Reductionism is killing us because it’s killing our conversations. It’s killing open, receptive dialogue. It’s polarizing the nation, even the world. For our part, we have to start identifying and assaulting reductionism whenever it crops up in our conversations.
I hate conflict. And it’s not just a hatred that festers into frustration; it has bodily symptoms: a tightening throat, shortness of breath, increasing heart rate. I’m sure it’s related to my anxiety, but it appears to run deeper than that. It’s a Matthew 5:9 reaction, a visceral response to discord, a response that seems mysteriously rooted in the heart of God. I don’t know how else to explain it.
But this can make it tough to live in our world, since we have so very much conflict these days, over COVID and climate change, politics and personal freedom, meaning and morals. But beneath all that conflict, there’s a disease. It’s what we might call a mental disease: reductionism.
So, what is reductionism? It sounds like one of those academic terms that’s too abstract to be of any use. But that’s part of its danger. It’s quite simple to break down, but to do that, I need to tell you where it came from. Are you ready?
Satan. There. I said it. I’ll give you a minute.
Reductionism is the stepchild of our desire for mastery (complete control), which emerged from the ancient evil of autonomy, and autonomy comes from the heart of the father of lies (John 8), Satan. I realize I’m making things harder for myself by continuing to introduce terms that may not be widely understood. I’ll pause. Autonomy is “the idea that you are a law unto yourself.” In other words, it’s the idea that you’re completely and utterly independent. Here’s how John Frame puts it:
Sinners at heart do not want to live in God’s world, though they have no choice about it. They recognize the truth to some extent, because they need to get along and to make a living. But they would very much like the world to be different, and often they either try to make it different or pretend that it is. In the unbelieving fantasy world, the Lord of the Bible does not exist, and man is free to live by his own standards of truth and right. In a word, the unbeliever lives as if he were autonomous, subject only to his own law. Nobody can be really autonomous, because we are all subject to God’s control, authority, and presence. But we pretend that we are autonomous; we act as though we were autonomous, in the unbelieving fantasy world.
John M. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, p. 22
Satan, you’ll remember, wanted to be completely independent, like God. He wanted to be autonomous. And he convinced Adam and Eve that this was worth a shot in the dark. In fact, it ended up sending them into the dark. It sent them into a lie, because no one can be autonomous except God himself.
Now, if you’re trying to be God (despite the laughable futility of that), what do you want to do? You want to master your life. You want full control. The thing is, you can’t have that…you know, because you’re not God. You’re limited by nature. That’s how you and I were made. But we’re so stubborn that we don’t accept limitation. We refuse to think we can’t master our own lives. So, within what Frame calls the fantasy world of autonomy, we chase after mastery, and when we can’t get it (again, we never will get it), then we pretend to have it with…reductionism.
I promise we’re getting closer to the definition of reductionism now. If we can’t master our lives, then we can simplify them and make it seem as if we’re in full control. We can reduce the complexity of our own lives, the people in them, and the problems that surround us. We can take, in other words, an issue or person with a thousand dimensions and pretend that there’s only one dimension. That’s reductionism. Put differently by my friend and teacher, reductionism happens when people “reduce the world to one dimension of the whole…But reductionism is poverty-stricken, not only in its threadbare endpoint consisting of only one dimension, but also in its explanatory power” (Poythress, Redeeming Philosophy, p. 111).