Why the social sciences are irreducible

Synthese 196 (12):4961-4987 (2019)
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Abstract

It is often claimed that the social sciences cannot be reduced to a lower-level individualistic science. The standard argument for this position is the Fodorian multiple realizability argument. Its defenders endorse token–token identities between “higher-level” social objects and pluralities/sums of “lower-level” individuals, but they maintain that the properties expressed by social science predicates are often multiply realizable, entailing that type–type identities between social and individualistic properties are ruled out. In this paper I argue that the multiple realizability argument for explanatory holism is unsound. The social sciences are indeed irreducible, but the principled reason for this is that the required token–token identifications cannot in general be carried through. In consequence, paradigmatic social science predicates cannot be taken to apply to the objects quantified over in the lower-level sciences. The result is that typical social science predicates cannot even be held to be co-extensive with individualistic predicates, which means type–type identifications are ruled out too. Multiple realizability has nothing to do with this failure of co-extensiveness, because the relevant social science predicates are not multiply realized in the sense intended by the explanatory holists, a sense which presupposes reductive token–token identifications.

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