Reduction (philosophy)

From Academic Kids

Reduction is the process by which one object, property, concept, theory, etc., is shown to be entirely dispensable in favor of another. For example, we say that chemical properties such as the boiling point of a substance are reducible to that substance’s atomic properties, because we are able to explain why a liquid boils at a certain temperature using only the properties of its constituent atoms. Thus we might also describe reduction as a process analogous to absorption, by which one theory (or concept, or property, and so on) is wholly subsumed under another.

In science, such reduction is generally desirable, because it explains why and how the thing which is being reduced exists, and because it promotes conceptual and theoretical economy. Reducing chemical properties to properties of atoms thus explains why certain substances have the chemical properties that they do, and integrates these properties into a single explanatory framework, that of atomic structure.

We can usefully divide reductionism (the position) into three general areas – methodological, theoretical, and ontological – and reduction (the process) into two – theoretical and ontological.


Types of reductionism

Methodological reductionism is the position that the best scientific strategy is to attempt to reduce explanations to the smallest possible entities. Methodological reductionism would thus hold that the atomic explanation of a substance’s boiling point is preferable to the chemical explanation, and that an explanation based on even smaller particles (quarks, perhaps) would be even better.

Theoretical reductionism is the position that all scientific theories either can or should be reduced to a single super-theory through the process of theoretical reduction. Finally, ontological reductionism is the belief that reality is composed of a minimum number of kinds of entities or substances. This claim is usually metaphysical, and is most commonly a form of monism, in effect claiming that all objects, properties and events are reducible to a single substance. (A dualist who was an ontological reductionist would presumably believe that everything is reducible to one of two substances.)

Types of reduction

The distinction between the processes of theoretical and ontological reduction is equally important. Theoretical reduction is the process by which one theory is absorbed into another; for example, both Kepler's laws of the motion of the planets and Galileo’s theories of motion worked out for terrestral objects are reducible to Newtonian theories of mechanics, because all the explanatory power of the first is contained within the second. Furthermore, the reduction is considered to be beneficial because Newtonian mechanics is a more general theory – that is, it explains more events than Galileo’s or Kepler's. Theoretical reduction, therefore, is the reduction of one explanation or theory to another – that is, it is the absorption of one of our ideas about a particular thing into another idea.

By contrast, ontological reduction is the process of reducing things themselves to one another. For example, it was once believed that life was an irreducible property of objects. An ontology of such properties might therefore have read:

  • extension in space
  • location in space
  • is alive
  • has a soul
  • … (and so on)

All the other properties of an object, such as its shape, color, or mobility are considered to be nothing more than the effects of these irreducible properties. Shape, for example, is a function of in what way the object is extended in space, as is color, since it is determined by how light bounces off a surface, which is in turn determined by how that object is extended in space. We now know, however, that all life forms are alive in virtue of the fact that they are physically organized in such a way that they can reproduce themselves, not because they possess a special property distinct from and in addition to their physical organization. We therefore say that the property of life is reducible to the physical properties of an organism; being alive is simply nothing more than having certain physical properties.

Benefits of reduction

An ontological reduction reduces the number of ontological primitives that exist within our ontology. Philosophers welcome this, because every ontological primitive demands a special explanation for its existence. If we maintain that life is not a physical property, for example, then we must give a separate explanation of why some objects possess it and why others do not. This is more often than not a daunting task, and such explanations often have the flavor of ad hoc contrivances or deus ex machina. Also, since every ontological primitive must be acknowledged as one of the fundamental principles of the natural world, we must also account for why this element in particular should be considered one of those underlying principles. (To return to an earlier example, it would be extremely difficult to explain why planets are so fundamental that special laws of motion should apply to them.) This is often extremely hard to do, especially in the face of our strong preference for simple explanations. Pursuing ontological reduction thus serves to unify and simplify our ontology, while guarding against needless multiplication of entities in the process.

At the same time, the requirements for satisfactorily showing that one thing is reducible to another are extremely steep. First and foremost, all features of the original property or object must be accounted for. For example, lightning would not be reducible to the electrical activity of air molecules if the reduction explained why lightning is deadly, but not why it always seeks the highest point to strike. Our preference for simple and unified explanations is a strong force for reductionism, but our demand that all relevant phenomena be accounted for is at least as strong a force against it.


Here is an example of a reduction from metaphysics. The Bundle theory says that objects can be reduced to collections of properties; so whenever we talk about objects, we can be understood to be talking about bundles of properties. Does this mean that the bundle theory says that objects do not exist? Perhaps not objects as we had thought of them, but the theory is trying to give an account of what objects are; namely, they are bundles of properties. So the bundle theory is not denying that objects exist--just that objects are the same as bundles of properties. The only reason one would have for maintaining, then, that the bundle theory holds that objects do not exist is if you think that, according to our ordinary concepts, something simply cannot both be a bundle of properties and an object.

Philosophers mean about the same thing when they talk about what exists ultimately. For example, the bundle theory says that ultimately, properties and bundles thereof exist, rather than objects. The things that exist "ultimately" are precisely the things to which other things are reduced.

See also: reductionism


The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy


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