In “Is Naturalsm Bleak and Hopeless?” I said:
It turns out that if naturalism is true, then everything that exists is the result of interactions between fundamentally mindless, purposeless things, like matter and energy. Your mind is indeed incredible, but it is also fully and entirely an arrangement of fundamentally mindless and purposeless atoms that don’t think for themselves or have goals — your ability to think and have goals is a result of these interactions. This part of naturalism is called reductionism.
I then went on to discuss how that being made of meaningless, purposeless, mindless things does not mean we are meaningless, purposeless, or mindless. But now we want to know something further: how exactly does this reductionism work? How can a whole have a different characteristic than the parts?
Meaning in the Whole
While we may not think about it that often, parts very frequently have characteristics that the whole doesn’t have. For instance, each part that is used to construct a car is not capable of driving — only the car, as a whole, has the characteristic “able to drive”.
Each brick that is used to construct a house is not capable of sheltering you from the elements — only bricks put together in a sufficient quantity and in a certain way will create a whole that can shelter you from the elements properly.
This shows that smaller, simpler things like bricks can come together and form more complex things in certain arrangements: mechanical parts can be arranged into cars and bricks can be arranged into houses.
Consider this arrangement of a yellow circle, a black square, two black circles, two black lines, and a black curve.
But wait. That’s not just a yellow circle, a black square, two black circles, two black lines, and a black curve. Well, yes it is. Except it isn’t. Except it is. Confused?
Well, we notice that it is a mere arrangement of shapes. Except that’s more than a mere arrangement of shapes. That’s a smile! And it’s more than a smile! It communicates something by eliciting an emotional response, and in this response we find meaning. We recognize the smile as more than a mere arrangement of shapes.
We find something that clearly did not exist before, something that is bigger than the sum of the parts, something that is more than an arrangement of shapes. We found meaning and significance. What just happened? There is nothing that was physically added to the shapes to make them into a smile.
Was it supernatural magic? Did God endow that arrangement of shapes with the ability to turn into a smile? What is the difference between a smile and an identical arrangement of shapes that isn’t a smile?
What’s different? It’s the same exact shapes, just in a different arrangement. Nothing was removed from the previous picture, yet something clearly happened. The smile went away. But I didn’t subtract anything. Maybe reordering something takes away the magic dust that gives things meaning?
It turns out that something different is going on — something that doesn’t involve the smile at all. This something is happening in our brains. It turns out that the existence of a human observer can see the arrangement of shapes that makes a smile and match it to another arrangement of shapes the human face. The human brain also recognizes the human face as something that is valuable. This connection to value is then brought back to the arrangement of shapes. The arrangement of shapes is then deemed a “smile” by the human mind and given meaning. Presto!
As soon as you break up the pattern by rearranging the shapes, the meaning is gone. No pattern match can be done to anything valuable and therefore the meaning is gone. The meaning isn’t something intrinsic in the shapes themselves, but in our recognition of the significance of their arrangement. This pattern match gives something what we call meaning.
The Use of Abstractions
As I wrote about in “The Origin of Truth”, our languages are abstractions of things we experience. It’s really a good thing we do this, because if we had to talk about every single object and event as a specific one and did not generalize, we would be unable to communicate. Instead, we can forgive subtle differences between objects, events, and experiences and talk about groups of similar objects, events, and experiences. Every time we see something with four wheels, at least two doors, and some windows that has the capability of fast motion, we can call it a “car”. It works a lot better this way.
We also have the ability to subgroup by combining one group with another group. Within car, we can form groups for “fast car” and “slow car” by combining with our definition of speed. We can form “green car” and “red car” by combining with our definition of colour.
It gets a bit more confusing when we also have the ability to imagine a car that doesn’t really exist. However, the car we imagine actually does exist as a firing of neurons in our brain. Obviously it is nothing like a car that we see in reality, which is made of physical mechanical parts. However, it is similar enough in perceived looks to get categorized with all the other cars, and be defined as “car”.
This “exist-doesn’t exist” conflict arises because the word “exists” is also an abstraction. We say things things like love exist only in our mind, because that’s where we’ve come to expect love to be. Though things like cars don’t exist when they’re only in our mind because that car doesn’t fit with the properties we’ve come to expect from cars, like the ability to actually get in them and drive around. We’ve all agreed as users of language on the meaning of “exists”, but like in the “sound” example, philosophers tend to mess things up.
The Meaning in the Mind
So where is meaning coming from? Meaning clearly is in our mind. Meaning is an abstraction — a pattern that is recognized between a bunch of similar arrangements. I mention what an abstraction is in more detail in “Introduction to the Machine” under the naturalist theory of definitions.
Why is the first smile important to us and the second smile is just a meaningless arrangement of shapes? It’s because we, as users of language, have decided what has meaning and what does not. Only the first smile fits in the pattern of abstractions called “faces”. This pattern is associated with another subgroup of emotions, and we derive the “happy face”, which makes us feel happiness and thus assign the first smiley face a positive value.
Fitting in the pattern is important. We interact a lot with faces. They form the basis for communication and are clearly important. This gives the entire pattern of faces significance to us. We can then connect the smile to this larger pattern and derive significance. Meaning is an emergent phenomena resulting from our psychology.
Meaning is also a very clever adaptation. If we were unable to recognize meaning, we would have more than just dispair and lack of purpose. We wouldn’t be able to understand anything at all! We wouldn’t be able to live! Our entire survival is based on the ability to interpret photons hitting our eyes at certain wavelengths, each individually arising from a different yet similar reflection off of atoms and recognize the object as a whole. Oh, that’s a tiger! It’s coming toward me! I better run away!
How Things Reduce
On the most thorough and most basic level of analysis, you really aren’t looking at a “car”. You’re looking at photons hitting your eyes, the photons having been reflected off of atoms moving around. These atoms just so happened to be grouped in molecules through various types of bonds, which can combine with other molecules to form certain structures, which are put together to become parts, which all fit together to eventually become a car.
So when you look at the car, you could ask “if the car is just the sum of atoms, where is the car?” But this is akin to saying “if the sandwich is just the sum of the cheese, meat, and break; where is the sandwich?” We use a representational model; an abstraction to say “this is a tire, which is a part of a car”, when in reality the tire itself is also made of many further parts, such as rubber molecules (called polyisoprene), which is in turn made out of sulfur atoms, which is made out of sixteen electrons, sixteen protons, and sixteen neutrons, which are made out of…
Reductionism is this idea that everything is made out of arrangements of large amounts of these basic elements, whatever they be — strings, quarks, or other types of “matter-energy”. We may not know how far the universe truly reduces, or if there ever is an irreducible unit, but we do know that “car” is not an irreducible unit.
Everything we know can be reduced further.
Lost in Reduction?
Is reducing the car the same as saying the car is an illusion? Is saying the car is made of an arrangement of atoms the same as saying there is no car at all? Of course not. The car is quite clearly there — the car is just the term given to that unique arrangement of basic elements.
The same is true for us. We can still have relationships despite being arrangements of matter-energy because the relationships are quite clearly still there — we just know what the relationships are made of. Our relationships are similar to cars and sandwiches, made up of many parts, but still containing a meaningful whole.
Those who suggest that something is lost in reductionism are suggesting that the car is not an arrangement of parts, or the smile is not an arrangement of lines, or the sandwich is not an arrangement of ingredients, but requires some sort of extra oomph to make the parts into a whole. Us reductionists are saying that the parts make a whole, with no extra oomph needed.
An explanation of something does not make it any less beautiful or less meaningful. Nothing is lost in the reduction.
Editor’s Note: This is an updated, reposted, and retitled revision of a previous post.
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