Are sunsets “real”? Reducing reductionism


(Sunset over Yellow Waters Billabong, NT, Australia)

Before embarking upon what will be a discussion of the semantics of reductionism, I suppose I had better define one of the “basic” words in the title of this article: “real”. So, for the benefit of any philosophers or semanticians that might be reading: “real”, in the title and elsewhere in the article, should be taken to mean “actual” (a discussion of the “categories of the real” might be the topic of a later post).

Now that we’ve got that nonsense over with, why am I questioning the reality of sunsets anyway? The inspiration for this post is John Searle’s discussion of reductionism in his book Mind: a brief introduction, in which he elucidates the ways in which the phenomenon of consciousness can and can’t be reduced.

There are many types of reductionism (reductionism itself is reducible): theoretical, methodological (two types), conceptual, causal, ontological, eliminative, etc. Searle focuses his discussion on the latter three types – causal, ontological and eliminative. The definitions are as follows:

Causal reduction: reducing a phenomenon to its causes. An example (one used by Searle and Dennett and others, following Eddington) is the “solidity” of objects, which is caused by “a certain sort of molecular behaviour” (Searle’s words), such that we perceive them to be solid despite the fact that they are largely composed of empty space.

Ontological reduction: an item’s ontology is basically what it “is” (what it can be said to be), thus, when we causally reduce solidity to the behaviour of “molecules” (more properly the behaviour of electrons), we also ontologically reduce it – solidity “just is” the behaviour of electrons (i.e. it is nothing “beyond” this).

Eliminative reduction: this is really a subtype of reduction whereby we eliminate something by reducing it causally and/or ontologically. It is often believed that all (or most) reduction is eliminative, but this is certainly not the case. For example, although we causally and ontologically reduce solidity, we do not thereby eliminate it. This is easy enough to discover by conducting the simple experiment of running headlong at an apparently solid wall. Despite the fact that we can causally and ontologically reduce solidity to the behaviour of electrons, thereby showing that the wall is mostly composed of empty space, the aforementioned experiment is still likely to result in some unpleasant bruises. An example of a phenomenon on that can be eliminated through reduction might be ghosts – when we causally and ontologically reduce the perception of ghosts to an illusion caused by apophenia (seeing patterns where there are no patterns) or sleep paralysis, we also eliminate the existence of the ghosts themselves.

Searle utilises these definitions to argue that consciousness is causally reducible (to the “firing of neurons”), but not ontologically reducible (i.e. it is something “beyond” the firing of neurons – it is our experience of subjectivity). So far so good*. Where Searle goes wrong is in his choice of examples: he uses the aforementioned example of solidity as something that is ontologically but not eliminatively reducible; then uses sunsets as an example of a phenomenon which is eliminated through reduction.

To determine whether or not this example is apt, we need to question what is actually meant by “sunset”. Searle’s comment that “the sun appears to set over Mount Tamalpais though it does not really do so” is instructive. It suggests that Searle thinks that within the meaning of the word “sunset” is the literal assertion that the sun is spatially proximal to the edge of the world behind which it appears to disappear. I contend that this is not the case….at least since Copernicus.

This discussion has parallels with Eddington’s “paradox of the two tables”, to which Searle makes indirect reference in his discussion. According to Eddington, when we look at a table we are in fact seeing two different tables. One, the table of the “scientific image”, is mostly composed of empty space, appearing solid because of the activity of electrons in the atoms from which it is constructed. The other, the table of the “manifest image”, is “merely” solid, constructed from solid pieces of wood and not composed of (rather surrounded by) empty space at all. Of course there is only one table, with two perspectives from which to consider it. Viewed from either perspective, the table is solid (i.e. the solidity of the table is not eliminatively reducible).

So what about sunsets? Since Copernicus, we have known that the sunset is a matter of perspective, caused by the rotation of the Earth on its axis. So, the sunset is causally reducible – this is our “scientific image” of the sunset. Our “manifest image” of the sunset contains things like the warm orange and red glow suffusing the evening sky and the sun itself slowly slipping from view behind whatever feature of the horizon is situated to the west of us at the time; it is the gradual change from day to night. So, does our causal reduction of the sunset (for the purposes of the present discussion let’s forget whether what we mean by “sunset” is ontologically reducible) eliminate the phenomenon in the same way that our causal reduction of ghost sightings to apophenia might do? Of course not. The sunset is a real (actual) phenomenon. Lovers standing hand-in-hand both see it, voyeurs watching the lovers see it, the voyeurs’ cameras see it; it is objectively real. The fact that it is causally reducible to the Earth’s rotation does not make it eliminatively reducible: one may as well say that the day-night cycle is eliminatively reducible, because it has the same cause.

Bad example, Searle, bad!

The accusation could be made that, although I’ve hinted at it, I’m yet to actually provide a proper definition of the sunset myself. Well, here goes – the “sunset” is that thing that happens at dusk just before day becomes night, often characterised (cloud cover permitting) by the sky changing colour and the sun disappearing from view. It is a “matter of perspective”, and varies spatio-temporally according to longitude and latitude. The word “sunset” contains no astronomical information, i.e. it does not have a position on whether the sun literally “disappears” (actually this is what it literally does, just not in the “magical” sense) or literally goes behind certain features of the westernmost horizon (and then teleports to a position behind certain features of the easternmost horizon just before dawn). Most of us are well aware that it’s the Earth’s rotation on its axis that causes this phenomenon, just as the same rotation causes the phenomena of night and day. The sunset is a manifest, objectively real, romantic, actual phenomenon that cannot be eliminated through reductionism. Good enough?

Why did I write this article dissecting the semantic arguments of an eminent philosopher? Firstly, because it was fun! Secondly, because I think it highlights a core issue in the way Searle (along with many other “thinkers”, both philosophers and scientists) structures arguments: by deriving the arguments from the conclusions and not the conclusions from the arguments. For other classic examples of this see Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment, or his claim that he is neither a “property dualist” or a “materialist” (I think the claim can be made that he is both) – it often seems to be the case with Searle that the position he is attacking (e.g., some sort of literalist interpretation of “sunsets” or his particular definitions of property dualism and materialism) exists nowhere other than in his polemic itself. This sort of “intentional definitional error” – the creation of a fictitious position in order to take it down – is known as a “straw man argument”. Perhaps it’s inconsequential with regard to “sunsets” (although it muddies the waters of his otherwise clear discussion of reductionism), but his application of it here is symptomatic of the widespread usage of the tactic elsewhere in his writings on consciousness (a tactic that has generated considerable head scratching amongst other thinkers on the subject).

P.S. Searle lovers – let it be known that I understand and agree with his assertions regarding the reducibility and non-reducibility of consciousness. That is not the point of this article.


*Except where he tries to use this line of reasoning to attack both “property dualism” and “materialism”.


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