The Flatlands of Reductionism

I recall when I was quite young my older brother reading a book called Flatland. It was not until many years later that I finally read it myself. It is a fascinating book about a group of sentient geometric shapes who inhabit a world of only two dimensions. Needless to say, it was a very narrow and reductionistic place to live in.

Edwin Abbott’s 1884 classic provides some telling lessons about those who refuse to acknowledge a world bigger than the one that they perceive. The narrator of the book, a square, is confronted by a sphere from Spaceland, and must try to get his mind around this new phenomena.

He has to re-evaluate his preconceptions about the nature of reality, as he gradually tries to comprehend life beyond two dimensions. Trying to explain to his incredulous and resistant fellow Flatlanders that there may in fact be a third dimension is a trying task. Indeed, any notions of more than two dimensions are considered heretical in Flatland. Like other prophets, he suffers rejection and ends up in prison.

Abbott was a clergyman, and certainly may have had a spiritual metaphor in mind here. But I find the book and its concepts helpful as I deal with the many ideological Flatlanders I encounter, who subscribe to a rigid and narrow philosophical materialism.


You see, the Flatlanders were reductionists. They thought all of reality could be explained in terms of just two dimensions. There is no up and down, only sideways movement. There are many types of ideological reductionism today, which are equally blinkered and straight-jacketed. Consider Marxism, which reduces everything to economics. Or Freudianism, which reduces everything to sex. Or Darwinism, which reduces everything to matter.

All of these reductionist worldviews are examples of what Donald MacKay in 1974 called “nothing but-ery”. This is the idea that life is nothing but… Nothing but sex, or nothing but selfish genes, and so on. And today the main example of nothing buttery is known by various names: materialism, philosophical naturalism, physicalism, scientific reductionism, and so on.

It is a world view that rules out a priori anything which is supernatural or transcendent or metaphysical. The physical, material, natural world is all there is. Matter alone matters.

While many scientists and evolutionists hold to this, it must be said at the outset that it has nothing to do with true science. Real science is at heart humble, willing to seek truth and follow the evidence wherever it may lead. Scientism, on the other hand, is a closed and narrow philosophical ideology, which accepts on faith that there can be no supernatural, no God, no soul, no afterlife, and no spiritual dimension to reality.

It is of course a reductionist position, every bit as ludicrous, constricting and inhibiting as the beliefs of the Flatlanders.

One can explain this in another way. A person born totally colour-blind would say that reality is comprised of only black and white, and shades of grey. Colour would not be part of his reality. But he can admit to it on the testimony of others, and be humble enough to admit that his colour-blindness makes his perception of reality to be quite limited and stilted. Or he can stubbornly insist, against the evidence, that there is no colour. And like a good atheist, he will not seek to prove any of his claims. He will simply argue that there is no colour. He is not a believer in anything, he will say, and will insist that others prove to him that colour exists.

Of course there is no blindness so great as those who refuse to believe.

Atheism’s flatlands

While there are a multitude of recent examples of reductionism, especially of the materialistic variety, let me draw your attention to just one. Writing in the January 19, 2007 edition of Time Magazine, Steven Pinker had an article on “The Mystery of Consciousness”. Pinker of course is a well-known atheist and evolutionary psychologist.

Briefly, evolutionary psychology, socio-biology, and the like seek to apply Darwinian naturalism to the understanding and explanation of human behaviour, mental states, and so on. These theories seek to offer a biological basis for human behaviour and mental activity.

Thus people like Pinker want to explain things such as consciousness from a purely materialistic understanding: all acts of consciousness can ultimately be reduced to neural activity. Pinker admits this does not go down well with most people, because it suggests that there really is no self, no free will, no real “I” behind things. They are in fact illusions, and should instead be understood simply as physical activities.

As Francis Crick wrote back in 1994, “The astonishing hypothesis is that you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Indeed, the evolutionary psychologists not only reduce all mental activity to processes of the brain (the brain is just a machine, says Pinker), but they seek to explain everything – be it religion, God, the soul, the love of music and beauty, and altruism – to mere chemical and biological processes. Thus one researcher could even write about “The God Gene” (Dean Hamer, 2004).

So all morality, aesthetics and our sense of awe and transcendence is really no more than a matter of genetics and biology. Pinker agrees, and claims that “the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul.”

The last line of his article is the most revealing, however. Either he was being quite careless, given his presuppositions, or he could not help affirming something greater than that which is found in his reductionist materialism. He concludes with this line: “I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.”

But a gift presupposes a giver. However there is no giver in Pinker’s godless world. Only indifferent nature. Nature does not give, it just is. It was Chesterton who said that the gift without the giver is bare. And the atheistic materialism of Pinker and his colleagues is both bare and barren. It is a world devoid of meaning, purpose, even of self.

Sure, all of reality can be described in terms of pure materialism. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Gainsborough’s Blue Boy can all be explained purely in terms of daubs of paint on a canvas, but most people are not satisfied with such reductionism, nor should they be.

While genuine scientific explorations such as in the area of neuroscience can offer much of value, the philosophical naturalism which is often wedded to such research as in the theories of evolutionary psychology need to be seriously questioned.

Of course atheists and secularists will want to latch on to anything which will help them get rid of God, religion and the soul. But most people will know that such reductionism is the desperate attempt of those who deny ultimate reality and their own humanity. While flatlanders may be happy with their two-dimensions, those who have experienced more will never be satisfied with such a truncated existence.

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11 Replies to “The Flatlands of Reductionism”

  1. So can Pinker’s notion that all acts of consciousness can ultimately be reduced to neural activity itself be reduced to neural activity?
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  2. I guess in that list of reductions, religion can thus be reduced to faith. A belief without a shred of evidence, but with a warm fuzzy feeling that gives you a soul, an invisible friend and the big bonus: an afterlife.
    Richard Prins

  3. Bill

    An interesting analogy on human behaviour however as you may already know is that you can prove anything with an analogy and it is not a preferred way of proving an argument (just ask experienced debaters). In fact, I could “prove” the opposite using the same analogy by stating that Christians have a closed mind to the wonderful world about them and the way it has formed and evolved over billions of years.

    Actually mentioning “Flatland” reminded me of an episode of “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan in which he used that same example to demonstrate that we as 3 dimensional creatures are as unable to explain what a 4th dimension would look like if one existed as it would be for a 2 dimensional creature to grasp the idea of a 3rd dimension.

    Marius Wytenburg

  4. Thanks Richard

    While I can’t speak for all religions, I can for Christianity. It is far from reductionist. It not only affirms everything in this world (the natural) but it also acknowledges the reality of something more (the supernatural). It was exactly because of the Christian insistence on an objective natural order which could be analysed by reason that modern science arose.

    As to evidence, I have argued in other places on this website for the various bits of evidence one can adduce for the Christian truth claims. It is up to you if you are really interested in truth to explore those claims.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Thanks Marius

    But where in my article do I say I am trying to prove something by analogy?

    As to Sagan, like Pinker, he is a thoroughgoing materialistic reductionist. Thus he cannot appeal to Flatland to make his case. They are the ones denying that reality extends beyond the physical realm, not believers.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. Hello Bill

    You are correct, you were not trying to prove anything. It was perhaps a poor choice of words by myself. Please replace “prove” with “make a point with”. Same goes for the colour blindness analogy.

    “but most people are not satisfied with such reductionism, nor should they be”

    I am certainly satisfied with such reductionism. All things usually have quite simple beginnings. Sometimes people try to read too much into the world about us and can only believe that it must have been created by a supernatural force. When looking for a reason why something exists why overlook the simplest.

    Marius Wytenburg

  7. Thanks Marius

    But I think the fact that so much of the world shows evidence of design and purpose is best explained by a purposeful designer. It is certainly a simpler explanation than the tricks that Dawkins and others resort to when they try to argue that all the marks of design are only “appearances” of design. As Dawkins said, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”

    These arguments that the world may look like it is designed but it really isn’t seem neither simple, plausible nor very intelligent. It instead sounds like special pleading. Which is exactly what it is, because these folk have a philosophical pre-commitment to naturalism and materialism.

    That is why Sir Karl Popper said the theory of evolution is “not testable” but “metaphysical”. And that is why Richard Lewontin was candid enough to admit, “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs . . . because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. Hello Bill

    because these folk have a philosophical pre-commitment to naturalism and materialism

    It does work both ways. Christians look at the world about them from their pre-conceived opinions. From my experiences I believe that athiests tend to look at things more objectively before forming an opinion. I certainly did, and I was brought up as Catholic.

    I wonder the outcome of an experiment where a number of randomly selected people had their minds wiped of pre-conceived opinions and looked at the world as it is today, given the arguments of both sides for it’s existence and made their determinations based on the evidence before them and the possibility of supernatural design. On which side would they fall? I believe I know, which I am sure is contrary to your answer 🙂

    Marius Wytenburg

  9. Thanks Marius

    Yes it does work both ways at times. But that still does not account for the fact that I and so many others left our atheism, agnosticism or scepticism for faith after examining the evidence. Countless individuals throughout human history have embraced faith in general, and commitment to Christ in particular, on the basis of many factors: a gnawing sense of transcendence; dissatisfaction with the idea that this life is all there is; the beauty, wonder and grandeur of creation; our dogged moral sense; examining the Gospel accounts about the life and teachings of Jesus; and so on.

    That is why, for example, a hard-core atheist like Antony Flew finally abandoned his atheism and embraced theism: the incredible complexity, design and purposefulness of the created order convinced him that his atheism was hollow and insufficient.

    I only wish more atheists were as open and honest as Flew, and really pursue the evidence where it leads, instead of slavishly clinging to their commitment to philosophical naturalism.

    And while truth is of course not determined by force of numbers, I would tend to think that more people throughout history have converted from unbelief to faith than the other way around. But even if no one believes in God and the transcendent, that still does not deal with the question as to whether in fact God exists or doesn’t.

    In a similar way, if every one in the world decided today that the law of gravity does not exist, simply believing something is so does not make it so. The question of the reality of gravity is separate from how many people may or may not acknowledge it.

    And I know nothing of course about your Catholic upbringing nor your rejection of it. I do not call you to re-embrace your Catholicism, or any other religion for that matter. But I do ask you to take another look at who Jesus is, without any preconceived opinions, as you say, and see what comes of it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Hi Bill,
    As for “leaving Catholicism” I have yet to meet such a person. Everyone I have encountered who was a proud leaver gave me the impression that they were never there; consequently their claim is a hollow boast. The doctrines of the trinity, Incarnation, eschatology, etc, were beyond their ken. Moreover their understanding of such questions as who am I?, where am I?, What’s wrong?, and what’s the remedy?, was confused.
    Stan Fishley, Melbourne

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