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The logical fallacy of Reductionism is a type of metaphysical fallacy that is similar in some ways to the fallacy of Composition. However, unlike the fallacy of Composition, Reductionism attempts to explain the whole as nothing more than the sum of its parts. As Peter Kreeft explains, “Its most usual form is the reduction of form to matter.”¹ Hence Reductionism confuses the metaphysical form of something with its material components, or attempts to explain a complex system by reducing it to its simpler parts. As such this fallacy often appears with the phrase “nothing but,” hence the more informal name of the fallacy: “Nothing Buttery.”
For example, after watching the movie Passion of the Christ, someone might say, “This movie is nothing but a bunch of blood, torture, and violence.” Even though the movie does in fact contain these things, it also may include a great deal of significance and meaning that are lost by such a crude description. Even if one dislikes the movie for these reasons, the film itself cannot be so easily explained or dismissed by simply reducing it to its more offensive elements. In short, someone may reply that there is indeed more to Passion of the Christ than blood, torture, and violence!
How to Spot the Fallacy
Spotting this fallacy is not especially difficult, but it does take a practiced ear. First, there is a sense in which some complex things are in fact reducible to their simpler parts, such as “this trail mix is nothing but peanuts, pretzels, and chocolate chips.” However, the fallacy occurs whenever the thing in question is considered fully explained or dismissed simply by the sum of its parts—as if the thing as a whole required no further explanation. In the “trail mix” example, there is nonetheless a further need to explain the existence of the trail mix itself—the specific quantities of each ingredient and how and why they were assembled as they were to create the unique taste that it has. This explanation requires a chef or a recipe, for example—neither of which is explained by “peanuts, pretzels, and chocolate chips.”
In order to better spot this fallacy, whenever you hear or read a phrase like “nothing but” or “nothing more than” in an argument, this should immediately raise a red flag. While not all uses of these phrases are guilty of Reductionism, it can nonetheless be a sign that the fallacy could be at play. In short, pay special attention to whether or not some complex thing is being “explained away” by pointing out its simpler components.
Furthermore, note that this logical fallacy is quite common in our materialistic culture, and it often shows up specifically within this context. Materialism itself claims that all of reality is physical and is ultimately reducible to matter and energy. It should be no surprise that given an assumption of materialism, the fallacy of Reductionism sometimes runs rampant. Here are some examples which may help to illustrate some common uses of this fallacy:
“The universe is nothing but a collection of atoms in motion, human beings are simply machines for propagating DNA and the propagating of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.”² Richard Dawkins here commits the fallacy of Reductionism twice, once by reducing the universe to “atoms in motion” and again by reducing all living things to “machines for propagating DNA.” Of course there is much more to the complexity of life and the universe than the sum of their basest parts, such as why these parts are ordered and function as they do and what causes them to be as they are.
“Morality is nothing more than personal feelings and opinions.” This common claim of postmodern relativism does not adequately explain the sense of real objective morality that all humans share. Even though morality does sometimes match with our personal feelings and opinions, this does not fully account for morality as a whole.
“Morality is nothing but a bunch of leftover remnants of natural selection.” This is yet another common claim of morality that does not match with our innate sense of objective moral values, and even though natural selection may seem plausible to explain some aspects of morality, it does not explain them all. For instance, natural selection struggles to explain our sense of obligation to support the sick and disabled at the cost of those who are healthy and able—much less general principles of charity, altruism, and human rights in general.
“The mind is nothing but a series of chemical and electrical impulses in the brain.” This claim is common of materialists, who deny that anything (including intelligence and reason) can exist apart from certain physical components. This claim is difficult to defend because the mind in fact exhibits a great deal of complex functionality that is entirely absent from the properties of the atoms in the brain. But even if it were true that all knowledge and awareness resulted from “chemical and electrical impulses,” this still would come no closer to explaining the mind itself and why and how those base material components are ordered as they are to produce an accurate knowledge of reality in humans as they do.
“. . . at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father.”³ In this quote, Sigmund Freud “reduces” the human concept of God to nothing more than a creation of the mind to resemble one’s human father. However, Freud’s explanation grossly oversimplifies the case for God and does not take into account a great deal more knowledge about God that theists often claim—much of which has virtually no resemblance to a human father (such as God’s infinity, necessity, simplicity, transcendence, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.).
With these examples in mind, remember to take special notice when you encounter phrases such as “nothing but” or “nothing more” in both yours and others’ arguments. Remember that the “whole” usually has unique characteristics and properties distinct from its parts, and thus it requires its own explanation. Do not be tempted to reduce some complex things to a sum of its components, lest you fall victim to “Nothing Buttery” and collapse your argument into this sneaky and deceiving fallacy. After all, this very article is indeed more than just a jumble of words and punctuation, right?
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- Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles, 3.1 ed., ed. Trent Dougherty (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), 109.
- Richard Dawkins, BBC Christmas Lectures Study Guide (London: BBC, 1991), quoted in John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion, 2009), 56.
- Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Sages and Neurotics, trans. Peter Gay (New York: Norton, W. W. & Company, 1990), 182.