Scientific reductionism and the mystery of our existence

“Unless you believe in an immaterial soul […] you have to believe that we are matter. And, if we are matter, if we are made of atoms like everything else, then those atoms obey physical laws.”
(Tom Chivers 2010)

Beauty, mystery and science

What is the purpose of science? Finding answers, some would say, about reality and existence. In the more sophisticated words of physicist Sander Bais, it consists in describing “the largest possible part of reality with the fewest possible variables and falsifiable relations between them” (Bais 2010, 154). As biologist Bas Defize puts it, the following questions constitute a scientist’s general appeal: “How does it work? How is order generated from chaos? What forces are at work in nature?” (Defize 2014) – to that end, prevalent scientific method needs to break down matter into parts; a car is a wheel is a tyre is rubber is latex, and so on.
This “empirical reductionist doctrine” (Bais 2010, 154), which will consecutively be discussed in detail, leads to one of the big controversies of contemporary discourse on the role of science: Does reductionism result in the abolishment of the mystery of existence? In his lecture, Defize gives an example which illustrates the relevance of this issue: The observation of birds‘ flocking behaviour leaves an impression of natural beauty, elegance and mystery. How can birds possibly do this in such a perfect, seemingly effortless manner? Still, a scientist can explain this logically on the basis of simple variables and rules (Defize 2014).
What is meant by the mystery of existence? As human beings, people tend to ask themselves who they are, what they are, and where they come from. Throughout mankind’s history, many possible solutions have been proposed by religion as well as science. Most people, however, do not dare to give clear answers – scientists on the contrary try to get as close to an answer as possible. In order to get as close to an answer to the effect of reductionism on the mystery of existence, this essay will first deliver definitions, then apply them to the example of neuroscience and, ultimately, draw conclusions from what has been argued.

Reductionism versus holism

In order to gain a better understanding of the scientific attempt to reduce our world “to its constituent elements” (McLeod 2008), a definition of reductionism will be given at this point. Reductionists, driven by investigative parsimony, basically act on the assumption that “the simple is the source of the complex” (McLeod 2008). Therefore, proper research needs to focus on the minimal part in order to approach the whole – relations between, for instance, the screw and the shelf, the leaf and the forest or the atom and the matter are emphasised.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia, the different spheres of this view can be expressed in three main subdivisions: “Ontological reduction”, “methodological reduction”, and “epistemic reduction” (Brigandt, Love 2012). While “ontological reduction” brings down biological factors to being identical with corresponding “physico-chemical processes”, “methodological reduction” refers to a presumptively higher investigative outcome when research is conducted “at the lowest possible level”, something which is done when, for example, cell components are studied in order to gain comprehension of something as remote as a behavioural phenomenon (Brigandt, Love 2012).
However, the latter category – “epistemic reduction” – is of main interest to this paper. In this category, the Stanford Encyclopedia distinguishes between “theory reduction”, the logical deduction of one to another theory, and “explanatory deduction”, in which “higher level features” are represented by “lower level features” (Brigandt, Love 2012). Correspondingly, complex events, behaviours and organisms are studied through the analysis of simple causal variables. This means that reductionism builds on a deterministic tenor: If one assumes that studies on the brick explain the building, it is implicitly presupposed that, mutually, the building is determined by the brick.
As indicated by McLeod, reductionism tends to lack validity in this context, as the brick is definitely one causal factor of the building, but it does not represent the building sufficiently. Instead, more holistic features such as architectural design, construction planning and the building’s steel framework should be considered for a complete explanation of its nature. As opposed to reductionism, holism allows an “interactionist approach” (McLeod 2008) concerning the relations between interpreted subjectivities.
What implications does reductionism deliver towards the mystery of existence? Often, a scientist has to question his beliefs and aims, his drive for practising science, and answer questions such as: Is a living being unique or replaceable? Does individuality count more than complexity? As explained above, one of the main principles of science is to find out truths about reality. This is realised by subsequent discoveries, added up cumulatively from one “paradigm shift” (Bais 2010) to another. Discovery, or dismantlement, is understood as a deconstruction of complexities into defining features. These flexible features then represent the laws of nature. In this sense, reductionism can be seen as a quite coherent approach – it might overlook characteristics of an entity in its wholeness, yet it does not need them, as this wholeness is rather seen as a product of the particles.

Reductionism in contemporary neuroscience

Results of behavioural research have reawakened the heated debate around free will and determinism. One of the maybe scariest contributions to the reductionist discourse has been made by neuroscientists: More or less frequently, new frightening results have come up, such as one in 2013, in which scholars showed that “eye-tracking can indicate which choice the consumer prefers […] even if he or she still feels unsure” (Rengarajan, 2014). Out of this discourse, three main premises, which are especially in line with the aforementioned concept of “ontological reduction” (Brigandt, Love 2012), can be itemised.
First, it is taken for granted that the effects of neurotransmitter molecules can encode reflexes, movements, sensory perception, or even associations such as reward or punishment. Second, so-called neuroplasticity in synapses – their physical up- and down-regulation – helps understand learning and memory processes. Third, neurological outputs – such as event-related potentials or blood oxygenation responses, measured through EEG or fMRI – correspond with brain activity during particular experimental tasks and thereby allow the location of behavioural initiation.
All three premises imply, at least to a limited extend, the existence of a certain deterministic force that drives or influences us to do what we do, feel the way we feel, think the way we think. However, as US philosopher Adina Roskies points out, it remains “difficult to figure out how to measure” human intentions “objectively” (Roskies 2010). Admittedly, “the neural bases of many aspects of decision-making are well understood and can be mathematically modelled” (Roskies 2010); yet, this yields a reduction towards understanding underlying mechanisms, not necessarily does it deliver a direct causal chain of reasoning.
Why can the reductionist character of neuroscience not been taken as an immediate representation of human output? There simply is no straightforward evidence, in two ways. On a methodological level, neuroscience greatly relies on correlative measurement technologies which do not prove more than correlation. As, for instance, in fMRI based BOLD-response measurement, blood oxygenation (X) rises, an increased amount of neural activity in a selected part of the brain (Y) is observed. This certainly makes some kind of a relationship between X and Y quite probable – but does it tell us any more than this? No, it could still rather be coincidence or synchrony.
Furthermore, on an argumentative level, neuroscientific reduction lacks determining power in equal measure. When a group of scientists in 2008 presented the results of a research project on motor intention, their audience reacted with surprise: They had measured neural activity seven up to ten seconds “prior to awareness” and therefore concluded that “prior brain states […] can influence or bias decision-making” (Roskies 2010). Although findings like this seem to support the idea that human beings are but zombies, succumbing to their neuro-chemical composition, hasty conclusions are of little help. It appears more expedient to combine such results with other related factors, including external ones, in order to obtain a more complete picture of what makes people behave the way they do.

With or without the mystery?

Neuroscience, among other disciplines such as molecular biology or quantum physics, discloses the microscopic mechanisms which existence is made up of. In that respect it can be concluded very well that science indeed abolishes the mystery of existence by delivering pragmatic descriptions and explanations of particles, origins, functions. Nevertheless, at least two problems come up which put limits to the complete abolition of the sense of mystery.
Firstly, the centuries-old opposition of emotion and reason suggests that, in defiance of all rational calculability, there will always be a certain amount of irrational feeling, impression, passion in the way of an absolutely cleared view on existence. Poetry, for instance, can be analysed, schematised, and neuroscientists might even calculate emotional reactions to it – yet, all these findings will not keep one from appreciating poetic beauty and experiencing it emotionally. In the same sense people are able to understand the logics behind birds‘ flocking behaviour (Defize 2014), but observing this phenomenon will still take one’s breath away.
Secondly, there are striking limitations to individual as well as collective scientific capacity. Finding out about truths remains a privilege for well-educated people which is why “few of us will ever understand the cutting edge of a field such as physics because it requires so much advanced mathematics; we must take it on trust” (Burkeman 2013). Access to scientifically acquired knowledge can therefore not be taken for granted or even guaranteed for everyone; a controversial problem frequently discussed under the name of “scientific illiteracy” (Netterfield 2014). Anyhow, even a Harvard astrophysicist will hardly be able to gain the deep insight into the field of sociology his colleague from the faculty of Social Science has obtained. Countering attempts of universalism are annihilated by banal factors such as time and life span – one might never know the whole truth.
In the end, the mystery of existence is not only a dubious belief in uncertainty or even supernatural powers. It is also, in a positive sense, what makes us question our perception of the world around us, and therefore could be considered a counterbalancing, compensating force resulting from our need to feel what we deal with. Therefore, scientific reductionism remains restricted by human subjectivity, emotionality and tendency toward speculative ambiguities. This irresolvable coexistence reveals the necessity of a progressive parallelism of reduction and what is called mystery.


  •  Bais, Sander. 2010. In Praise of Science: Curiosity, Understanding, and Progress. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

  • Bechtel, William and Richardson, Robert. 1998. Vitalism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge.

  • Brigandt, Ingo and Love, Alan. 2012. Reductionism in Biology, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from

  • Burkeman, Oliver. 2013. The Guardian: Has David Birnbaum solved the mystery of existence? Retrieved from birnbaum-jeweller-philosopher

  • Chivers, Tom. 2010. The Telegraph: Neuroscience, free will and determinism: ‚I’m just a machine‘. Retrieved from determinism-Im-just-a-machine.html

  • Chivers, Tom. 2010. The Telegraph Blogs: Neuroscience and free will. When definitions become important. Retrieved from will-when-definitions-become-important/

  • Defize, Bas. 2014. Science. UCACCACA11: Research in Context. University College Utrecht. 4 November.

  • McLeod, Saul. 2008. Reductionism and Holism. Retrieved from

  • Netterfield, Tatiana. 2014. The Triple Helix Online: Scientific Illiteracy. An Analysis of America’s Silent Epidemic. Retrieved from silent-epidemic/

  • Rengarajan, Vasudha. 2014. The Triple Helix Online: The Neuroscience of Design. Eye-tracking studies predict consumer choices. Retrieved from predict-consumer-choices/

  • Roskies, Adina. 2010. How Does Neuroscience Affect Our Conception of Volition? Annual Review of Neuroscience 33: 109-130. Retrieved from

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