting their philosophy as "The Truth.""

My experience has been that both sides are overly aggressive in promoting their philosophy. You told me to have fun living in the dark. Auster tried to belittle me on his site by saying my arguments are "junior high" despite the fact that he has yet to answer any of my simple questions.

Likewise, I have been known to be aggressive in promoting my "religion". But who hasn't. But that doesn't speak to the rationality of it all.

Now let me throw this off of you. What is God's morality? where is it found?

This is what I wrote at Mangans:

"You are arguing that HBD and evolution have no authoritative morality. I'm arguing that neither does organized theistic religion. Theists are spread out all over the place about their moral code. If the code isn't absolute even to theists how can you claim that HBD and such have no inherent morality with any authority on the subject?"

If Darwinism is reductionist (I maintain that we have morality ingrained in our natures which we follow thus serving as a code) and theism is reductionist, what basis can you make an argument on?

Todd White said...

CR: “My experience has been that both sides are overly aggressive in promoting their philosophy.”

TW: That depends. First off, who’s the other “side” you’re referring to?

I assume you’re referring to Christian fundamentalists.

If that’s the case, first off, I’m NOT a fundamentalist (and there’s not as many out there as secular people might think). Furthermore, the Christian Fundies have been largely on the sidelines when it comes to interpreting scientific research.

For example, take the Intelligent Design debate. Most Christian Fundies couldn’t care less. Why? Two reasons: First, I.D. is NOT Creationism; it doesn’t say, “Follow Jesus” or “Follow the Bible.” It just says, “There is evidence of an Intelligent Designer, but what is the nature of the Designer? What are His rules, etc? We don’t know.”

Second, the Christian Fundies don’t care so much because they see modern society as hopelessly corrupt and would rather simply have the freedom to enjoy life in their cultural niche without secular interference. Indeed, that’s exactly why the Fundies movement began: It was a backlash against liberal interference in THEIR territory (banning school prayer, abortion on demand, gay marriage, etc.)

CR: “You told me to have fun living in the dark.”

TW: That was unfair of me. Granted, I don’t think you gave my arguments the hearing they deserved, but even so, my rebuttal was juvenile. As such, I apologize.

CR: “I have been known to be aggressive in promoting my ‘religion.’ But who hasn't. But that doesn't speak to the rationality of it all.”

TW: There are different levels of aggression. What we see among the Reductionist leaders - silencing the opposition; stifling any form of debate; mocking those who disagree with them– is an unacceptable level of aggression. It might be acceptable on a sports radio show. But it’s beneath the spirit of science.

CR: “Now let me throw this off of you. What is God's morality? Where is it found?”

TW: That’s going to require a long post. I might not have time to get to it today, but I’ll reply soon. I also owe you a response on Near-Death Experiences. I haven’t forgotten.

Todd White said...

Also, before I respond to your point about Mangan, can you send me the link to that discussion?

Todd White said...

CR: "What is God's morality? Where is it found?"

I think this is a question to which some context is necessary before providing an answer.

First, I think there is wisdom in John 1:1, which is usually translated as, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Actually, what we moderns call “Word” is better translated as “Logos.” “Logos” is the Greek word for "wisdom" or "reason" (see the Wikipedia entry).

Thus, “God is the ‘Reason.’ And the ‘Reason’ is ‘God.’”

You asked, “What is God’s morality? Where is it found?”

Dare I answer: To know God is to know ‘The Reason.’

To quote Ayn Rand: “Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.”

On another occasion, she wrote: “Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice.”

In stating that Life requires “rational ethics,” Rand was revitalizing the vision of Aristotle (a vision affirmed by Christianity, but sadly, rarely practiced).

To quote Aristotle: “The human function is activity of the soul in accord with reason…Virtue ('arete') then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.”

So again: “Where is God’s morality?” It’s both inside us (Reason) and outside us (Logos). And “what IS God’s morality?” There are no moral commandments (as Rand said, a “moral commandment is a contradiction in terms"). Rather, there is only the strong recommendation that one use his rational power at all times to secure the Good: The Good being his own Life. And every goal and value that affirms his life.

Todd White said...

An example of how Christians work to thwart I.D. and promote Darwinism precisely to advance their theology...

"Darrell Falk, one of the key people at Francis Collins’s BioLogos Foundation, has a remarkable piece arguing that Darwinian evolution is the only way to preserve Christian orthodoxy in the face of intelligent design"