About this topic

Philosophers use “theory reduction” as a term of art to denote the scientific practice whereby a more basic theory expresses or otherwise captures the facts and principles described by a less basic theory. The reducing theory thus preserves the ontology of the reduced theory, at least in ideal cases. Accordingly, theory reduction contrasts with “theory replacement” according to which a less basic theory and its ontology are rejected.

Key works

One important topic concerns the logic of reduction or how it is best conceived. Major ideas includes reduction as a derivation by bridge principles (Nagel 1961), the role of identities in bridge principles (Sklar 1967), approximate reduction (Schaffner 1967), an expanded continuum of strong to weak reduction that advertises no bridge laws (Churchland 1979; Bickle 1997), compositional or mechanistic reduction (Wimsatt 1976; Bechtel 2007), and functional reduction (Kim 1998). Other important topics concern the analysis of scientific cases (Kitcher 1984; Bickle 2005), the nature of theories as sentential items versus models (Patrick 1957), issues of intralevel versus interlevel competition (McCauley 1986), how the co-evolution of theories might affect the prospects for or the interpretation of reduction (Churchland 1986; Endicott 1998), cases wherein a less basic and unreduced theory is retained rather than replaced (Fodor 1974; Rosenberg 2006), and the phenomenon of multiple realizability that underlies the non-reduced status of such theories (Bechtel 1999; Batterman 2000; Shapiro 2004; Aizawa & Gillett 2009).

Introductions A paper by Robert McCauley (McCauley web, published in Thagard 2007), provides a nice introduction to theory reduction with an eye to psychology and neuroscience, including discussion of old and new views. Ingo Brigandt and Alan Love (Brigandt & Love 2008) offer a fairly comprehensive and historically sensitive introduction to reduction for the biological sciences.
Related categories

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  1. Are Bridge Laws Really Necessary?Tryg A. Ager, Jerrold L. Aronson & Robert Weingard - 1974 - Noûs 8 (2):119-134.
  2. Minisymposia-IV Substructuring, Dimension Reduction and Applications-Parallel Algorithms for Balanced Truncation Model Reduction of Sparse Systems.Jose M. Badia, Peter Benner, Rafael Mayo & Enrique S. Quintana-Orti - 2006 - In O. Stock & M. Schaerf (eds.), Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Springer Verlag. pp. 267-275.
  3. On the Role of Bridge Laws in Intertheoretic Relations.Sorin Bangu - 2011 - Philosophy of Science 78 (5):1108-1119.
  4. Reduction and Renormalization.Robert W. Batterman - 2010 - In Gerhard Ernst & Andreas Hüttemann (eds.), Time, Chance and Reduction: Philosophical Aspects of Statistical Mechanics. Cambridge University Press. pp. 159--179.
    This paper discusses the alleged reduction of Thermodynamics to Statistical Mechanics. It includes an historical discussion of J. Willard Gibbs' famous caution concerning the connections between thermodynamic properties and statistical mechanical properties---his so-called ``Thermodynamic Analogies.'' The reasons for Gibbs' caution are reconsidered in light of relatively recent work in statistical physics on the existence of the thermodynamic limit and the explanation of critical behavior using the renormalization group apparatus. A probabilistic understanding of the renormalization group arguments allows for a kind (...)
  5. The Devil in the Details: Asymptotic Reasoning in Explanation, Reduction, and Emergence.Robert W. Batterman - 2001 - Oxford University Press.
    Robert Batterman examines a form of scientific reasoning called asymptotic reasoning, arguing that it has important consequences for our understanding of the scientific process as a whole. He maintains that asymptotic reasoning is essential for explaining what physicists call universal behavior. With clarity and rigor, he simplifies complex questions about universal behavior, demonstrating a profound understanding of the underlying structures that ground them. This book introduces a valuable new method that is certain to fill explanatory gaps across disciplines.
  6. Theories Between Theories: Asymptotic Limiting Intertheoretic Relations.Robert W. Batterman - 1995 - Synthese 103 (2):171 - 201.
    This paper addresses a relatively common scientific (as opposed to philosophical) conception of intertheoretic reduction between physical theories. This is the sense of reduction in which one (typically newer and more refined) theory is said to reduce to another (typically older and coarser) theory in the limit as some small parameter tends to zero. Three examples of such reductions are discussed: First, the reduction of Special Relativity (SR) to Newtonian Mechanics (NM) as (v/c)20; second, the reduction of wave optics to (...)
  7. Response to Belot's "Whose Devil? Which Details?".Robert W. Batterman - 2005 - Philosophy of Science 72 (1):154-163.
    I respond to Belot's argument and defend the view that sometimes `fundamental theories' are explanatorily inadequate and need to be supplemented with certain aspects of less fundamental `theories emeritus'.
  8. Resisting Ruthless Reductionism: A Commentary on Bickle.Timothy J. Bayne & Jordi Fernandez - 2005 - Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 4 (3):239-48.
    Philosophy and Neuroscience is an unabashed apologetic for reductionism in philosophy of mind. Bickle chides his fellow philosophers for their ignorance of mainstream neuroscience, and promises them that a subscription to Cell, Neuron, or any other journal in mainstream neuroscience will be amply rewarded. Rather than being bogged down in the intricacies of two-dimensional semantics or the ontology of properties, philosophers of mind need to get neuroscientifically informed and ruthlessly reductive.
  9. Reducing Psychology While Maintaining its Autonomy Via Mechanistic Explanations.William Bechtel - 2007 - In M. Schouten & H. L. De Joong (eds.), The Matter of the Mind: Philosophical Essays on Psychology, Neuroscience and Reduction. Blackwell.
    Arguments for the autonomy of psychology or other higher-level sciences have often taken the form of denying the possibility of reduction. The form of reduction most proponents and critics of the autonomy of psychology have in mind is theory reduction. Mechanistic explanations provide a different perspective. Mechanistic explanations are reductionist insofar as they appeal to lower-level entities—the component parts of a mechanism and their operations— to explain a phenomenon. However, unlike theory reductions, mechanistic explanations also recognize the fundamental role of (...)
  10. Autonomous Psychology: What It Should and Should Not Entail.William P. Bechtel - 1984 - Philosophy of Science Association 1984:43 - 55.
    In the wake of the cognitivist revolution in psychology, a number of philosophers (e.g., Putnam and Fodor) have argued that the functional ontology underlying cognitivism allows for the autonomy of psychology from neuroscience. It is contended that these arguments do not support the kind of autonomy proposed and that, in any case, such autonomy would be misguided. The last claim is supported by considering the consequences such autonomy would have for a number of research programmes in cognitive psychology. It is (...)
  11. Reduction, Integration, and the Unity of Science: Natural, Behavioral, and Social Sciences and the Humanities.William P. Bechtel & Andrew Hamilton - 2007 - In T. Kuipers (ed.), Philosophy of Science: Focal Issues (Volume 1 of the Handbook of the Philosophy of Science). Elsevier.
    1. A Historical Look at Unity 2. Field Guide to Modern Concepts of Reduction and Unity 3. Kitcher's Revisionist Account of Unification 4. Critics of Unity 5. Integration Instead of Unity 6. Reduction via Mechanisms 7. Case Studies in Reduction and Unification across the Disciplines.
  12. Failures of the Reduction Principle in an Ellsberg-Type Problem.Michele Bernasconi & Graham Loomes - 1992 - Theory and Decision 32 (1):77-100.
  13. Concepts of Intertheoretic Reduction in Contemporary Philosophy of Mind.John Bickle - manuscript
  14. Structuralist Contributions – and Limitations? – to the Study of Scientific Reduction.John Bickle - 2012 - Metatheoria 2 (2):1-23.
    Structuralism provides useful resources for advancing our understanding of the intertheoretic reduction relation and its place in the history of science. This paper begins by surveying these resources and assessing their metascientific significance. Nevertheless, important challenges remain. I close by arguing that the reductionism implicit in current scientific practice in a paradigmatic reductionistic scientific field –“molecular and cellular cognition”– is better understood on an “intervene and track” model rather than as any kind of intertheoretic relation. I illustrate my alternative model (...)
  15. Real Reduction in Real Neuroscience : Metascience, Not Philosophy of Science (and Certainly Not Metaphysics!).John Bickle - 2008 - In Jakob Hohwy & Jesper Kallestrup (eds.), Being Reduced: New Essays on Reduction, Explanation, and Causation. Oxford University Press.
  16. Reducing Mind to Molecular Pathways: Explicating the Reductionism Implicit in Current Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience. [REVIEW]John Bickle - 2006 - Synthese 151 (3):411-434.
    As opposed to the dismissive attitude toward reductionism that is popular in current philosophy of mind, a “ruthless reductionism” is alive and thriving in “molecular and cellular cognition”—a field of research within cellular and molecular neuroscience, the current mainstream of the discipline. Basic experimental practices and emerging results from this field imply that two common assertions by philosophers and cognitive scientists are false: (1) that we do not know much about how the brain works, and (2) that lower-level neuroscience cannot (...)
  17. Replies.John Bickle - 2005 - Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 4 (3):285-296.
    I reply to challenges raised by contributors to this book symposium. Key challenges include (but are not limited to): distancing my new account of reductionism-in-practice from my previous “new wave” account; clarifying my claimed “heuristic” status for higher-level investigations (including cognitive-neuroscientific ones); defending the “reorientation of philosophical desires” I claim to be required by my project; and addressing consideration about normativity.
  18. Concepts Structured Through Reduction: A Structuralist Resource Illuminates the Consolidation – Long-Term Potentiation (Ltp) Link.John Bickle - 2002 - Synthese 130 (1):123 - 133.
    The structuralist program has developed a useful metascientific resource: ontological reductive links (ORLs) between the constituents of the potential models of reduced and reducing theories. This resource was developed initially to overcome an objection to structuralist ``global'' accounts of the intertheoretic reduction relation. But it also illuminates the way that concepts at a higher level of scientific investigation (e.g., cognitive psychology) become ``structured through reduction'' to lower-level investigations (e.g., cellular/molecular neuroscience). After (briefly) explaining this structuralist background, I demonstrate how this (...)
  19. Precis of Psychoneural Reduction: The New Wave.John Bickle - 2001 - Grazer Philosophische Studien 61:249-255.
  20. Psychoneural Reductionism: The New Wave.John Bickle - 1997 - MIT Press.
  21. New Wave Psychophysical Reductionism and the Methodological Caveats.John Bickle - 1996 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 56 (1):57-78.
  22. Mental Anomaly and the New Mind-Brain Reductionism.John Bickle - 1992 - Philosophy of Science 59 (2):217-30.
    Davidson's principle of the anomalousness of the mental was instrumental in discrediting once-popular versions of mind-brain reductionism. In this essay I argue that a novel account of intertheoretic reduction, which does not require the sort of cross-theoretic bridge laws that Davidson's principle rules out, allows a version of mind-brain reductionism which is immune from Davidson's challenge. In the final section, I address a second worry about reductionism, also based on Davidson's principle, that survives this response. I argue that new reductionists (...)
  23. Psychoneural Reduction: The New Wave.John W. Bickle - 2008 - Bradford.
    One of the central problems in the philosophy of psychology is an updated version of the old mind-body problem: how levels of theories in the behavioral and brain sciences relate to one another. Many contemporary philosophers of mind believe that cognitive-psychological theories are not reducible to neurological theories. However, this antireductionism has not spawned a revival of dualism. Instead, most nonreductive physicalists prefer the idea of a one-way dependence of the mental on the physical.In Psychoneural Reduction, John Bickle presents a (...)
  24. Ontological Reduction and Abstract Entities.Daniel Albert Bonevac - 1980 - Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh
    In the final chapter I examine Quine's criterion of ontological commitment, finding it vague and somewhat misleading. I sharpen the criterion both syntactically and semantically, and show that on a literal reading, it clashes with Quine's emphasis on the significance of reduction. In order to make room for an ontologically interesting notion of reduction, we must distinguish questions of ostensible commitment, closely linked to existential quantification, from those of real commitment, which take reductive relations into account. "What can be reduced (...)
  25. John Bickle Psychoneural Reduction: The New Wave.Thomas Bontly - 2000 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 51 (4):901-905.
  26. Reducing Thermodynamics to Statistical Mechanics: The Case of Entropy.Craig Callender - 1999 - Journal of Philosophy 96 (7):348-373.
  27. Dualities and Intertheoretic Relations.Elena Castellani - 2010 - In Mauricio Suarez, Mauro Dorato & Miklos Redei (eds.), Epsa Philosophical Issues in the Sciences. Springer. pp. 9--19.
    This is the first of two papers concerned with the philosophical significance of dualities as applied in recent fundamental physics. The general idea is that, for its peculiarity, this ‘new’ ingredient in theory construction can open unexpected perspectives in the current philosophical reflection on contemporary physics. In particular, today’s physical dualities represent an unusual type of intertheory relation, the meaning of which deserves to be investigated. The aim is to show how discussing this point brings into play, at the same (...)
  28. Replies to Comments to Symposium on Patricia Smith Churchland's Neurophilosophy.Patricia S. Churchland - 1986 - Inquiry 29 (June):241-272.
  29. Neurophilosophy: Toward A Unified Science of the Mind-Brain.Patricia S. Churchland - 1986 - MIT Press.
    This is a unique book. It is excellently written, crammed with information, wise and a pleasure to read.' ---Daniel C. Dennett, Tufts University.
  30. Mind-Brain Reduction: New Light From Philosophy of Science.Patricia S. Churchland - 1982 - Neuroscience 7:1041-7.
  31. A Neurocomputational Perspective: The Nature of Mind and the Structure of Science.Paul M. Churchland - 1989 - MIT Press.
    A Neurocomputationial Perspective illustrates the fertility of the concepts and data drawn from the study of the brain and of artificial networks that model the...
  32. Some Reductive Strategies in Cognitive Neurobiology.Paul M. Churchland - 1986 - Mind 95 (July):279-309.
  33. Reduction, Qualia and the Direct Introspection of Brain States.Paul M. Churchland - 1985 - Journal of Philosophy 82 (January):8-28.
  34. Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind.Paul M. Churchland - 1979 - Cambridge University Press.
  35. On the Contrary: Critical Essays, 1987-1997.Paul M. Churchland & Patricia S. Churchland - 1998 - Cambridge: MIT Press.
    This collection was prepared in the belief that the most useful and revealing of anyone's writings are often those shorter essays penned in conflict with...
  36. Intertheoretic Reduction: A Neuroscientist's Field Guide.Paul M. Churchland & Patricia S. Churchland - 1994 - In Richard Warner & Tadeusz Szubka (eds.), The Mind-Body Problem: A Guide to the Current Debate. Cambridge: Blackwell.
  37. Intertheoretic Reduction: A Neuroscientist's Field Guide.Paul M. Churchland & Patricia S. Churchland - 1992 - In Y. Christen & P. S. Churchland (eds.), Neurophilosophy and Alzheimer's Disease. Springer Verlag. pp. 18--29.
  38. Reductionism and Discourse Relativity.D. S. Clarke - 2009 - Philo 12 (1):61-72.
    This paper is an interpretation and defense of Putnam’s claim that reductionist sentences identifying experiences with physical events or processes are meaningless. Discourses are formulated within frameworks that are characterized by their methods of justification, types of term introduction, and vocabularies. Examples of both meaningful intra-framework and meaningless cross-framework identities are considered, along with examples of theoretical identities across sub-frameworks. In agreement with Putnam, mental/physical identities are classified as cross-framework. But I qualify Putnam’s thesis by arguing that they can be (...)
  39. On the Reduction of Type Theory.Marcel Crabbé - 1983 - Mathematical Logic Quarterly 29 (4):235-237.
  40. Renormalizability, Fundamentality and a Final Theory: The Role of UV-Completion in the Search for Quantum Gravity.Karen Crowther & Niels Linnemann - forthcoming - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.
    Principles are central to physical reasoning, particularly in the search for a theory of quantum gravity (QG), where novel empirical data is lacking. One principle widely adopted in the search for QG is UV completion: the idea that a theory should (formally) hold up to all possible high energies. We argue---/contra/ standard scientific practice---that UV-completion is poorly-motivated as a guiding principle in theory-construction, and cannot be used as a criterion of theory-justification in the search for QG. For this, we explore (...)
  41. Ruthless Reductionism: A Review Essay of John Bickle's Philosophy and Neuroscience: A Ruthlessly Reductive Account. [REVIEW]Huib L. de Jong & Maurice K. D. Schouten - 2005 - Philosophical Psychology 18 (4):473-486.
    John Bickle's new book on philosophy and neuroscience is aptly subtitled 'a ruthlessly reductive account'. His 'new wave metascience' is a massive attack on the relative autonomy that psychology enjoyed until recently, and goes even beyond his previous (Bickle, J. (1998). Psychoneural reduction: The new wave. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.) new wave reductionsism. Reduction of functional psychology to (cognitive) neuroscience is no longer ruthless enough; we should now look rather to cellular or molecular neuroscience at the lowest possible level for (...)
  42. Identity Statements and Microreductions.Berent Enc - 1976 - Journal of Philosophy 73 (June):285-306.
    The view that scientific reduction succeeds by establishing property identities is challenged. it is argued that, instead of identity statements making reductions successful, the fact that a reduction is successful makes the identity statements possible. the argument proceeds first by showing that an explanatory asymmetry is generated by statements expressing property identities, second by locating the source of the asymmetry in a "generative relation" that obtains between the two properties. it is then argued that reduction succeeds only if the reducing (...)
  43. Reinforcing the Three ‘R's: Reduction, Reception, and Replacement.Ronald P. Endicott - 2007 - In M. Schouten & H. Looren de Jong (eds.), The Matter of the Mind: Philosophical Essays on Psychology, Neuroscience, and Reduction. Blackwell.
    Philosophers of science have offered different accounts of what it means for one scientific theory to reduce to another. I propose a more or less friendly amendment to Kenneth Schaffner’s “General Reduction-Replacement” model of scientific unification. Schaffner interprets scientific unification broadly in terms of a continuum from theory reduction to theory replacement. As such, his account leaves no place on its continuum for type irreducible and irreplaceable theories. The same is true for other accounts that incorporate Schaffner's continuum, for example, (...)
  44. Post-Structuralist Angst - Critical Notice: John Bickle, Psychoneural Reduction: The New Wave.Ronald P. Endicott - 2001 - Philosophy of Science 68 (3):377-393.
    I critically evaluate Bickle’s version of scientific theory reduction. I press three main points. First, a small point, Bickle modifies the new wave account of reduction developed by Paul Churchland and Clifford Hooker by treating theories as set-theoretic structures. But that structuralist gloss seems to lose what was distinctive about the Churchland-Hooker account, namely, that a corrected theory must be specified entirely by terms and concepts drawn from the basic reducing theory. Set-theoretic structures are not terms or concepts but the (...)
  45. Collapse of the New Wave.Ronald P. Endicott - 1998 - Journal of Philosophy 95 (2):53-72.
    I critically evaluate the influential new wave account of theory reduction in science developed by Paul Churchland and Clifford Hooker. First, I cast doubt on claims that the new wave account enjoys a number of theoretical virtues over its competitors, such as the ability to represent how false theories are reduced by true theories. Second, I argue that the genuinely novel claim that a corrected theory must be specified entirely by terms from the basic reducing theory is in fact too (...)
  46. Species-Specific Properties and More Narrow Reductive Strategies.Ronald P. Endicott - 1993 - Erkenntnis 38 (3):303-21.
  47. Jakob Hohwy and Jesper Kallestrup (Eds), Being Reduced: New Essays on Reduction, Explanation, and Causation.M. I. Eronen - 2012 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 63 (1):227-231.
    The notion of reduction continues to play an important role in contemporary analytic philosophy. Being Reduced is a collection of essays that not only presents novel contributions to our understanding of reduction, but also aims at finding connections between the debates in philosophy of mind and philosophy of science, which have surprisingly remained rather detached from each other. Being reduced succeeds in this difficult task, and is a very welcome addition to the growing philosophical literature on reduction.
  48. Conservative Reductionism.Michael Esfeld & Christian Sachse - 2011 - Routledge.
    _Conservative Reductionism_ sets out a new theory of the relationship between physics and the special sciences within the framework of functionalism. It argues that it is wrong-headed to conceive an opposition between functional and physical properties and to build an anti-reductionist argument on multiple realization. By contrast, all properties that there are in the world, including the physical ones, are functional properties in the sense of being causal properties, and all true descriptions that the special sciences propose can in principle (...)
  49. Theory Reduction by Means of Functional Sub-Types.Michael Esfeld & Christian Sachse - 2007 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 21 (1):1 – 17.
    The paper sets out a new strategy for theory reduction by means of functional sub-types. This strategy is intended to get around the multiple realization objection. We use Kim's argument for token identity (ontological reductionism) based on the causal exclusion problem as starting point. We then extend ontological reductionism to epistemological reductionism (theory reduction). We show how one can distinguish within any functional type between functional sub-types. Each of these sub-types is coextensive with one type of realizer. By this means, (...)
  50. Marrying the Merits of Nagelian Reduction and Functional Reduction.Michael Esfeld, Christian Sachse & Patrice Soom - 2012 - Acta Analytica 27 (3):217-230.
    This paper points out the merit of Nagelian reduction, namely to propose a model of inter-theoretic reduction that retains the scientific quality of the reduced theory and the merit of functional reduction, namely to take multiple realization into account and to offer reductive explanations. By considering Lewis and Kim’s proposal for local reductions, we establish that functional reduction fails to achieve a theory reduction and cannot retain the scientific quality of the reduced theory. We improve on that proposal by showing (...)
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