Broad topics should be approached with cautious care. Scientific reductionism is such a topic. Characteristics of living things is a multidimensional topic often connected with the concept of reductionism. We’ll begin with the characteristics of living bacteria which began suddenly to inhabit the earth several billion years ago. So far as we know, living things exist only in our Solar System. Planet Earth is the only known life site. Scientists agree that life on earth began suddenly several billion years ago in our water world--morphologically simple, but bio-chemically complex life such as bacteria. Scientists have not solved the problem of life’s origin on Planet Earth on the strength of methodological naturalism. They continue, however, to propose a naturalistic explanation for the initial self-assembly sequence of billions of atoms and molecules in bacteria.
One bacterium contains 100 trillion atoms according to one estimate. Morphologically simple in terms of earth’s most primitive life means a single celled bacterium is a relatively simple structure (except when we carefully inspect the internal structures of the cell). The way the 100 trillion chemical atoms are arranged, however, describes complexity--“biochemical complexity.” Bacterial
DNA is bio-chemically complex, not simple. One genus of bacteria contains “only” 159,662 base pairs of DNA and “only” 182 genes. Most bacteria have many more.
What do bacteria have to do with reductionism, we ask? Most definitions of reductionism say, “Everything is to be explained in terms of its smallest constituent parts.” We characterize reductionism as an “explanation” of bacterial life to be somewhat startling. There is so much more unexplainable mystery to the existence of life even at this level of simplicity. Most “explanations” are inadequate descriptions of complex processes or structural complexity, the subject of ongoing research. Understanding structure and function are vital components of the science process. Understanding how a machine works or how a structure functions is a different story entirely.
To explain the underlying forces and energy which caused early earth bacteria of 3.8 billion mya to produce today’s mineral resources from a few simple chemical elements is beyond our capability to adequately explain. To propose that atoms and molecules of early earth bacteria are the “constituent parts” enabling us to understand the essence of how bacterial processes “worked” (and still work) is more descriptive than explanatory. The life forms on Planet Earth as they have appeared in subsequent eons, likewise, seem to obey a mandate beyond the mere physical interactions of atoms and molecules--their smallest constituent parts. Our concern as creationists is the inadequacy of methodological naturalism to arrive at a naturalistic explanation for the unique properties manifest by our earth’s life forms, from simple bacteria to complex humanity. The mystery is much deeper.
Reductionism in its purest form is a naturalistic pillar upon which naturalistic scientists depend. Many scientists struggle to overcome the stigma of scientific reductionism which some Christians use to heap scorn on the endeavor of mainstream science. Reductionism, if defined as a strong component of the scientific principle of cause/effect, can be useful in gathering truth concerning our world. But we must guard against oversimplification with cautious wisdom.
Neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles (1903-1997) maintained “…that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition…we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.”
“Something special” sets living things apart from non-living entities in the physical world. Not only is this true in the spiritual world, but also in physical processes as well. We revel in the “special” trait, feeling that the Creator has implanted a “special” quality to living creatures not attributable to “reductionism.” Ultimately, we discover many scientifically unknowable facts pointing to the work of the Creator.