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Greedy reductionism

Greedy reductionism is a term coined in the book Darwin's Dangerous Idea written by Daniel Dennett. The term refers to forms of reductionism that try to explain too much with too little.

To demonstrate: Dennett himself has argued, using reduction, that human consciousness arises from the coordinated activity of the many unconscious components of the human brain. If so, there is nothing to stop us from creating human-like artificial intelligence from a collection of non-intelligent sub-routines. How can Dennett's own reductionistic program avoid the pitfalls of greedy reductionism?

People like Richard Dawkins and Douglas Hofstadter have suggested that for the analysis of complex biological systems, successful reductionism must involve coordinated efforts across a hierarchy of organizational levels.

For example, to make sense of the behavior of a computer you can start with a software program like Internet Explorer. You then try to explain its functionality in terms of the algorithms of the many software modules that were combined and packaged together to make Internet Explorer whole. To explain how those software modules work you could explain how the higher-level software program is implemented in the machine code of an actual computer. To explain the working of that computer you would have to describe the semiconductor and other components of the physical machine and how they execute machine language instructions. Ultimately you can explain those electronic components in terms of their physics.

Greedy reductionism is a good starting point for trying to explain macroscopic systems. In statistical mechanics you can account for the macroscopic properties of gases in terms of molecules and their interactions. But for complex systems there are several hierarchical levels of chunking, organization and description between the physics and a coherent explanation of interesting (macroscopic) behavior. It would be greedy reductionism to try to explain the behavior of your web browser only in terms of the movement of electrons. You may lose useful context. You can try to simply say "its all done with electrons", but a complete explanation must be considerably more sophisticated.

The opposite extreme from greedy reductionism is throwing up your hands and denying that a reductionistic analysis of a complex system can work at all. In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett argues for the reasonable middle ground between giving up on reductionism and greedy reductionism.

See also

Last updated: 02-10-2005 16:27:59
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12