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Morrison’s Revised Understanding of Fundamentalism


Subject Article Analysis Pages 3 Style APA



In the journal article “Emergence, Reduction, and Theoretical Principles: Rethinking Fundamentalism” by Morrison, (2006) she presents a strong argument against conventional thoughts on the concept of reductionism, emergence and fundamentalism. In the article, she advocates for a liberal application of both the fundamental and reductionism theory. Morrison reasons that whereas these models and theories provide a basis upon which physical phenomenon can be explained in detail, they fail to explain the universality and stability associated with phase transitions and critical point phenomena. Often, these are emergent events that should be accommodated in physics to promote the growth of new theoretical models. Her primary argument therefore is that new approaches to thinking about fundamentalism and emergence are necessary in accounting for the emerging behaviour of new phenomena in physics (Morrison, 2006). It is upon this basis that this paper explains and evaluates Morrison’s revised understanding of fundamentalism. The paper argues that Morrison’s view leads to too many things being classified as fundamental.

Morrison’s Revised Understanding of Fundamentalism

Morrison insists that fundamentalism occurs in many forms. These sentiments are seconded by Butterfield (2011) who notes that in normal use, the term is used by philosophers and physicists to denote the view that all the fundamental models and theories such as quantum mechanics or Newton’s theory and their subsequent laws are the basis for explaining basic features that define physics. Normally, the fundamentalists argue in favour of reduction while the opposing side, known as antireductionists insists that the world has diverse levels of complexity, thus it can neither be understood or explained through reduction to one set of laws or theory. As noted with other philosophical debates, the views by both the fundamentalists and antireductionist have their merits and demerits. The basis for Morrison’s argument is therefore pegged on the reality that some forms of reductionism has been successful in creating a deeper understanding of the world. Such understanding would have been impossible to achieve if the anti-reductionist view was used. An example is the Maxwell’s electrodynamics which was reduced to explain concepts on electromagnetism and optics. Regardless of this evidence, many physical entities, properties and entities continue to defy the reductionist view.

Morrison insists that sticking to the anti-reductionist view would deny the world the much-needed innovation. She therefore insists that fundamentalism is adopted into all the other areas of science, especially in physics models and theories. Her revised understanding of the fundamentalism concept encourages a new way of thinking where models can be reduced or broken down to explain concepts. Morrison claims that fundamentalism is essential because it helps not only explain but also predict the behaviour of multiple phenomenon both in large energy domains and in their condensed matter physics. As much as Morrison promotes a revised approach to fundamentalism where it can be applied to many things, she is categorical that fundamentalism should not be applied to the traditional forms of reductionism. Morrison states that the traditional forms of reductionism are generic and exhibit stable behaviour which makes them immune to changes in occurring in microphysical bases.  In addition, reductionism should not be applied to traditional forms because these forms are properly founded and they provide interesting insights on how to rethink issues associated with reduction, emergence, and fundamentalism.

The revised understanding of fundamentalism acknowledges all types of reductionism. To begin with, ontological reductionism propagates the idea that properties, processes, and entities on one level are only but a manifestation of the properties, entities and processes on a lower level. For example, the macro properties of objects are formed by micro-level atomic properties. The relationship between the two domains is therefore describes as supervenience implying that the macro properties result from the micro properties (Butterfield, 2011). Ontological reductionism can also be thought of in the way molecular kinetic energy is identified with heat. A similar trend in definition is noted with the epistemological reduction where the concept examines the viability of reducing a known theory to hypothesize another theory or model, as it is applied in statistical mechanics and thermodynamics.

Morrison further explains that since fundamentalism arises from reduction, then complex laws should be derived from the basic laws. For example, the Newtonian mechanics laws were used to derive both the Galileo law and Kepler laws respectively. The evidence of reductionism is further exhibited in objective reductionism where newer ideas are drawn with an arrow pointing at an original or common source. In most cases, the fundamental source is usually based on generalizations that help philosophers come up with more specific and less generalized laws. Such specifics enhance the study of sciences compared to the generalized outlooks. Crowther (2015) adds that grand reductionism propagates the view that scientific principles have a connection to the simple universal laws thus further emphasizing the need for a revised understanding of fundamentalism. While doing so, it is important that reduction is conducted as a principle and not an entity.

Treating reduction as a principle is quintessential because of various reasons. One, no physicist can deny the fact that scientific models are founded by breaking down entities into their smaller fundamental constituents. This is an observation made across all sciences namely chemistry, biology, and physics. Second, reduction enables scientists and everyone else to access information on the physical world, laws governing different behaviours and interconnections between different complex systems (Morrison, 2006). Understanding the founding principles of entities enables people to understand the laws governing constituents working in isolation. These views are backed by Philip Anderson who documented that reduction helps understand physical phenomena. According to Anderson, all the inanimate and animate matter obeys fundamental laws. For this reason, it is prudent to classify many things as fundamental.

Anderson further Morrisons argument by introducing the concept of emergent phenomena. According to Crowther (2015) the term emergent refers to phenomena that arises from series of processes such as localization and symmetry breaking. These processes only arise from, but are not dependent on lower level entities and processes. This view is a revised approach to reductionism as it avoids some of the pitfalls that have made physicists to challenge the original concept of reduction. An example of an emergent phenomena is symmetrical crystalline state formed from crystal lattices.

Guided by Morrison’s revised understanding of fundamentalism, it is notable that many things can be classified as fundamental. Some of the people opposed to Morrisons view on revised understanding of fundamentalism are Humphrey and Teller. Their literature on emergent physics expresses the notion that understanding fundamental laws governing microphysical world is useful in explaining phenomena at a macro level. Humphrey’s account notes that the constituent parts of an entity cease to exist the moment a new entity is formed (Morrison, 2006). This aspect makes it impossible to reduce an entity since a new entity is formed all together when several micro levels merge. On the other hand, Teller argues that emergent properties are simply formed after transcending of the micro level parts. Their observations on emergence challenges the proposition made by Morrison (Crowther, 2015). In rebutting these arguments, Morrison criticizes the emergent physical phenomena noting that the micro constituents do not cease to exist after forming a macro entity. Instead, the micro level only disappears once the emergent phenomenon is formed. For instance, then many atoms condense together to form a crystal, the resultant phonon becomes a legitimate and perfect particle. The atoms disappear but that does not mean that they cease to exist.

Morrison notes that emergent phenomenon potentially extends into domains capturing quantum field theory whereby using the effective field theories all physicists to explore phenomena at the micro level without concerning themselves with what is happening at the macro levels. Similarly, renormalizability which is normally considered to constraint fundamental quantum field theories are reconceived as emergent property of matter both at stable quantum phases and at quantum critical points. By holding onto these sets of views and making strong arguments against other proposition, Morrison presents a strong argument in favour of revised understanding of fundamentalism. In particular, she emphasizes the need for widespread acceptability of reduction. Through her arguments, it is notable that she considers many things to be classified as fundamental. This includes quantum physics theories among other entities, properties and processes used in sciences. Morrison is further opposed at modelling but instead, recommends that micro level entities can be used to formulate macro level entities.




Butterfield, J. (2011). Emergence, reduction and supervenience: A varied landscape. Foundations of Physics, 41(6), 920-959.

Crowther, K. (2015). Decoupling emergence and reduction in physics. European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 5(3), 419-445.

Morrison, M. (2006). Emergence, reduction, and theoretical principles: Rethinking fundamentalism. Philosophy of Science, 73(5), 876-887.

Morrison, M. (2015). Reconstructing reality: Models, mathematics, and simulations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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