What’s the Difference between Eliminativism and Reductionism?

Rick Sanchez and Ms. Frizzle to teach eliminativism and reductionism

Eliminativism and reductionism are two terms that can easily trip up both non-philosophers and new philosophers alike. The difference between these terms might seem like mere semantics, but when properly understood both have radically different implications for how we should see the world.

Metaphysics, eliminativism, and reductionism

Eliminativism and reductionism are philosophical terms related to an area of philosophy called ontology. Longtime readers of this blog might recall that I defined ontology in a post about metaphysics, one of the five primary subject matters of philosophy. Broadly and most simply put, ontology deals with the nature of what exists in the world. We can have ontological discussions about any number of objects and properties like numbers, minds, words, possible worlds, etc. A good chunk of metaphysics is devoted to providing ontological accounts about objects and entities that exist, and the role they play in reality. Within the context of ontology, eliminativism and reductionism are best understood as strategies or approaches that a theory can take when describing objects, entities, or phenomena in the world.

Getting to the bottom of things

Now that we’ve covered the context for these philosophical terms, we can begin to distinguish them. Let’s start with reductionism and work our way to understanding eliminativism. To make the discussion more fun, let’s talk about these subjects using two very awesome fictional characters – The Magic School Bus’ Ms. Frizzle, and Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty.

Ontological accounts that assume reductionism are framed with the belief that some whole (be it an object or reality itself) consists of a number of distinguishable and divisible parts which account for its properties. A theory can be said to be reductionist if it asserts that basic or fundamental entities constitute and describe more complex objects. For example, within science there’s an understanding that the rules and objects described by chemistry constitute all of the rules and objects in biology and that our understanding of biology can help inform us about basic aspects of human psychology. Both science and social science can be viewed through the reductionist lens. This point of view is illustrated by every 90’s kids’ favorite science teacher, Ms. Frizzle, who uses science to provide her students with an understanding of things in their everyday life. For Ms. Frizzle, science is a way of more accurately describing the world as she experiences it.

In contrast to reductionist theories, a theory can be said to be eliminativist if it eliminates objects, specifically at the “higher levels,” in favor of expanding the role that fundamental objects play in explaining the world. Unlike Ms. Frizzle, who appears to view science as providing descriptions of what she sees and experiences in the world, Rick sees science as explaining away everything that’s part of his experience. It’s likely that for Rick, physics, chemistry, and biology don’t describe what we would take to be basic and commonsense aspects of human psychology.1

Within philosophical literature, the term eliminativism almost always refers to a philosophy called material eliminativism, which is a theory about the nature of the mind. For material eliminativists like Rick, as well as husband-wife philosophy duo Paul and Patricia Churchland, psychological concepts like intentions and beliefs don’t refer to anything in particular and should be eliminated from our discussions of how minds work.

Although eliminativism has become synonymous with material eliminativism, it’s important to note that we can be eliminativist about a variety of things. For example, the concept of materialism itself is eliminative of immaterial objects like the soul, and philosophies like Buddhism are eliminativist about the notion of an individual self. To get a sense about the types of concepts that philosophers debate about eliminating when it comes to consciousness, you can read this blog’s post on p-zombies. Outside of discussions of the mind, some physicists appear to be eliminativist about the existence of time, relegating time to something that emerges as a perceptual illusion with change (or the present moment in some views) being the only thing that’s ontologically real.

Getting the bigger picture

Although I framed reductionism and eliminativism as diametrically opposed, it’s worth noting that they don’t have to be in all contexts. Someone can be eliminativist about certain concepts while on the whole being a reductionist. For example, as stated above, anyone who believes in materialism is eliminativist about souls, though most materialists are reductionists about mental experiences and about how higher level sciences like biology reduce to lower level ones like physics. Understanding this nuance can make distinguishing these concepts a little easier.

  1. By “basic and commonsense” I’m referring to what some philosophers call “folk psychology” which assumes that intentions and subjective sensations like pain are real and objectively describable