Nagel on reduction

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 53:43-56 (2015)
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This paper attempts a critical reappraisal of Nagel's (1961, 1970) model of reduction taking into account both traditional criticisms and recent defenses. This model treats reduction as a type of explanation in which a reduced theory is explained by a reducing theory after their relevant representational items have been suitably connected. In accordance with the deductive-nomological model, the explanation is supposed to consist of a logical deduction. Nagel was a pluralist about both the logical form of the connections between the reduced and reducing theories (which could be conditionals or biconditionals) and their epistemological status (as analytic connections, conventions, or synthetic claims). This paper defends Nagel's pluralism on both counts and, in the process, argues that the multiple realizability objection to reductionism is misplaced. It also argues that the Nagel model correctly characterizes reduction as a type of explanation. However, it notes that logical deduction must be replaced by a broader class of inferential techniques that allow for different types of approximation. Whereas Nagel (1970), in contrast to his earlier position (1961), recognized the relevance of approximation, he did not realize its full import for the model. Throughout the paper two case studies are used to illustrate the arguments: the putative reduction of classical thermodynamics to the kinetic theory of matter and that of classical genetics to molecular biology.



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Sahotra Sarkar
University of Texas at Austin

References found in this work

Studies in the logic of explanation.Carl Gustav Hempel & Paul Oppenheim - 1948 - Philosophy of Science 15 (2):135-175.
Unity of Science as a Working Hypothesis.Paul Oppenheim & Hilary Putnam - 1958 - Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 2:3-36.
1953 and all that. A tale of two sciences.Philip Kitcher - 1984 - Philosophical Review 93 (3):335-373.

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