Against Reductionism -- Sightings

Martin Marty takes on the question of science, the mind, violence, moral responsibility in today's Sightings. Consider carefully his thoughts.

Sightings 4/23/07

Against Reductionism-- Martin E. Marty

From the opinion columns and during television comments in the week that has gone by since the Virginia Tech trauma, one apparently minor theme leaped out for further expression of opinion and comment. Admit it: Many topics have been overworked, often by the under-informed. Let me launch into discussion of a topic on which I am at best only partly informed. Call it "scientific reductionism" and "free will." It takes off from David Brooks's apt op-ed in the New York Times on "Where Serotonin Stops and Sin Begins" (April 10). He properly foresaw that there would be legitimate talk about brain cells and adolescent schizophrenia, the inability to process serotonin and consequent depression and hyperaggression.
Brooks does not disdain the story of how, "over the past few decades, neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists and social scientists have made huge strides in understanding why people -- even murderers -- do the things they do." Fine -- this is extremely helpful in approaching killer Seung-Hui Cho and his actions. But the scientific studies have "the effect of reducing the scope of the human self." Now the human is a "cork bobbing on the currents" of "evolution, brain chemistry, stress and upbringing." So there is new doubt about "whether there is such a thing as free will." Brooks says that we cannot and should not ever go back to pre-scientific understandings, but "it should be possible to acknowledge the scientists' insights without allowing them to become monopolists." Somewhere "moral responsibility" has to be reckoned in, if not in this bizarre killer's case, then in so many more.

I'd take off from there to say that the most urgent agenda item on the religion-and-science front is not cosmology (Galileo and all that) or evolution (Darwin and all that). Scientific understandings of the brain, consciousness, will, and responsibility pose tougher questions, also for faith and theology. Reduce humans to the chemistry of neuron firings in the brain, and you have crossed a new line. The human is then "nothing but" this or that. To counter such reduction I learned from an exchange between philosopher Richard Rorty, no raging evangelist, and Steven Pinker, who makes so much -- too much, according to Rorty -- of what the genetic make-up of a human determines. Rorty says that, along with scientific understandings, "a theory of human nature should tell us what sort of people we ought to become."

Rorty: "The books that change our moral and political convictions include sacred scriptures, philosophical treatises, intellectual and sociopolitical histories, epic poems, novels, political manifestoes, and writing of many other sorts. But scientific treatises have become increasingly relevant to this process of change. This is because, ever since Galileo, natural science has won its autonomy and its richly deserved prestige by telling us how things work, rather than, as Aristotle hoped to do, telling us about their intrinsic natures."
That quiet paragraph inserted here into the debates about human nature, responsibility, and action will not go far in addressing the savagely warped mind of Seung-Hui Cho. However, the debates his actions inspired offer new opportunities to revisit old and new theories of human nature, theories where "science" and "faith and philosophy" do well not to exclude each other.

"Why Nature and Nurture Won't Go Away," by Steven Pinker, and "Philosophy-Envy," by Richard Rorty, appear in Daedalus (Fall, 2004). For more information, please visit:

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "From Altered States to Altered Categories (and Back Again): Academic Method and the Human Potential Movement" by Jeffrey J. Kripal. To read this article, please visit:
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


DaNutz said…
I really agree with the statement:

Scientific understandings of the brain, consciousness, will, and responsibility pose tougher questions, also for faith and theology.

I feel this is an important and very promising area of science. However, I really worry that Christianity is going to overreact the same way they did after Darwin began publishing his findings. Christianity needs to once and for all reconcile itself with science and nature. Not on one or 2 issues, but in total. Christians need to stop fighting for "the God in the gaps" because the gap is going to close shut and God will be gone before long if we take that approach.

I disagree when people say:
Reduce humans to the chemistry of neuron firings in the brain, and you have crossed a new line.

Can we stop drawing a line already? This dualistic view that boxes God into a spiritual realm and depends on a "soul" in order to explain our humanity is unhealthy. Why is chemistry a "reduction"? I see this as actually raising (not reducing) humanity by taking time to marvel and understand the wonder of creation (part of which is us).

I would love to hear churches approach neuroscience without running away with their tail between their legs. Why can't we talk about what actually happens to us when we pray or feel "filled with the spirit" or have ecstatic experiences of the sacred. It is ok to acknowledge that this is part of us not something other than us. It is part of how we are wired and everyone from EVERY religion experiences this type of thing. It is not "other-wordly" in a science fiction sort of way. It is natural and that is worth talking about openly even if it means removing the dualistic interventionalist view of God.

Thanks for this post Bob. I hope you are having a great trip at Princeton.
Mystical Seeker said…
I think that Christians who cling to the God of the Gaps are definitely fighting a losing battle, it really misses the point of religion, and it confuses the difference between science and religion.

I don't think anyone has anything to worry about as far as the problem of the mind versus the body goes, though. Scientists and philosophers have been wrestling with this issue for a long time--are we just "Ghosts in a machine", as Descartes said, or is that nonsense, as Gilbert Ryle thought? It seems to me that you can't easily just explain away subjective personal experience by reducing it to brain chemistry and then wash your hands of it. How does subjective experience emerge out of material reality? Or is it at some level integral to material reality? Or is it independent of material reality? (The latter doesn't seem very tenable to me--we know that brain chemistry affects how we perceive the world and how we think.) These are serious questions. I don't think religion needs to be afraid of them, any more than it needs to be afraid of science anywhere else--including, for example, human evolution.
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