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John Byl bio


On Michael Ruse and Reductionary Illusions 

Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology Vol. 2 No.1 (Sept. 2001): 26.

John Byl, Ph.D.


Michael Ruse's defence of reductionism (see the issues of February and May, 2001), though very vigorous, is rather ironic. Ironic, because his arguments for reductionism seem to work, if at all, only within the framework of a rather full-blooded dualism.


Consider, for example, his assertion that "morality is a collective illusion of humankind, put in place by our genes in order to make us good co operators" (May, p.32). This statement seems to be self-contradictory. If morality, with its concepts of good/bad and right/wrong, were an illusion, then so, it would seem, is the notion of genes tricking us into becoming "good" cooperators. This notion, conveying value, motivation and purpose, has strong moral implications even if the adjective “good” was perhaps not here intended in a strictly moral sense. Consequently, the alleged purpose for morality - to make us "good" cooperators - is itself an illusion.


Furthermore, what are we to make of Ruse's numerous references to "good" and "bad" science, philosophy and religion? Surely he does not seriously believe that he is communicating mere illusions? Yet, if Ruse believes his statements to have genuine, valuable content, then he must reject his own claim regarding the illusion of morality. Indeed, Ruse certainly writes as if he, at least, is not deceived by his genes. Hence, presumably, morality is not an illusion after all. But in that case Ruse is still left with the perplexing reductionist problem of how to derive a moral "ought" or "good" from a naturalist "is".


Ruse is driven to drastic claims such as the above by his professed commitment to ontological and methodological reductionism. These entail that all his beliefs, as well as his sense of personal identity, purpose and free will, are mere illusions caused by his genes (or brain neurons). At least, that's where he seems to end up in his book "Evolutionary Naturalism".  However, if all our beliefs are illusionary, then so is the belief that our beliefs are illusions caused by genes. How, then, does Ruse explain and justify his beliefs?


Moreover, Ruse, throughout his writing, constantly refers to his conscious self ("I know", "I think", "I worry", etc.). He publishes various arguments aimed at persuading us to change our minds. His actions and assertions clearly presuppose such things as conscious free agents that causally interact with matter, meaningful communication of ideas via language, objective logical and moral standards, and an underlying purpose. Such notions are consistent with the world of anti-reductionism - particularly theism - but hardly with Ruses's reductionism, which, as we noted, dismisses them as hollow illusions. To the extent that these notions are essential for any meaningful philosophical discourse, it would appear that Ruse's arguments for reductionism necessarily invoke anti-reductionistic conceptions. Ruse may well believe that better reductionist explanations will be forthcoming in the near future. However, that belief, too, is unjustifiable in terms of his own professed philosophy. Reductionism, it would seem, can be formulated and defended only within an anti-reductionist world.


For a fuller critique of reductionism and the various fallacies committed by its proponents I can do no better than to refer the reader to the excellent book "God, Chance, and Necessity" by Keith Ward.


In summary, while Ruse may be commended for his valiant defense of reductionism, this very defense seems to be inherently self-defeating. Professor Ruse is too astute a philosopher not to be well aware of these fatal deficiencies of reductionism. Surely, then, he owes us much more by way of reductionistic explanation than a wryly inadequate "my genes made me do it". Or is he just pulling our collective leg?

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