What is the Point of Reduction in Science?

Erkenntnis 85 (6):1437-1460 (2020)
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The numerous and diverse roles of theory reduction in science have been insufficiently explored in the philosophy literature on reduction. Part of the reason for this has been a lack of attention paid to reduction2 (successional reduction)—although I here argue that this sense of reduction is closer to reduction1 (explanatory reduction) than is commonly recognised, and I use an account of reduction that is neutral between the two. This paper draws attention to the utility—and incredible versatility—of theory reduction. A non-exhaustive list of various applications of reduction in science is presented, some of which are drawn from a particular case-study, being the current search for a new theory of fundamental physics. This case-study is especially interesting because it employs both senses of reduction at once, and because of the huge weight being put on reduction by the different research groups involved; additionally, it presents some unique uses for reduction—revealing, I argue, the fact that reduction can be of specialised and unexpected service in particular scientific cases. The paper makes two other general findings: that the functions of reduction that are typically assumed to characterise the different forms of the relation may instead be understood as secondary consequences of some other roles; and that most of the roles that reduction plays in science can actually also be fulfilled by a weaker relation than (the typical understanding of) reduction.

Author's Profile

Karen Crowther
University of Oslo


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