Reduction, is the explanation of a theory or a set of experimental laws established in one area of study, by another theory usually (though not invariably) formulated for another domain. For the sake of brevity, let’s call the set of experimental laws that is reduced to another theory the Secondary Science and the theory to which the reduction is achieved the Primary Science.
For instance, the reduction of the theory of Human Rights to the theory of Property Rights is the reduction of a secondary science to a primary science. This is the subject of interest in this essay. How does this happen?
Before I explain, it’s important to appreciate the fact that there are a handful of cases in science (for example, the application of point-mass mechanics to the motions of rigid as well as deformable bodies) where a reduction is actually a part of the normal steps in the progressive expansion of a scientific theory where serious perplexities and misunderstandings are not generated. These few cases are not the topic of discussion in this essay.
What I am interested in illustrating is the discomfort generated in the reduction of human rights into the more general theory of property rights – a primary science. There are difficulties that one encounters in reduction where as a consequence, a set of distinctive traits of “Human Rights” is assimilated into what is patently a set of quite dissimilar traits of “Property Rights.” In such a case, the distinctive characteristics of Human Rights fall into the province of a more general theory about Property that are initially designed for handling qualitatively different materials and that does not even include some of the characteristic descriptive terms of the secondary science (the human being and his rights).
In this case the primary science of property rights wipes out familiar distinctions as spurious, and appears to maintain that what are prima facie indisputably different traits of things (the Homo Sapiens as opposed to the Things he owns) are really identical. The acute sense of mystification that is thereby engendered is especially frequent when the secondary science deals with inherent, inalienable, inviolable, macroscopically imprescriptible phenomena such as Human Rights, while the primary science of Property Rights postulates a microscopic constitution (for example, that both the human and his property are made up of atoms with prices and utilities that add up to the total price and utility of the whole body) for those macroscopic realizations of Human Rights. I will supply an example to show the sort of puzzle that is generated.
Let’s assume that some person has come to understand what is meant by “temperature” exclusively in terms of manipulating a mercury thermometer. In the same way that a young philosophy student might understand the use of “Human” to be property exclusively measured by the price of its usefulness (utility). If that individual were told that there is a substance which melts at a temperature of fifteen thousand degrees, he would probably be at a loss to make sense of this statement, and he might even claim that a temperature of fifteen thousand was meaningless. In the same way that this student would be mystified that there’s some “Human” that is not property and whose price is priceless (beyond the measure of utility).
Sticking to the scientific analogy for the sake of brevity and simplicity, in support of his argument this student might maintain that since temperature can be assigned to bodies by only employing a mercury thermometer (that is, since property rights can only be assigned to something with a price) and since the thermometer is vaporized at a little over 350 degrees, the phrase “temperature of fifteen thousand degrees” has no defined sense and therefore is meaningless. In parallel, a property that is priceless is inconceivable.
However his puzzlement would be quickly removed by a little study of elementary physics. He would then discover that the word “temperature” is associated in physics with a more embracing set of rules than the rules that controlled his own use. In particular, he would learn that laboratory scientists employ the word to refer to a certain state of physical bodies, and that variations in this state are often manifested in other ways than by the volume expansion of mercury inside a glass capillary – for example, changes in the electrical resistance of a body or in the generation of electric current.
Accordingly this new student of physics, once the laws are explained that formulate the relationships between instruments such as thermocouples (used to measure changes in state of bodies called their “temperature”), the student understands how the word can be meaningfully employed in situations other than those in which a mercury thermometer is used. Much the same way that the student of philosophy would appreciate the meaning of the word “Human” in situations other than when a price or utility is attached.
The enlargement of the word’s range of application then appears no more puzzling or mysterious as “Human Rights” than does the extension of the word “length,” from its ancient meaning as fixed by using the human foot for determining lengths, to contexts in which a standard bar replaces the human organism as a measuring instrument.
Suppose however, that the layman for whom “temperature” like “Human Rights” thus acquires a more generalized meaning, such as “property rights” now pursues his study of physics into the kinetic theory of gases. Here he discovers that the temperature of a gas is the mean kinetic energy of the molecules which by hypothesis constitute the gas. This information may generate yet a fresh complexity if he’s intelligent enough, and indeed in an acute form.
On the one hand, the layman has not forgotten his earlier lesson. But on the other hand, he is also assured by some authorities he now consults, like myself, that the individual molecules of a gas cannot be said to possess a temperature, and that the meaning of the word is identical “by definition” with the meaning of the “mean kinetic energy of molecules.” In the same manner, the “Human” being cannot be said to be a kind of “property,” whose price and utility is microscopically determined upwards (price is determined by the size of utility or demand), but that the word “Human” by definition is identical to the “mean of the priceless ensemble of attributes of the Homo sapiens.”
Confronted by such apparently conflicting ideas, he may therefore find a host of typically philosophical questions both relevant and inescapable. If the meaning of “Human Rights” is indeed the same as that of “the mean of the priceless ensemble of attributes of the Homo sapiens,” what is the plain man in the street talking about when he says that human rights are inalienable?
Accordingly, when a man in the streets walks into a grocery store to pick up a box of milk at a temperature of ten degrees and learns about the “mean kinetic energy of molecules,” he may come to believe that he is confronted with a serious issue as to what is genuine “reality” and what is only “appearance.” He may then perhaps be persuaded by a traditional philosophical argument that the familiar distinctions between hot and cold (indeed the distinctions between various temperatures of different bodies as specified in terms of instrumental operations), refer to matters that are “subjective” manifestations of an underlying but mysterious physical reality as are “Human Rights.”
Or he may accept the view, supported by a different mode of reasoning, that it is temperature as defined by procedures involving the use of thermometers and other such instruments which is the genuine reality, and that the molecular energies in terms of which the kinetic theory of matter “defines” temperature are just fiction. He may accept the “Human Rights” are only defined by the general theory of price and utility, and that the “ensemble energies” in terms of which “Human Rights” are defined are just fictitious.
Alternatively, if the layman adopts a more sophisticated line of thought, he may perhaps come to regard “Human Rights” or “temperature” as an “emergent” trait, manifested at certain higher levels of the organization of life or nature, respectively, but not at the “lower levels” of physical reality (Human Rights like temperature are incapable of microscopic association with smaller divisions of matter as is “property” and its “price”); and he may then question whether the theory of inviolable, inalienable rights or the kinetic theory, which ostensibly are concerned only with those lower levels, does after all “really explain” the occurrence of emergent traits such as intrinsic “Human Rights” or temperature, respectively.
Perplexities of this sort are frequently generated by new students of science and philosophy. In such a reduction, the subject matter of the primary science (property rights) appears to be qualitatively discontinuous with the materials studied by the secondary science (human rights). Put precisely, in reductions of this type the secondary science (human rights) employs in its formulation of laws and theories a number of distinctive descriptive predicates that are not included in the basic more general theoretical terms associated with the primary science (property rights).