Fake Reductionism

There was an awful rain­bow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her tex­ture; she is given
In the dull cat­a­logue of com­mon things.
—John Keats, Lamia

I am guess­ing—though it is only a guess—that Keats him­self did not know the woof and tex­ture of the rain­bow. Not the way that New­ton un­der­stood rain­bows. Per­haps not even at all. Maybe Keats just read, some­where, that New­ton had ex­plained the rain­bow as “light re­flected from rain­drops”—

—which was ac­tu­ally known in the 13th cen­tury. New­ton only added a re­fine­ment by show­ing that the light was de­com­posed into col­ored parts, rather than trans­formed in color. But that put rain­bows back in the news head­lines. And so Keats, with Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth and Ben­jamin Hay­don, drank “Con­fu­sion to the mem­ory of New­ton” be­cause “he de­stroyed the po­etry of the rain­bow by re­duc­ing it to a prism.” That’s one rea­son to sus­pect Keats didn’t un­der­stand the sub­ject too deeply.

I am guess­ing, though it is only a guess, that Keats could not have sketched out on pa­per why rain­bows only ap­pear when the Sun is be­hind your head, or why the rain­bow is an arc of a cir­cle.

If so, Keats had a Fake Ex­pla­na­tion. In this case, a fake re­duc­tion. He’d been told that the rain­bow had been re­duced, but it had not ac­tu­ally been re­duced in his model of the world.

This is an­other of those dis­tinc­tions that anti-re­duc­tion­ists fail to get—the differ­ence be­tween pro­fess­ing the flat fact that some­thing is re­ducible, and see­ing it.

In this, the anti-re­duc­tion­ists are not too greatly to be blamed, for it is part of a gen­eral prob­lem.

I’ve writ­ten be­fore on seem­ing knowl­edge that is not knowl­edge, and be­liefs that are not about their sup­posed ob­jects but only record­ings to re­cite back in the class­room, and words that op­er­ate as stop signs for cu­ri­os­ity rather than an­swers, and tech­nob­a­b­ble which only con­veys mem­ber­ship in the liter­ary genre of “sci­ence”...

There is a very great dis­tinc­tion be­tween be­ing able to see where the rain­bow comes from, and play­ing around with prisms to con­firm it, and maybe mak­ing a rain­bow your­self by spray­ing wa­ter droplets—

—ver­sus some dour-faced philoso­pher just tel­ling you, “No, there’s noth­ing spe­cial about the rain­bow. Didn’t you hear? Scien­tists have ex­plained it away. Just some­thing to do with rain­drops or what­ever. Noth­ing to be ex­cited about.”

I think this dis­tinc­tion prob­a­bly ac­counts for a hell of a lot of the deadly ex­is­ten­tial empti­ness that sup­pos­edly ac­com­pa­nies sci­en­tific re­duc­tion­ism.

You have to in­ter­pret the anti-re­duc­tion­ists’ ex­pe­rience of “re­duc­tion­ism”, not in terms of their ac­tu­ally see­ing how rain­bows work, not in terms of their hav­ing the crit­i­cal “Aha!”, but in terms of their be­ing told that the pass­word is “Science”. The effect is just to move rain­bows to a differ­ent liter­ary genre—a liter­ary genre they have been taught to re­gard as bor­ing.

For them, the effect of hear­ing “Science has ex­plained rain­bows!” is to hang up a sign over rain­bows say­ing, “This phe­nomenon has been la­beled BORING by or­der of the Coun­cil of So­phis­ti­cated Liter­ary Crit­ics. Move along.”

And that’s all the sign says: only that, and noth­ing more.

So the liter­ary crit­ics have their gnomes yanked out by force; not dis­solved in in­sight, but re­moved by flat or­der of au­thor­ity. They are given no beauty to re­place the hauntless air, no gen­uine un­der­stand­ing that could be in­ter­est­ing in its own right. Just a la­bel say­ing, “Ha! You thought rain­bows were pretty? You poor, un­so­phis­ti­cated fool. This is part of the liter­ary genre of sci­ence, of dry and solemn in­com­pre­hen­si­ble words.”

That’s how anti-re­duc­tion­ists ex­pe­rience “re­duc­tion­ism”.

Well, can’t blame Keats, poor lad prob­a­bly wasn’t raised right.

But he dared to drink “Con­fu­sion to the mem­ory of New­ton”?

I pro­pose “To the mem­ory of Keats’s con­fu­sion” as a toast for ra­tio­nal­ists. Cheers.