I am quite far from a post-modernist, and I usually do not dabble in sociology of science, but I have a barstool story about the way the reductive materialist approach is so entrenched and how it imposes blinders on us. First, though, I want to relate a couple of anecdotes.

The first is an admittedly almost certainly apocryphal story about an experiment involving five monkeys. Supposedly, some scientists put five monkeys in a cage with a bunch of bananas on a ladder. As soon as one of the monkeys climbed the ladder to get the bananas, the scientists doused all the monkeys with cold water. Soon the monkeys never went near the ladder. Then the scientists replaced one of the monkeys with a new monkey, who naturally immediately tried to climb the ladder to get the bananas. The other four monkeys grabbed the new comer and pulled it down, and soon the new monkey also never went near the ladder. One by one, each of the original five monkeys was replaced with a new monkey, and each new monkey was taught by the others never to climb the ladder. Eventually the cage contained five monkeys who never went near the ladder, but each of whom had no individual experience of being doused with cold water.

My second anecdote relates to geology. I remember learning when I was young that when the theory was first put forth in the 1960's that an asteroid impact 65 million years ago killed the dinosaurs, the theory met a lot of resistance. Apparently the mainstream geologists took a while to come around, even in the face of almost overwhelming physical evidence of such an asteroid impact. I have since read that at the end of the 19th century, even among the Harvard faculty, there were still some old geologists who believed in the literal truth of the Christian bible. These researchers looked for evidence of Noah's flood in the fossil record, for instance. As they died out or retired, these sorts of views were an embarrassment to later generations of geologists. So much so, that even in the 1960's, long after any living serious geologist could claim to have met anyone holding these views, the world of academic geology held onto a reflexive aversion to any explanation that seemed bible-adjacent, i.e. that involved single-day cataclysms. There would be no smitings, Great Floods, or destruction raining down from the sky, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. Like the monkeys, the new crop of researchers knew the kinds of theories they thought were nutty, but they had no individual memory of why they thought that.

We are all educated people living in a scientific age. There is a certain way of thinking about the world that comes naturally to us, since it has been drummed into our heads from an early age, to such an extent that we don't appreciate what a leap it was for us at one time, both culturally and individually. Children and primitive societies are natural animists, and anthropomorphizers. Hurricanes are angry. The earth is a loving mother.

Eventually, after thousands of years, and lead by a few singular geniuses, we trained ourselves in a new way of thinking. This new reductive habit of thought consists of approaching every big complicated thing as an aggregate of small simple things that behave in consistent lawlike ways. Final causation was out, efficient causation was in. Since the time of Galileo and Newton, this kind of thinking has been spectacularly successful within its proper domain, and has lead to what is legitimately called the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.

Here we are, a few hundred years later, and that revolution is still charging along, and we are all taught this way of thinking in grade school, whether we major in physics or not. We accept it as the default way of seeing the world. It is hard for us to imagine (or perhaps to remember culturally) just how hard-won and counterintuitive the relatively new reductive ways of thinking are. Training ourselves to think like this was slow and difficult at one time. We have mastered it wonderfully, but it has left us with a residual knee-jerk reaction against anything that smells even faintly like holism or anthropomorphism. Such ideas strike us as unseemly and embarrassing. Our self-imposed mental training has left us with a blind spot - even if holism is staring us in the face, we would refuse to see it. Nothing like the zeal of a convert.


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