Reduction and understanding

Foundations of Science 3 (1):45-59 (1998)
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Abstract

Reductionism, in the sense of the doctrine that theories on different levels of reality should exhibit strict and general relations of deducibility, faces well-known difficulties. Nevertheless, the idea that deeper layers of reality are responsible for what happens at higher levels is well-entrenched in scientific practice. We argue that the intuition behind this idea is adequately captured by the notion of supervenience: the physical state of the fundamental physical layers fixes the states of the higher levels. Supervenience is weaker than traditional reductionism, but it is not a metaphysical doctrine: one can empirically support the existence of a supervenience relation by exhibiting concrete relations between the levels. Much actual scientific research is directed towards finding such inter-level relations. It seems to be quite generally held that the importance of such relations between different levels is that they are explanatory and give understanding: deeper levels provide deeper understanding, and this justifies the search for ever deeper levels. We shall argue, however, that although achieving understanding is an important aim of science, its correct analysis is not in terms of relations between higher and lower levels. Connections with deeper layers of reality do not generally provide for deeper understanding. Accordingly, the motivation for seeking deeper levels of reality does not come from the desire to find deeper understanding of phenomena, but should be seen as a consequence of the goal to formulate ever better, in the sense of more accurate and more-encompassing, empirical theories.

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Henk W. de Regt
Radboud University

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