Autonomy generalised; or, Why doesn’t physics matter more?

Ergo (forthcoming)


In what sense are the special sciences autonomous of fundamental physics? Autonomy is an enduring theme in discussions of the relationship between the special sciences and fundamental physics or, more generally, between higher and lower-level facts. Discussion of ‘autonomy’ often fails to recognise that autonomy admits of degrees; consequently, autonomy is either taken to require full independence, or risk relegation to mere apparent autonomy. In addition, the definition of autonomy used by Fodor, the most famous proponent of the autonomy of the special sciences, has been robustly criticised by Loewer. In this paper I develop a new account of autonomy following Woodward which I dub ‘generalised autonomy’ since it unifies dynamical, causal and nomic autonomy. Autonomy, on this account, can be partial: some lower-level details matter while others do not. To summarise: whilst the detailed lower level is unconditionally relevant, conditionalising on the higher-level facts renders some lower-level details irrelevant. The macrodependencies that the higher-level facts enter into — be they dynamical, causal or nomic — screen off the underlying microdetails. This account helps resolve an explanatory puzzle: if the lower-level facts in some way underpin the higher-level facts, why don’t the lower-level details matter more for the day-to-day practice of the special sciences? The answer will be: the facts uncovered by the special sciences are autonomous in my sense, and so practitioners of these special sciences need not study more fundamental sciences, since these underlying facts are genuinely irrelevant.

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Book Forum.Alexander Franklin & Katie Robertson - forthcoming - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A.

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