Reductionism in Memetics

Paul Marsden (
Thu, 21 Jan 1999 10:46:16 -0000

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: "memetics" <>
Subject: Reductionism in Memetics
Date: Thu, 21 Jan 1999 10:46:16 -0000

>It's not that reductionism is WRONG, it's just that it's not always USEFUL.
>Emergent systems become largely independent of the substrate from which


They are utterly, completely, totally *dependant* on them, and any
that does not take them into account is a mere tautology.

Before we consign reductionism to the rest of scientific method we are
having such fun jettisoning in this post-modern orgy, just a couple of
thoughts from a reductionist.

When we say reductionism is not always useful - that is quite obvious, I do
not need to engage in reductionism to go about my everyday life; positing
shorthand rules of thumb, heuristics and good tricks for interacting with
others is a lot more useful. But the utility of reductionism depends on
what you are doing. In science, reductionism is the cornerstone of method
because it is what explanation is all about, and you throw the
methodological baby out with ontological bathwater at your peril. We have
all read Kuhn, or should have, and ontology is not the issue here, it is one
of the nature of method and explanation. Its all very well to say that the
object of memetics is alive and well, and positively radiating emergent
properties - but unless you explain those properties you are building
castles in the sky.

It is imperative to distinguish between ontological and methodological
reductionism. The reductionism of science is not dogma (as certain brands
of anti-reductionism are), it is methodological. The scientific method
tries to explain as much of a phenomenon by making the fewest and simplest
assumptions possible, at the lowest possible level of organisation possible.
Any residual may then be explained away or more in terms of emergent
properties to be explained later. But whatever the features of the those
emergent properties they cannot *violate* what is known about the level from
which it emerged. This doesn't preclude the existence of other supernatural
phenomena, merely that science is impotent in these domains. If memetics
cannot be conceptually integrated with science, it is not science. But,
hey, who wants memetics to be a science anyway, when we've got
post-modernism and all the understanding and utility it has provided us

Methodological or explanatory reductionism is the scientific method -
complex wholes must be explain in terms of their parts; now that does not
imply a one:one relationship between levels, or that the properties of a
complex whole are simply the sum of the properties of the parts (that would
be just as idiotic as simply claiming emergent levels by shifting the stance
to one from a cloud in the sky) simply that explanation involves explaining
emergence not positing it. Let's have ,as Rob Clewley, suggests emergence
without magic.

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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