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It’s Valentine’s day. Here’s a Valentine’s Social Brain post.

It’s often thought that neuroscience will engender a bleak view of humanity, one where there is no place for the wonders of existence such as romantic love. Well, I want to briefly say that that’s rubbish. Neuroscientists actually study how emotions and reason constantly interact. And unlike philosophers (Aristotle perhaps being the great exception), do not relegate emotions to an incidental role in cognition.

What would a neuroscientific explanation of romantic love look like?

Something like this.

When I look into my lover’s eyes and feel overwhelmed by my love for her, that’s because of hormones swashing through my brain such as dopamine and serotonin. I feel in love because of these chemicals. But what triggers them? Partly animal attraction such as smell and so on. Partly my genes trying to snare me a partner with whom I can reproduce, build a stable and mutually beneficial relationship (so this doesn’t preclude homosexual love). And partly my conscious self talking to and being with her and understanding that she is right for me.

The brain is an information-processing hub and all this information leads to the production of the romantic-love-inducing hormones.

In short, these chemicals are sending me head over heels in love because the information being processed (whether at the unconscious or conscious level) all points to her being right for me.

What’s lost from the traditional view of romantic love on this picture? I can’t help falling for her because my brain is compelling me to do so with hormones. But then, that’s just what romantic love is, isn’t it? Being compelled beyond any rational control to want someone at all costs? And it’s not just animalistic because some of the information being processed, some of the information that leads to the hormonal compulsion, is at the level of self-conscious cognition.

But none of this explains the great mystery: what is the precise formula for chemistry and attraction in any particular case? Neuroscience can only explain the core processes that we all share. It can’t explain in full why I fall in love with a particular person. But then, a little mystery in life is no bad thing!


If there’s one thing I’m learning from running the Social Brain project here at the RSA it’s that human decision-making is not susceptible to a simple one-size-fits-all analysis. This means that any attempt to influence or organise decision-making processes must be fine-grained enough to take into account the specificity of the domain in question.


Chris Dillow comments on how Gordon Brown was enamoured by bankers such as James Crosby whom he took to be dynamic and capable individuals. ‘Brown’s bankers’ were considered to possess a set of skills transferrable to any area of human activity. Got a problem with the NHS? Call in the bankers! Got a problem with ID cards or welfare reform? Call in the bankers!


There is a genuine case to be made for applying techniques and knowledge from one domain of activity to another in order to open fresh perspectives and innovate new practices. There is also a genuine case to be made for utilising the skills of polymaths – people with that rare ability to see the salient similarities between things, but also the subtle differences.


But I think Brown and New Labour – and to be honest, most of the political class, including the Conservatives – have, until very recently, been enamoured by bankers that are neither polymaths nor bringing apt new techniques and knowledge into different areas of government. Yet their skills have been seen as the panacea for all ills.


Brown’s bankers worked to a model of human behaviour – the ‘rational man’ model of neo-classical economics – that does not do justice to the varied and complex nature of decision-making processes. So applying bankers’ insights to every problem means thinking that every problem is constituted by rational self-interested agents that can be brought into some kind of equilibrium. But every problem is not constituted like that. Running a hospital is a very different proposition to running a bank. And the bankers couldn’t even run banks.


But what interests me is not the bankrupt model of ‘rational man.’ It is rather a more general point. If we really want institutional and organisational structures to reflect and be responsive to human capacities, we have to be on guard against a reductionist tendency to generalise models of understanding and practice beyond their appropriate domains. It is this tendency that is the real villain of the piece.


But I wonder if we can ever resist this temptation? Another side of Brown’s Government involves endless committees of experts and technocrats telling us that nothing is as simple as we might have thought. And this also rankles – makes us think everything is too complex to bother with, and that we want our politicians to just get on with leading.


So do we get the reductionist tendency we deserve? Are we incapable of dealing with the complex variety of human decision-making processes?


My own view is that we need more polymaths. For we need the simplicity of applying a general model or philosophy to different domains. But we also need a philosophy that is sufficiently subtle – so not too reductionist – as well as persons sufficiently subtle in their applying of it.