Socrates, Reductionism, and Proper Levels of Explanation

Science — formerly known as natural philosophy — is pretty much the only game in town when it comes to understanding and explaining the world

Figs in Winter
Dec 21, 2020 · 7 min read
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[image: Socrates about to drink the hemlock, Wikimedia Commons; this is essay #257 in my Patreon/Medium series]

Turns out, I have something in common with Socrates. Don’t worry, this essay isn’t about self-aggrandizing. It’s just that, rather surprisingly, Socrates and I have followed a similar career, 24 centuries apart. You see, like myself, he started out as a scientist. And, like myself, he ended up a philosopher, and specifically one interested in ethics. Moreover, the two career moves were motivated in part by a similar shift in interest. Let me explain.

The Phaedo is one of the most famous Platonic dialogues, the one in which we relive the last few hours of Socrates. (Luckily, in that our life trajectories depart, at least at the moment!) He has been condemned by the Athenian assembly, on charges of impiety (believing in the wrong gods) and corruption of the city’s youth, charges brought against him by a trio of shady characters: Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon.

Much of the Phaedo is devoted to Socrates’ ideas about the immortality of the soul, and the dialogue is pretty forgettable in terms of modern philosophy. Except, of course, the poignant end. And the bit I’m about to focus on. Near the end of the Phaedo, before the death scene, we find this tantalizing bit:

Socrates is telling one of his close friends, Cebes, that he began his philosophical investigations as what we would today call a scientist. Just like I did, now almost four decades ago! Indeed, Socrates is made fun of by Aristophanes in his comedy, The Clouds, in part because he is represented as the quintessential natural philosopher (and, ironically, an inveterate sophist), always thinking about abstruse matters of no interest to anyone else, walking around with his head in the clouds. Plato was not happy about such caricature, and in the Apology even suggests that Aristophanes is indirectly responsible for the death of Socrates.

But, Socrates tells his assembled friends, he then changed his mind, in part because he understood that the science of the time was entirely speculative, with no hope of actually finding support for any of the fanciful theories proposed by the pre-Socratics. Thales thought that water was the basic principle of the universe; Anaximenes thought it was air; for Heraclitus it was fire. Parmenides claimed that change was an illusion, while for Heraclitus everything is in flux. And so on. Socrates was initially excited, but eventually the pre-Socratics let him down:

Well, science has certainly improved since the time of Socrates, and scientific hypotheses about the nature of the world have become more amenable to empirical testing. Though there certainly still are untestable theories that only superficially sound better than those of the pre-Socratics, like the notion that there are infinite parallel universes. Socrates left the field of natural philosophy and turned to matters more human, so much so that Cicero famously wrote:

Socrates became interested in the human condition and how to improve it, which is precisely what turned me increasingly toward practical philosophy in general, and Stoicism (a most decidedly Socratic philosophy!) in particular. Part of the reason for Socrates’ new interest lies in the fact that he saw that the pre-Socratics sometimes were spectacularly missing the point. Here is a longish, but crucial, excerpt from the Phaedo:

“[Anaxagoras] endeavored to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have ligaments which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture; that is what he would say, and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is, that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off to Megara or Boeotia — by the dog of Egypt they would, if they had been guided only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen as the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, to undergo any punishment which the state inflicts. There is surely a strange confusion of causes and conditions in all this.”

This is, in my opinion, simply beautiful. What Socrates is commenting on is what contemporary philosophers of science refer to as distinct levels of explanation. Anaxagoras is not wrong when he says that part of what explains Socrates sitting in the cell talking to his friends is the anatomy and physiology of the human animal called “Socrates.” But he is spectacularly missing the point if he thinks that’s the beginning and end of it. Socrates, as opposed to any other member of the species Homo sapiens, is sitting in the cell because he has been unjustly condemned by his fellow Athenians, and this second level of explanation is what really matters, even though it is certainly compatible with, and non contradictory to, the first one.

This sort of Socratic reasoning dispatches of the so-called “eliminativist” approach in vogue among some contemporary philosophers and scientists who are affected by a strange disease known as “greedy reductionism.” The term was introduced by Daniel Dennett in 1995, in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Reasonable reductionism is a major tool of science, and consists in explaining phenomena in terms of their constituent components, at whatever level of explanation happens to be most appropriate for the problem at hand. Greedy reductionism, by contrast, occurs when “in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, [some] scientists and philosophers … underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation.”

Someone whose career is founded on greedy reductionism is “neurophilosopher” Patricia Churchland who, together with her husband Paul, has proposed that a number of concepts in what she dismissively label “folk psychology” will eventually be replaced by more precise scientific language. The folk psychological concept of “pain,” for instance, will be replaced by something like “my C-fibers fired,” since C-fibers are the kind of biological structure that, when activated, mechanistically trigger the sensation of pain. The Churchlands here are confusing levels of explanations. The C-fibers stand to the explanation of my feeling pain when I hit my finger with a hammer in pretty much the same way as Anaxagoras’ talk about Socrates’ anatomy and physiology stands to the explanation of why he is in a cell waiting to drink hemlock. Socrates elaborates:

In the same way, to say that my C-fibers firing is the cause of my feeling pain is a careless and idle mode of speaking, because the explanation doesn’t feature the crucial fact that I just hit my finger with a hammer.

Science — formerly known as natural philosophy — is pretty much the only game in town when it comes to understanding and explaining the world, no matter what you may have heard about “other ways” to know. However, science itself is a tool, with its proper domains of application, and its proper instruction manual. Try to apply it where it doesn’t belong, or in the wrong fashion, and you are simply missing the point, regardless of whether your name is Anaxagoras or Patricia Churchland.

Socrates Café

Making ours, on local and global scales, an inclusive, thoughtful and participatory society.

Figs in Winter

Written by

Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

Socrates Café

Socrates Café on Medium is all about making ours, on local and global scales, an inclusive, thoughtful and participatory society where regular exchanges of ideas and ideals among diverse people take place.

Figs in Winter

Written by

Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

Socrates Café

Socrates Café on Medium is all about making ours, on local and global scales, an inclusive, thoughtful and participatory society where regular exchanges of ideas and ideals among diverse people take place.

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