How do we understand reality? Throughout the history of science the philosophy of reductionism has shaped our materialist interpretations of reality. The philosophy of reductionism suggests that the simplest and most fundamental description of nature (or a system) can be understood by analytically ‘reducing’ it down to its most constitutive elements. For example, if we want to know the ‘nature of the universe’ we should first understand what the universe is made of at its most basic level of operation.
From the time of the ancient Greeks, materially minded figures of consciousness, like Democritus, Lucretius and Epicurus, have embraced various reductionist forms of philosophy. Indeed, it was Democritus who first coined the term atom and the philosophy of atomism to describe the logical structure of the fundamental constituents of nature thousands of years before they were empirically verified.
In deploying the philosophy of reductionism we have been able to qualitatively improve our understanding of nature to a mind bending degree. How could it possibly be that such a simple idea could allow our species to develop a universal interpretation of our world? As the late great physicist Richard Feynman said, the reductionist philosophy of atomism contains the most knowledge of the world in the shortest possible description (Rovelli 2016, chapter 1):
"What statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis, or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it, that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence you will see an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied"
And indeed, this must force us to confront the inverse of Feynman’s prescient statement: how is it that tiny atomic constituents of nature combine together through attraction and repulsion in such a way that they are capable of producing the staggering complexity of the world around us? And even more intriguing: how is it that that tiny atomic constituents of nature combine together through attraction and repulsion in such a way that they are capable of being conceived and (eventually) reflected by an internal intimate space of conscious awareness?
The first question is what we could bracket off as the question of complexity science. Complexity science focuses on the relations of materiality that are of a qualitatively different order then what can be reduced to constitutive elements. As physicist Philip Anderson suggested (1972), adding on to the ancient mantra of “the whole being more than the sum of its parts” with the insight that “the whole is not only more but also different then the sum of its parts”. In other words, it may be true that the universe is made of atoms -- “little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another” -- but it is also true that when these little particles move around across time, somehow, we get planets, bacteria, elephants, and human society.
The second question is even more difficult and one that we could bracket off as the question of transcendental philosophy. In transcendental philosophy we focus on the fact of interiority, of the fact that materiality is always already being sensed and conceived by a conscious form of subjectivity. For transcendental philosophy we can never escape this strange loop of subjectivity, we can never get into the real of materiality without always already being a form of subjectivity. In that sense, we appeal to the great idealist philosophy Georg Hegel who realized that the Absolute reality was not only substance (the realm of atomic movements) but also subject (the reflection on atomic movements).
Thus, in our philosophy we aim to conceive all levels: the physics of movement, the complexity of our world, and the internal intimacy of subjectivity. In this matrix we move our minds in a way that is true to its own structure, in a loop from the inside to the outside, from the outside to the inside, always returning to ourselves with new world-understanding that translates into self-understanding. We hope that our philosophy is capable of integrating these worlds of physics, complexity and subjectivity without losing precision and without losing clarity and without losing insight.
Indeed, the common reductionist refrain in relation to ‘holistic’ complex analysis or ‘subjective’ transcendental reflection is that one cannot make real progress in understanding reality unless one is willing to simplify to the base level of interaction. Our response to such a subjective disposition is that it is a subjective disposition, one possible subjective disposition in a field of dispositions that form our cosmos. In that sense, we are willing to simplify to the base level of interaction, but we assume that this base level of interaction is constituted by forms of consciousness. Perhaps, then, we could take Feynman’s prescience and invert it as a transcendental gesture:
“What statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the conscious hypothesis, or the conscious fact, or whatever you wish to call it, that all things are framed by consciousness -- forms of subjectivity that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other in discursive agreement, but repelling a complete conceptual merger into the other. In that one sentence you will see the informational foundation of the world, as structured by applied imagination and thinking.”
In this playful demonstration of the power of transcendental thought, we believe we can make progress in our understanding of reality, first through self-questioning, first through recognizing that the location of desire for understanding, always already starts on the intimate inside. As you will find throughout our work, our physics is grounded in the relation between subject and object and the transcendental constitution of the object; our complexity theory is grounded in the internal psychology of the subject and the experienced reality of the social; and our philosophical speculations are grounded in meta-reflective engagements with all knowledge. That is how we aim to understand reality.
- Cadell Last
Anderson, P.W. 1972. More Is Different. Science, 177, 4047, p. 393-396. DOI: 10.1126/science.
Rovelli, C. 2016. Chapter One: Grains. In: Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. Penguin.