Reductionism in New Atheist Thought

Ted notes: In his first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins announced his central thesis
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Thanks, Steve and Ted for these continued, thought-provoking essays.

I too am fascinated by the concept / phrase “nothing buttery” as it has applied to reductionism, and while it is easy to critique it in the New Atheist movement (and I do critique its manifestations there) it is also cause for me to reflect on how deeply that has permeated into our culture (including our Christian cultures) at large. As a teacher of the physical sciences I engage in some amount of this same mentality while carefully circumscribing limits to it obviously – but maybe still unconsciously wielding it in unwarranted ways.

One easy critique is that it does seem to be a heady kind of arrogance to presume that “this explanation stands alone”. I.e. --there can be no other valid explication on or commentary about the subject; all other pretensions to such must be dismissed as woo, or at best held only tentatively until it can achieve validation within the reductionist’s paradigm (if it ever does).

On that note, I am fascinated by proofs that do achieve this heady goal of ruling out that infinitely wide field of “everything but…”. I know we can do this with inductive proof in mathematics, such as showing that there is no rational square root of 2 (and isn’t a matter of nobody being able to find one – but a positive proof that such a thing does not exist to be found). I can understand how this works mathematically (albeit with some necessary postulates in place). But on the scientific front this does not seem so approachable to me. My example in mind (pertinent to the topic at hand) is Bell’s theorem (of which my understanding of its workings is nearly zero --not for lack of trying!) If I am to take others at their word, however, this theorem allegedly shows that there can be no “local hidden variables” that prove adequate to explain QM. Now ruling out one known variable seems an approachable target in principle – but ruling out an unknown quantity of undiscovered variables? Doesn’t that smack of a “nothing buttery” approach that QM can be “nothing but” ontological randomness within its realm of applicability? If so, that would seem to be a scientific validation for at least one “nothing buttery” type of assertion. It just seems similar to me to NASA announcing that it has concluded there are no teapots orbiting anywhere beyond earth’s orbit in our solar system, and that they have now proven there are no teapots anywhere else in the entire universe. To which most of us would respond: “huh?!”

Dr. Snobelen quotes the Oxford chemist, Peter Atkins, putting a reasonable ‘face’ to reductionism–at least it might well seem reasonable to youngsters contemplating science as a career. Atkins further publications (e.g. "The limitless Power of Science) also appear enticing. He is quoted thus: “We need to encourage society to escape from the grip of religion and superstition, and to allow the human spirit liberty. We should respect the awesome power of human brains, especially when those brains work in collaboration with optimism. We need to encourage, especially these days, the full flowering of the Enlightenment, the apotheosis of the Renaissance.” [My emphasis]

For my Adult Confirmation classes, I preferred this quotation from his book, “Time and Dispersal”: “We have looked through the window on to the world provided by the Second Law (Carnot Thermodynamics), and have seen the naked purposelessness of nature. The deep structure of change is decay; the spring of change in all its forms is the corruption of the quality of energy as it spreads chaotically, irreversibly, and purposelessly in time. All change, and time’s arrow point in the direction of corruption. The experience of time is the gearing of the electrochemical processes in our brains to this purposeless drift into chaos as we sink into equilibrium and the grave.”

This can be taken as an optimistic (???) World View that results from scientific reductionism. Any takers???
Al Leo

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[quote=“aleo, post:3, topic:35654”][quoting Atkins]
“We have looked through the window on to the world provided by the Second Law (Carnot Thermodynamics), and have seen the naked purposelessness of nature."

This is an interesting statement from somebody who no doubt intended it for a polemic dig. Is Atkins purposely observing that nature has no purpose? Just where did he expect anything called “purpose” might reside? Was somebody studying gravity or any other law and hoping they might find the law demonstrably has its own will, much less purpose? I have a purpose when I use a paper weight to hold down papers. But it would never occur to me to think that it was gravity itself somehow shares in my purpose as if it could want anything. Distribution of purpose is precisely as follows: me: 100%; and gravity: 0% … same as any other law one could name.

What was Atkins thinking as he wrote that? Or was he thinking at all?

Peter Atkins is considered as one of the most gifted teachers of thermodynamics in recent times. However, when he tries to extrapolate the concepts of Free Energy, and especially of Entropy, to matters outside the material world (or even outside of planet earth), he gets in ‘over his head’. Not unusual for modern atheists.
Al Leo

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I have a couple of comments, Mervin.

First, you mention that “we can do this with inductive proof in mathematics”; I think you mean to say “deductive proof.” While there are techniques called “induction” in mathematics, they are of a different character than the inductive reasoning typically associated with the natural sciences and are ultimately deductive arguments.

Second, I would like to offer a simplification of the so-called CHSH game as an analogy that may illustrate Bell’s theorem, and why it is not a “nothing buttery” approach to quantum mechanics. Indeed, Bell himself was inspired by Bohmian mechanics, an approach that is completely deterministic and lacking in “ontological randomness.”

Suppose that we have two players, Alice and Bob, and a referee, Ron, and that we are investigating whether mobile phones can really be used to transmit signals (of course we know that they can, but play along). To do this, Alice and Bob will play some number of rounds of the CHSH game. Before each round begins, Alice and Bob are permitted to meet with each other to agree on a strategy and exchange information. They are then moved into separate vaults completely isolated from each other, but are allowed to take their phones with them. In this analogy, the phones represent Alice and Bob sharing an entangled pair of quantum bits.

Ron then flips a coin labeled X and tells Alice the outcome of the toss, and flips a coin labeled Y and tells Bob the outcome. Alice only knows the outcome of X and Bob only knows the outcome of Y. Alice and Bob then simultaneously give a response to Ron in the form of a number that is 0 or 1.

If either of Ron’s coin tosses landed on tails, then Alice and Bob win the round if their responses match; that is, if they both answered 0 or both answered 1. If both coin tosses were heads, then they win if their answers are different. Otherwise, they lose the round.

It is not too difficult to see that if the mobile phones didn’t actually work, then Alice and Bob are reduced to deciding on some strategy (which may change from round to round) before they see X and Y, and since neither sees both X and Y, they can win with probability at most 3/4. The best strategy is to choose to both answer 0 or 1, regardless of what the coin tosses are. In other words, a win rate of 3/4 or less is consistent with only “local communication” between Alice and Bob.

On the other hand, if the mobile phones do work, then Alice and Bob can simply share the results of their coin tosses with each other and agree on what responses to make, and they can win with probability 1.

Therefore, if Ron carries out this experiment by playing many rounds of the game, and sees that Alice and Bob are able to exceed the “local communication” win probability of 3/4, then he can be confident that “nonlocal communication” is occuring between the mobile phones, and can conclude that no explanation that depends on only local communication between Alice and Bob can be correct.

It is not determinism that Bell’s theorem eliminates, but locality. It was this nonlocality that occurs in the EPR paradox that Einstein especially objected to and hoped to patch via some kind of “hidden variable” approach that salvaged both determinism and locality. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good discussion in the article on Bohmian mechanics.

Arthur Eddington pointed out that recognising entropy depends on an entirely subjective human judgement on what constitutes a more ordered or a less ordered state… and, of course, a subjective judgement on which direction the arrow of time is actually going in.

Such judgements can only be based on a sense of purpose against which to judge the universe, which shows there must be some purpose in the world to form that sense.

Ignoring human subjectivity, all we can really say is that the universe appears to be going consistently towards one goal, rather than wandering about aimlessly in terms of entropy. We might not like its goal, but it clearly has one (or a choice of two, depending on which way round the buniverse sees the arrow of time - either Heat Death, or a Big Bang!).

I understand about the subjectivity in deciding “which direction” the time arrow points. What is not subjective, though, is the measurement of the entropy that happens in its particular direction (what we call the forward direction since it matches our apparent movement through time) which has bearing on how or if reactions proceed in that same direction.

It is an interesting thought experiment to me to imagine the reverse situation to the proverbial water drop that diffuses itself through the hydrosphere (the alleged one-way arrow). And yet that same drop had (years earlier) been itself scattered all over the hydrosphere, but all those scattered molecules were working their way forward, no less through time to an inexorable union with each other into that very rain drop that is to be. The only difference being it can’t be predicted in advance where as the dispersing objects could in principle be tracked and observed if we troubled to mark them. So it is only a matter of perspective when we insist that “shattered vases” do not magically come together (so to speak) like a backward playing movie.

But Merv - is there some objective way of saying that a shattered vase is less organised than a complete one? I know I usually think it’s bad news if I drop a vase and it shatters, but if I were an alien wanting to make that perticular configuration of pottery pieces from a vase, it would be just as hard a job as putting the pieces back into one again.

Yesterday I changed my guitar strings, and some nice person in America had done useful work and coiled them into a neat round shape contained in a plastic wrapper, an orderly situation in which they crossed the Atlantic and half of Britain. Now that packet’s all ripped, the strings are all wrenched apart and held at different tensions, and that state of disorder was just what I called a good job of work.

Thanks for that story – I always appreciate those stories to help facilitate my own further understanding. So the “cell phones” between the quantum entangled particles actually do work (at faster than light speed) I take it? I’ll have to think on this some more, and take your suggestion to read up on the Bohmian mechanics you suggest.

Regarding inductive proof – I actually did mean what I said. But my example wasn’t a good one; (the irrational square root of two proof I had in mind is actually proof by contradiction). What I should have used as my example could have been something like this: the sum of the cubes of all positive integers up to n is equal to the square of the sum of all those same integers. The proof (and it is a full proof!) that this works for all positive integers is indeed an inductive one.

Good question – and I take your deeper point, I think. The answer I believe is that there are many more possible shattered configurations for the vase than there are whole-vase ones. So only by making each individual shattered configuration an equivalent to the one whole one can we begin to equivocate between the objective status of these different states compared to each other. Perhaps there is subjectivity in that assessment, but chemical reactions can either be spontaneous or not on how the entropy is changing --and that doesn’t stem from any objective decision.

Are you making a distinction between the concept of “disorder” as beheld by the human mind and the concept of a measurable quantity we call entropy?


Probably best to quote Eddington - he it was who first described “the arrow of time” in relation to thermodynamics, and then immediately sensed its mystery in relation to the human mind. First an outline from Wikipedia:

Eddington then gives three points to note about this arrow:

It is vividly recognized by consciousness.
It is equally insisted on by our reasoning faculty, which tells us that a reversal of the arrow would render the external world nonsensical.
It makes no appearance in physical science except in the study of organization of a number of individuals.

And now a passage from the final section of The Nature of the physical World:

The direction of time’s arrow could only be determined by that incongruous mixture of theology and statistics known as the second law of thermodynamics; or, to be more explicit, the direction of the arrow could be determined by statistical rules, but its significance as a governing fact “making sense of the world” could only be deduced on teleological assumptions. If physics cannot determine which way up its own world ought to be regarded, there is not much hope of guidance from it as to ethical orientation. We trust to some inward sense of fitness when we orient the physical world with the future on top, and likewise we must trust to some inner monitor when we orient the spiritual world with the good on top.


Regardless of the ultimate end point of the Universe, within the lifespan of individual galaxies, if not of individual solar systems, gravity seems quite adequate to the task of temporarily countering entropy: clouds of gas form stars, and stars create new elements through fusion. And when some starts explode in violent death throes, even more new elements are created … which become the material for yet another kind of solar system.

and @Jon_Garvey

It is now accepted that entropy is the indicator of time. Thinking this through indicates to me that this is false.

For instance the a most basic example of a system is the water cycle, where water begins as water, evaporates into vapor droplets, cools off and consolidates into clouds, and then falls to earth as rain and from there the cycle starts all over again. To be sure the sun plays an i9mportant role in providing a source of power (with gravity) for this system, but this is the way natural systems work.

If we take the broken vase as our model we are not using a natural system, but an artificial one. Science is not based on artificial or human systems. As far as I can determine time runs only in one direction. Science has tried to find a way to make it run backward, but has failed.

Time, past, present, and future, along space, and matter/energy, are the basic aspects of nature. That means that they cannot be proven or disproven, but just are. The Bog Bang is the beginning of all three, matter/energy, space, and time, which were created from nothing.

If there was a beginning, there will be an ending. That which came out of nothing will disappear into nothing. Even though science seems to bear this out, it cannot be proven, because it cannot be tested. This is time’s true arrow.

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It is fun to attempt to think these things through. Try this thought experiment on for size: if time were to speed up, slow down, or even back track for a bit in the other direction, how would any of us know? Since our time pieces and perceptions would presumably speed up or slow down with it?!

That’s a new one for me. Is that when all the swamps were created?

A physicist, a biologist, and a mathematician were sitting at a cafe watching people come and go from a house across the street. First they see two people go in. Then later they see three people come out. The physicist comments, “that measurement couldn’t have been accurate.” The biologist concluded: “they must have reproduced”. The mathematician’s conclusion? “If one more person goes in, the house will be empty.”

The question of the day for me, Roger, is: Is “nothing” really nothing?

Yes, nothing is nothing if there is no time, space, and matter/energy. Please note that we now know that times, space, and matter/energy are interdependent.

Of course God is not a thing and God can exist outside of all these aspects of Reality. Humans cannot except in heaven.