The Limits of Reductionism in the Life Sciences

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 33 (4):453-476 (2011)
  Copy   BIBTEX


In the contemporary life sciences more and more researchers emphasize the “limits of reductionism” (e.g. Ahn et al. 2006a, 709; Mazzocchi 2008, 10) or they call for a move “beyond reductionism” (Gallagher/Appenzeller 1999, 79). However, it is far from clear what exactly they argue for and what the envisioned limits of reductionism are. In this paper I claim that the current discussions about reductionism in the life sciences, which focus on methodological and explanatory issues, leave the concepts of a reductive method and a reductive explanation too unspecified. In order to fill this gap and to clarify what the limits of reductionism are I identify three reductive methods that are crucial in the current practice of the life sciences: decomposition, focusing on internal factors, and studying parts in isolation. Furthermore, I argue that reductive explanations in the life sciences exhibit three characteristics: first, they refer only to factors at a lower level than the phenomenon at issue, second, they focus on internal factors and thus ignore or simplify the environment of a system, and, third, they cite only the parts of a system in isolation.



External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server

Through your library

Similar books and articles

COMPARING PART-WHOLE REDUCTIVE EXPLANATIONS IN BIOLOGY AND PHYSICS.Alan C. Love & Andreas Hüttemann - 2011 - In Dennis Dieks, Wenceslao Gonzalo, Thomas Uebel, Stephan Hartmann & Marcel Weber (eds.), Explanation, Prediction, and Confirmation. Springer. pp. 183--202.
Reductionism and the mental.Martin Bunzl - 1987 - American Philosophical Quarterly 24 (2):181-9.
Is the brain a memory box?Anne Jaap Jacobson - 2005 - Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 4 (3):271-278.
Precis of Philosophy and Neuroscience: A Ruthlessly Reductive Account. [REVIEW]John Bickle - 2005 - Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 4 (3):231-238.
Resisting ruthless reductionism: A commentary on Bickle.Tim Bayne & Jordi FernÁndez - 2005 - Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 4 (3):239-48.
Supervenience and Reductive Physicalism.Erhan Demircioglu - 2011 - European Journal of Analytic Philosophy 7 (1):25-35.
Two Cheers for Reductionism.Matthew R. Silliman - 2006 - Social Philosophy Today 22:59-70.
From reductionism to reductionism.Fred L. Bookstein - 2000 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23 (4):534-534.


Added to PP

1,673 (#5,736)

6 months
295 (#6,909)

Historical graph of downloads
How can I increase my downloads?

Author's Profile

Marie I. Kaiser
Bielefeld University

References found in this work

Thinking about mechanisms.Peter Machamer, Lindley Darden & Carl F. Craver - 2000 - Philosophy of Science 67 (1):1-25.
The Structure of Science.Ernest Nagel - 1961 - Les Etudes Philosophiques 17 (2):275-275.
Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy.Sandra D. Mitchell - 2009 - London: University of Chicago Press.

View all 17 references / Add more references