I always assumed that reductionism was an inherently materialist/physicalist point of view: If one believed that everything can be reduced to the fundamental laws of physics, then by implication, they only believed in the existence of the physical.

But I realize there might be flaws in this reasoning.

Can one be a reductionist, in the sense of believing that everything can ultimately be explained by a basic set of fundamental laws, while also being a dualist or an idealist?

Has anyone held this position?

How would a set of fundamental mental laws or dual substance laws be any different from physical laws? If an idealist reductionism is as atomistic as a physicist one, then how is it any different? Would it have to include intention and teleology?

Would a reductionist idealist claim that everything reduces to psychology?

  • All pure idealists are complete reductivists. But they are assuming the physical reduces to the mental. Leibniz and Berkeley obviously suggest everything reduces to mental laws. If this is an answer, is that the question you meant? Because it seems too obvious.
    – user9166
    Mar 21 '16 at 17:40
  • @jobermark : See my edit. I guess the gist of my question is that if idealist is reductionist in the same that a physicalist (everything breaks down to some dynamical laws of fundamental units - isn't this what Leibniz believed?) - then it is just a mirror symmetry of the physicality view - and is more of a semantics game than any real ontological difference. Mar 21 '16 at 18:28

'Monadologies' like that of Leibniz, or the simplified form of Whitehead's Process and Reality, and virtual pantheism like Berkeley's model of God, reduce the physical to the mental rather than the other way around. The reason is that they seek to allow for the rules themselves to come into being for a reason, and not to be arbitrarily dictated by some pre-existing substance.

If one is a physicalist, then one always seems to seek a more basic physics to explain why the observed laws of nature are as they are. We reduce Newtonian dynamics to quantum dynamics and quantum dynamics to String theory, and derive the properties of a string from the quantum foam and the nature that gives space, ... But in each case, there are arbitrary rules left, which appear to come from nowhere. This flips the question on its head: Can one ultimately be a materialist if one is really a hard-core reductivist? Or does that lead to an infinite explanatory regress?

In contrast, if one is a pure-enough idealist, one can blame the current state of the laws of nature upon a decision made by some mind, or negotiated between some set of minds, and imagine how they might have been different, or might become so. We do not seem to object to arbitrariness if we can put a face on it, especially if the arbitrary decisions are not final. The evident stability of the current set of rules is then blamed upon the wish for the minds not to alienate one another, or traced to some hierarchy of minds or convergence toward agreement that produces a deciding or harmonizing force.

  • "The evident stability of the current set of rules is then blamed upon the wish for the minds not to alienate one another" - I like that way of looking at it Mar 22 '16 at 0:00
  • It always hit me that it took a real German's German (Leibniz: a lawyer and the diplomatic advisor of an elector) to propose the basic structure of the world is maintained through politeness alone.
    – user9166
    Mar 22 '16 at 13:35
  • Just a small correction from a physics point of view: We do not reduce Newton dynamics to quantum dynamics. We have substituted Newtons laws with General Relativity. We would very much like to find a common framework for General Relativity and quantum theories like Quantum Electrodynamics and Quantum Chromodynamics - but from an experimental/empirical standpoint, there is nothing we can do. The 'naive' experimentel way that has been used so far would require unpractical amounts of energy. Jan 4 '20 at 19:52

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