How often have we been subjected to the "scientific reductionist" account of the world? Mention any topic and it isn't long before some post-modern "thinker" (in quotes for a reason we shall discover below) comes along to tell us what such-and-such experience or object "really is." One famous example is love - the strongest human emotion, one which motivates us to do things we never would otherwise contemplate, such as sacrificing even our own lives. To the Christian, indeed I might say to the sane man, and certainly to all "pre-post-modern" men, love was the highest ideal, the supreme lasting virtue1, that which "moves the sun and the other stars2" even that which is the essence of the All High God.3
C.S. Lewis, in his essay, "Meditations in a Toolshed4,"eloquently describes love thus,
A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant he is, as they say, “in love”.
Which he immediately contrasts with the "reductionist" view of love,
Now comes a scientist and describes this young man's experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man's genes and a recognised biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it.
"Looking at" versus "looking along" is the essential distinction Lewis makes in "Meditations in a Toolshed" and is one which we find essential in describing anything in the world (as we'll see in a moment). The reductionist, in Lewis' terminology, is "looking at" love. The lover is "looking along" it. Lewis goes on to describe the difference between the two ways of "looking" by describing the first as "looking from the outside" and the second as "looking from the inside (or experiencing)" something, here love, something most of us are probably familiar with experiencing from the inside.
Although most of us are much more familiar with experiencing things ("looking along / looking from the inside") than we are with "looking from the outside" at things, the second method of describing reality has somehow5 managed to "brow-beat" (to use Lewis' word) the first method of description into total submission. Mind you, the second method (reductionism) hasn't intellectually defeated the first (and indeed can't, as we'll see in a moment), but it has gained a snobbish clout with which it simply dismisses the first view out of hand.
This a priori dismissal leads the reductionist to sneer at the lover who thinks his beloved is the most precious person in the world. Sneer and say something silly like, "love is chemically the same as eating lots of chocolate" or, to quote an atheist I recently spoke with,
I don't see love as an extension of something supernatural, I understand emotions, in general, are my brain processing chemicals released from stimuli. It isn't romantic and might seem cold to think of it that way, but that's fine.6
It may or may not be "fine;" I'm more interested in if it's true. As is Lewis. What's particularly interesting in the comment from the atheist is that he feels compelled to continue on past his reductionist definition of love,
I don't think of it that way... in the moment. I experience the emotion and love my family.7
Which brings us right back to the distinction Lewis is making between "looking at" (the materialist-reductive view of emotions) and "looking along/ experiencing." So even those wedded to a reductionistic view of the cosmos still must admit its being at odds with our experience of the same. The post-modern mind automatically concludes the real view is the "external" one, but no proof is offered. Why ought we conclude the scientist, looking at the brain of a lover, is more qualified to offer a definition of love than the lover himself? Why should "looking at" be so privileged to "looking along?" Why should the first account given by the atheist be favored to the second, to the actual experience of love "in the moment?"
Not only is no proof given, but, returning to Lewis, there is a fatal flaw in the whole reductionist enterprise, a flaw which not only makes it impossible for the reductionist to disprove the experiential view of reality, but which requires those parenthesis around "thinker" above. Suppose we have a lover who runs into a neuroscientist on the street corner. The man is so enamored of his new love that he cannot help but tell this stranger about her. With a short snort the neuroscientist replies that love is merely the "brain processing chemicals released from stimuli" and walks off to the next corner. There he happens to run into another neuroscientist who he relates the encounter to. This second neuroscientist yawns disinterestedly and comments that the first neuroscientist's thoughts on the matter are themselves merely the "brain processing chemicals" which just as throughly, in the reductionist view, debunks our first neuroscientist's thoughts as he debunked the lover's. This second neuroscientist can meet a third who responds the same to his thoughts and feelings on the matter, who can in turn meet a fourth, ad infinitum. As we can never be "outside" of all experiences, all of our thoughts, can always be reduced away to "mere chemical reactions" if we accept materialism. In this view, we aren't really thinking any more than we are loving. It would all equally be an illusion created by chemical reactions. But, if our thoughts are "debunked" in this way, then the thoughts that lead us to a materialistic worldview themselves would be disproven. Meaning the "scientific reductionist" account of the world disproves itself and thereby proves itself false.
That doesn't mean we ought to drop scientific explanations for things entirely, of course. That would be to fall into the opposite error. Rather, to account for reality as it is, we must listen to both the lover (who "looks from the inside" of love) and to the scientist (who examines it "from without.") We can't tell from some general principal whether the view from the inside or the view from without, or both - in different ways, or neither, are correct. We can't, as has been done for too long now, privilege material and efficient causal explanations at the expense of formal or final ones. We can't reject our experience of reality for something that fits into the scientific method more neatly from the outset. We must do the hard work of actually thinking. We must awaken from our post-modern intellectual prison to see the world as it is. In that way we must make the same mental journey Eustace did in Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when his materialist worldview was challenged by meeting a retired Narnian star.
"In our world," said Eustace, "a star is a huge ball of flaming gas."
"Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.8"
Realizing our tendency to confuse what something is made of with what something really is (confusing something's matter with it's essence) is a necessary first step to moving away from reductionism and into realism. One which Lewis helps us take.
1. 1 Corinthians 13:13, " But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love." (ERV)
2. "L'amor che move il sole e altre stelle." Alighieri, Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXIII (from The Divine Comedy
3. 1 John 4:8, "He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love." (ERV)
4. Originally published in The Coventry Evening Telegraph (July 17, 1945)
5. That "somehow," of course, has to do with the movement in philosophy, beginning with Roger Bacon and reaching it's apotheosis with René Descartes, to reduce all explanations to material or efficient causes, ignoring formal and final causes, as an attempt to make philosophy "more scientific." The failure of this program is evident from the absurd conclusions reductionism leads to.
6. From a conversation on my Google+ page
8. Lewis, C.S., The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 14.