Reductionism is a key issue in many Christian critiques of other ideologies. Claims that the rich diversity of life as we know it can be explained by a single fundamental kind of reality often sound authoritative and sensational, but fundamental substances that are supposed to underlie what we experience are thereby attributed with a kind of occult power. I’m not denying that things are not always what they seem; we can uncover surprises about the world and develop illuminating explanations. And indeed, the explanations we find most profound and enlightening often relate one kind of phenomenon to another that appears very different. If I explain that water makes things wet because of its dampening properties, I’m merely presenting a tautology; explanations need to do some conceptual work! But while the sensational appeal of an explanation may increase as the two kinds of phenomena being related become more and more different, another problem may arise if my explanation invokes inconceivable or incoherent properties. Consider a claim that feelings of guilt are a product of certain states of brain chemistry. The problem here can be simply stated as a category error: chemistry is not in the same category as feelings, so neither is properly explained in terms of the other. That’s not to say that there can’t be meaningful correlation between feelings of guilt and certain states of brain chemistry (although even “brain chemistry” might turn out to be a category error). But the problem arises if I attribute power to one of these to produce the other, as in the above claim.
Thus it can be argued that the guile of a reductionistic explanation is in the same category as the allure of an idol, in biblical worldview terms. (This reasoning needs unpacking further – as done, for example, in Roy Clouser’s The Myth of Religious Neutrality). How can we avoid such idolatry? One approach is to posit God as the ultimate explanation: the being Who grounds all phenomena. But such a perspective doesn’t seem to foster any further scientific analysis, and we may be sure that some kind of scientific work can legitimately be pursued without falling into idolatry.
Enter the most distinctive element of the reformational philosophy tradition. Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd, brothers-in-law, were professors of philosophy and law, respectively, at the Free University of Amsterdam, and in the 1920s and 1930s they gradually came to agree on a spectrum of what they called modalities [or aspects] in which reality is ‘disclosed’ to us. These are, in other words, a set of fundamentally discrete ways in which reality (its things, relations, and time) can be known and analysed by humans. The diagram below attempts to illustrate these using both words and images.
This diagram is also designed to represent an ordering among these fifteen aspects that is somewhat flexible – and this is where it gets quite interesting. Reformational philosophers agree that the aspects lower in this diagram are conceptually foundational to those above them, while higher aspects in some sense ‘guide’ or ‘direct’ those below. For example, spatial functions can be conceived of without any kinetic ones (e.g. shapes need not be conceived of in terms of motion or rest) whereas kinetic functions depend upon spatial ones (movement has to be in space), and indeed motion can guide our interpretation of a space. Or again, jural functions like giving due credit don’t presuppose altruistic ones like generosity, but generosity only makes sense against a notion of what was justly due.
Using thought experiments like these, Reformational philosophers tend to agree about the ordering of those aspects that are stacked vertically in the diagram here, but hold divergent views about the ones in the turquoise boxes. Most strikingly, the aesthetic aspect is conventionally the 12th (just before the jural) but sometimes placed as early as 7th (straight after the sensory).
A number of previous posts here have explored how careful distinction of these aspects can help us do better scholarship, and you may like to read about how this idea was pivotal to an outcome from the FiSWES project.