Reductionism and Other Isms

Relativism, Reductionism, Axes, and an Engineering Methodology

Intellectual life at its best is a small group of friends who can understand one another without using a lot of jargon. At it's worst, it is a collection of bad-tempered academics jealously defending their own points of view amidst a bewildering array of "isms": structuralism, functionalism, socialism, capitalism, and so on.

One of the philosophy professors at SFU had a rather nice way of explaining and remembering what each of these "isms" was. He said that you translated the ending "ism" or "alism" as if it meant "the theory that everything is reduceable to ..." and followed it with the first part of the word. So structuralism is the theory that everything is reduceable to structure, functionalism is the theory that everything is reduceable to function, and so on.

This works quite well, if we understand "is reduceable to" as meaning more or less "is determined by" or "is dependent on" or perhaps "should be dependent on", some such expression. It works best when you translate two or three terms for opposing theories, rather than thinking about one term in in isolation. We tend to think of socialism as the theory that the government should take over the economy and employ everyone, and this doesn't seem to come out if we just translate the word socialism by this rule.

But if we take several works dealing with political economy, and compare them, it makes more sense:

individualism
-- everything is reduceable to individual [actions] or everything is dependent upon the individual [or should be]
capitalism
-- everything is dependent upon capital [or should be]
socialism
-- everything is reduceable to social [circumstances] or everything [should be] determined by needs of society [as a whole]
communism
-- everything is determined by the commun[ity]

None of these translations is perfect, but they do help to explain the terms and make it easier to remember what they mean.

Sometimes a simpler translation is adequate: "the theory that everything is". Two important terms which can be explained this way are relativism and reductionism.

Relativism is usually considered as being the theory that everything is relative -- i.e. relative to the point of view of the observer. In physics this a very important concept, whether one is referring to the older relativism of Galileo and Newton, or to Einstein's theory of relativity. But in philosophy and politics, relativism usually refers to the very unpopular theory that moral values are all relative to the point of view of the observer, a theory that has been used to defend the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin.

Reductionism is not so much a theory, as a class of theories, in fact all of the "isms" except relativism seem to be a kind of reductionism.

We can translate reductionism using "the theory that everything is", which we also used for relativism.  If we do so, we get "Reductionism is the theory that everything is reduceable" or we might prefer to say "a theory that everything is reduceable [to ...]".

That's why so many of the other "isms" get translated by "the theory that everything is reduceable to" -- they are all forms of reductionism, they are all attempts to describe everything in terms of one specific thing that they elevate to supreme importance.

Reductionism, in any of its manifestations, is almost the exact opposite of relativism. A relativist would admit the possibility of describing everything from one point of view or in terms of one single aspect, but deny the existence of any uniquely superior point of view.

The story of reductionism versus relativism gets most interesting about the turn of the century, when there was a serious attempt to reduce all of mathematics to logic. It was demonstrated by Gottlob Frege and subsequently by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell that the theorems of arithmetic and geometry could be expressed in terms of a few simple logical terms: "And", "Or", "Not", and "All".

But although the possibility of reducing mathematics to logic seemed to support the general idea of reductionism, there was support for relativism here as well. It turned out that the set of terms usually used in logic was redundant, and that we could dispense with "And" by defining it in terms of "Or" and "Not" as follows:

A and B = not ( (not A) or (not B)).

But here is were relativism seems victorious: it was also shown that we could equally well choose to dispense with "Or", defining it as:

A or B = not( (not A) and (not B)).

At this point, the reductionist response was essentially that neither reduction is quite right, since both use two primitive symbols, not just one. We have to use "And" and "Not", or "Or" and "Not", neither of which is a complete reduction. The reductionist admits that it seems as if the choice of primitive terms is arbitrary, but claims this is because neither reduction is good enough. To reduce it all to a single primitive term, we need to introduce a new concept, which would be the correct reduction.

It turns out that there is such a concept, originally called the "Sheffer Stroke" after the vertical line used to symbolize it. This is more commonly referred to as the "NAND" operator, and its use in NAND-gates in computers is an illustration of how something complex can be reduced to something simple. All of arithmetic and logic done by a computer can be performed by a network of NAND-gates, and so, indirectly, everything a computer can do is expressible in terms of this primitive operation.

But again, the relativists have a case to make: they never denied the possibility of a reduction, only that there is an ideal primitive or fundamental concept or principle. And indeed, there are many other primitive functions which could also be used to construct a computer, most conspicuously the "NOR" function. Some computers have been built entirely with NAND-gates, others entirely with NOR-gates, and some with various mixtures.

If it wasn't for moral relativism, and its use in defending the most abhorent crimes, some form of relativism might be the dominant philosophy today, and I have often found it attractive. One popular argument when I was in school was that of Karl Popper, who argued that a lot of philosophical views were more like languages, rather than theories which could be disproven if false. In his account, Catholic Theology, Communism, and Freud's Psychology were all incapable of disproof because their adherents had a system for explaining away any proposed contradiction, and could discount any evidence against the theory.

A common exercise for young philosophy students (usually posed over beer in the pub rather than by the teacher in the classroom) was this: take some story out of the newspaper or other event and describe it from the point of view of a Catholic theologian, a Marxist-Leninist, or a Freudian psychiatrist. The facts must remain the same, only the language must differ. Not too hard to do: a bank robber is giving way to sinful impulses, striking a blow against capitalism, or a weak superego's surrender to the id, depending on what language you speak.

For the philosophers, showing that one of these "theories" was actually more of a language than a theory was to strike it a death-blow, depriving it of any claim to be taken seriously. But I was among other things a student of linguistics, for which there is nothing more interesting than a language. I was also a nascent software engineer, for whom a language is a piece of software, a tool, to be used when and if it is useful. So I came to value discredited philosophical theories as languages, as software tools for describing and expressing something.

Is that just relativism? Not necessarily. Or at least it is not the strong version of relativism which denies that there is any real truth. I think of a language as a tool for communication of information, but this information must be about something, and can be true or false. I also use the point of view metaphor implicit in much of relativism, but to say that all points of view are equally good seems wrong to me. Depending on what piece of reality you are looking at, a point of view may be good or bad, useful and informative, or not.

This has been a bad century for philosophy, with many professional philosophers arguing that philosophical problems are just linguistic problems, to be dissolved by careful analysis of language. I admit that language causes problems, but I do think there was something out there that traditional philosophers were trying to talk about, however badly they misused language.

There is a tendancy amongst some intellectuals to try and extend the methods by which the modern analytic philosopher has tried to dissolve the whole discipline to the closely related field of political thought. Several people have suggested that all the endless political squabbling is rooted in different vocabularies, or that politicians are talking at cross purposes. I agree, to some extent, so I often talk in terms of political viewpoints, using that wonderful visual metaphor which underlies most relativism.

To me, most politicians and most philosophers are indeed simply arguing the merits of their various points of view. That is to say, there is some reality, some set of facts, some set of problems and possible solutions, and this reality is seen from a particular point of view, from which the whole of it cannot be seen, and certain parts seem larger than others, because they are closer.

Rather than trying to compare what they see, with an aim of finding out what is really there, most politicians and philosophers argue that the best viewpoint is there own, trying to make others see things as they see them. I often imagine the U.S. Capitol building, scene of so many of these futile arguments -- seen from directly above, the huge dome looks like a flat disk, seen from the front steps, the building is a greek temple with no visible dome, but seen from the top of the Washington Monument, the dome completely dominates the building. Yes, one can argue the merits of these points of view. The view from overhead gives the best idea of the size and structure of the building, and although it doesn't show the dome's height, we might point out that nothing of any importance takes place in the high empty dome. But the view from the across the mall shows the grandure of the dome and of the building as a whole: surely this is the best point of view.

But how silly it is to argue about the merits of a point of view. Politics is not a matter of aesthetics; nobody cares how pretty society looks from a particular political viewpoint. People are going hungry, homeless, or jobless, falling into drugs and crime, all intimately affected by what the politicians ultimately do. This is the reality, these very real problems, and the equally real actions taken by government officials in an attempt at their solution. So while the politicians go on arguing about the merits of their particular point of view, the reality is not clearly seen and understood by any of them.

The solution to all of this is probably a methodology such as engineers use in describing a building or any other object to be constructed or repaired. An engineering description of an object is not one drawing, from one point of view, but several drawings, representing several points of view at right angles to one another.

An engineer would use a minimum of three drawings to describe the U.S. Capitol, or any other building: A plan view, showing what the building looks like from overhead; a front elevation, showing what the building looks like from the front; and a side elevation, showing what the building looks like from one side. Since our physical space is three dimensional, this is the minimum number of drawings, the minimum number of points of view required for a barely adequate description of the exterior of a building. If a building is very symmetrical, one side a mirror image of the other, these three view may suffice, but more are often necessary.

One of the most important mathematical concepts of all time is this notion of points of view being at right angles to on another, and it is extended to abstract spaces with many more dimensions than three.

Psychologists often use a 16-dimensional space in which to describe human personality, but the same basic theory undelies it all. The term `orthogonal' is used to mean `at right angles', and a set of lines joining opposite viewpoints are referred to as coordinate axes. Engineers use a set of three orthogonal coordinate axes to describe a building, and psychologists use a set of 16 orthogonal coordinates axes to describe a personality.

Political thought can also be described in terms of coordinate axes. One axis is very familiar: left-wing to right-wing.

This is not the only political distinction, but you could read the popular newspapers for a long time without realizing it. The media plays up the distinction between left and right, as if all politicians could be accurately described by a single coordinate representing how far along the left-to-right coordinate axis is their particular point of view.

Another axis that is easy enough to identify if you study the history of political movements is what I call the "vertical" axis, because it related to expressions for the source and movement of political power. Political power can be "top-down" or "bottom-up".

This vertical axis is really orthogonal to the left-to-right axis of egalitarianism vs. elitism. We can find extreme left wing and extreme right wind authoritarians: Hitler and Stalin come to mind but more typical would be any of their more idealistic followers. Russian communism was an authoritarian left-wing movement, while the various forms of fascism were more or less right-wing elitist movements of an equally authoritarian character.

The other end of the vertical axis is anarchism, which advocates the elimination of hierarchies and political (top-down) power. European anarchism, and the anarchism of European immigrants to the U.S. was left-wing, equalitarian or socialistic anarchism, but the United States had a home-grown form of anarchism, usually called libertarianism, which was individualistic and elitist in tone.

There are other axes as well. Some of them associated with recognizable individuals and movements, others almost invisible.

One of the things I want to do on these pages is describe political and social life from a different point of view, which I think of as being a point on a coordinate axis that is rarely discussed.

The motto of the French revolution, was "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite", or expressed in English, "Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood".

The idea of Liberty roughly corresponds to the vertical axis, authoritarian vs. libertarian, top-down vs. bottom-up, and in fact represents a point of view on that axis, the view from the bottom, so to speak, the viewpoint of a person who rejects authority and values personal freedom.

The idea of Equality is concerned with the left-to-right axis, and represents a point of view from the left.

But what is Fraternite or Brotherhood? To me this is an unfortunate choice of terms, made clearer by the existence of such things as college fraternities and the term "fraternization" used in the interesting phrase "fraternizing with the enemy" which describes what the authorities regard as a criminal act in times of war.

To me what the French call Fraternite is better expressed in English as Friendship. The problem is identifying the coordinate axis it represents. Like Liberty and Equality, Friendship or Brotherhood is one of those motherhood issues, so to speak, on which everyone pretends to agree. But there is still a right-wing and an authoritarian element in modern society, and in the same way there are those who work to minimize opportunities for friendship and make brotherhood impossible. There are people who label others as enemies and eventually lead us to war with them.

At the other end of the scale are people who don't just oppose war but actively seek to promote "the brotherhood of mankind". But the pure form of this activity is hard to distinguish, since humanitarian and peace movements are so often also anti-authoritarian and equalitarian movements.

The key thing to remember about the engineering methodology is the importance of orthogonal axes. Describing a building from any three points of view is better than just describing it from one, but the closer the viewpoints are, the less distinct information each one can provide.

So while appreciating the anti-authoritarian and egalitarian efforts of the humanitarian and peace workers, what I am most interested in is something else, what is unique to the goal of world brotherhood, what is the essence of the problem of friendship.

Liberty makes it easier for people to be friends, and so does equality, but the true core of the problem is that people are different and not just anybody can be your friend. Each person has a personality and temperment which distinguishes him or her from every other person in the world. Finding a complementary or otherwise matching personality to form a genuine friendship, or a sound marriage, or to form a successful team to work together -- that is the hard part.

From the point of view of an anarchist, all social problems arise in compulsion from authority, and the one thing that has to be done to cure society is to eliminate the authoritarian hierarchy.

From the point of view of an equalitarian socialist, all social problems arise in the unequal distribution of goods, and the only thing that has to be done to cure society is to distribute all of its goods and services equally.

From my point of view as a -- what, fraternalist? we don't even have a word for it -- anyway, from my point of view as one of them, all social problems arise in the difficulty of finding compatible friends, mates, and co-workers, and the only thing that has to be done to cure society is to arrange for people to readily meet others they are compatible with.

But, of course, this book is not just for the purpose of arguing my fraternalist position (or whatever it is called.) Instead I am going to suggest the engineering methodology, in which we examine society from many different points of view on many different coordinate axes, compare what we see, and from these various views make plans to fix society and make it work in ways that people from all of these points of view will recognize as better.


Copyright © 1998 Douglas P. Wilson        



Copyright © 2009   Douglas Pardoe Wilson

Other relevant content:

New: Social Technology through Diagrams

New: Social Techs novel online

New: Social Technology Blog

New: Social Technology Wiki

Please see these web pages:

The main Social Technology page.

Find Compatibles , the key page, with the real solution to all other problems explained

Technological Fantasies , a page about future technology

Social Tech a page about Social Technology, technology for social purposes.  I think I was the first person to use this phrase on the Internet, quite a long time ago.


Roughly corresponding to these web pages are the following blogs :

Social Technology the main blog, hosted on this site, with posts imported from the following blogger.com blogs, which still exist and are useable.

Find Compatibles devoted to matching people with friends, lovers, jobs, places to live and so on, but doing so in ways that will actually work, using good math, good algorithms, good analysis.

Technological Fantasies devoted to future stuff, new ideas, things that might be invented or might happen, such as what is listed above and below.

Sex-Politics-Religion is a blog about these important topics, which I have been told should never be mentioned in polite conversation.  Alright that advice does seem a bit dated, but many people are still told not to bring up these subjects around the dinner table.

I believe I was the first person on the Internet to use the phrase Social Technology -- years before the Web existed.

Those were the good old days, when the number of people using the net exceeed the amount of content on it, so that it was easy to start a discussion about such an upopular topic.  Now things are different.  There are so many web pages that the chances of anyone finding this page are low, even with good search engines like Google.   Oh, well.

By Social Technology I mean the technology for organizing and maintaining human society.  The example I had most firmly in mind is the subject of  Find Compatibles , what I consider to be the key page, the one with the real solution to all other problems explained.

As I explained on my early mailing lists and later webpages, I find that social technology has hardly improved at all over the years.   We still use representative democracy, exactly the same as it was used in the 18th century.  By contrast, horse and buggy transporation has been replaced by automobiles and airplanes, enormous changes.

In the picture below you will see some 18th century technology, such as the ox-plow in the middle of the picture.  How things have changed since then in agricultural technology.  But we still use chance encounters, engagements and marriages to organize our home life and the raising of children.  

I claim that great advances in social technology are not only possible but inevitable.  I have written three novels about this, one preposterously long, 5000 pages, another merely very very long, 1500 pages.  The third is short enough at 340 pages to be published some day.  Maybe.  The topic is still not interesting to most people.   I will excerpt small parts of these novels on the web sometime, maybe even post the raw text for the larger two.


This site includes many pages dating from 1997 to 2008 which are quite out of date.  They are included here partly to show the development of these ideas and partly to cover things the newer pages do not.  There will be broken links where these pages referenced external sites.  I've tried to fix up or maiintain all internal links, but some will probably have been missed.   One may wish to look at an earlier version of this page , rather longer, and at an overview of most parts of what can be called a bigger project.

Type in this address to e-mail me.  The image is interesting.  See Status of Social Technology

Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009, Douglas Pardoe Wilson

I have used a series of e-mail address over the years, each of which eventually became out of date because of a change of Internet services or became almost useless because of spam.  Eventually I stuck with a Yahoo address, but my inbox still fills up with spam and their spam filter still removes messages I wanted to see.  So I have switched to a new e-mail service.  Web spiders should not be able to find it, since it is hidden in a jpeg picture.   I have also made it difficult to reach me.  The picture is not a clickable link.  To send me e-mail you must want to do so badly enough to type this address in.  That is a nuisance, for which I do apologize, but I just don't want a lot of mail from people who do not care about what I have to say.


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Copyright © 2009   Douglas Pardoe Wilson