Multiple realizability and the semantic view of theories


Multiply realizable properties are those whose realizers are physically diverse. It is often argued that theories which contain them are ipso facto irreducible. These arguments assume that physical explanations are restricted to the most specific descriptions possible of physical entities. This assumption is descriptively false, and philosophically unmotivated. I argue that it is a holdover from the late positivist axiomatic view of theories. A semantic view of theories, by contrast, correctly allows scientific explanations to be couched in the most perspicuous, powerful language available. On a semantic view, traditional notions of multiple realizability are thus very hard to motivate. At best, one must abandon either the idea that multiple realizability is an interesting scientific notion, or else admit that multiply realizable properties do not automatically block scientific reductions.

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  1. 1.

    Logothetis estimates that a 55 μl volume of brain (corresponding to a standard unfiltered fMRI voxel) “contains 5.5 million neurons, 2.2−5.5 × 1010 synapses, 22 km of dendrites and 220 km of axons” (Logothetis 2008, p. 875).

  2. 2.

    For a similar argument against MR, couched in terms of ‘descriptive grain,’ see (Bechtel and Mundale 1999).

  3. 3.

    Lewis suggests an argument along these lines in his (Lewis 1986). For a recent defense geared towards philosophy of mind, see (Bontly 2005).

  4. 4.

    Note that this argument is compatible with currently fashionable ‘ontic’ views of explanation. Ontic accounts claim that explananda are real objects—causes and the like (Craver 2007). The present argument does not deny this. It says only Gricean constraints affect how explanations are formulated, and so (indirectly) our estimation of the goodness of particular explanations.

  5. 5.

    See (Nagel 1961), as well as (Suppe 1989) for a contemporary reconstruction and discussion.

  6. 6.

    See Chap. 2 of Suppe (1989) for an extended discussion of problems with the axiomatic account. Salmon (1998a), especially (Salmon 1998b), also contains a number of useful critiques of the deductive-nomological view of explanation associated with the axiomatic view.

  7. 7.

    Roman Frigg notes that “Over the last four decades the semantic view of theories has become the orthodox view on models and theories” (Frigg 2006). For useful historical treatments of the shift away from the axiomatic view, see (Suppe 1989; Bailer-Jones 2009).

  8. 8.

    That is not to say that theories aren’t ontologically committal. They are. Rather, it is to say that linguistic formulations of a theory don’t show you what those commitments might be. The truthmakers for claims about model-world isomorphisms need not be transparent features of the language in which theories are formulated.

  9. 9.

    Or, more precisely, they are either isomorphic to each other (on a concretist view) or their state-spaces are isomorphic (on an abstract, state-space view).

  10. 10.

    See for example (Bealer 1994); in general, discussions of MR that lean heavily on modal metaphysics (as opposed to arguments about particular scientific terms) have this feature.

  11. 11.

    Thanks to Carl Gillet for convincing me on this point


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Thanks to Karen Bennett, Carl Gillett, Esther Klein, Tristram McPherson, Tom Polger, Larry Shapiro, an anonymous reviewer, and an audience at the Society for the Metaphysics of Science session at the 2009 Central APA for helpful comments on previous drafts.

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Correspondence to Colin Klein.

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Klein, C. Multiple realizability and the semantic view of theories. Philos Stud 163, 683–695 (2013).

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  • Multiple realizability
  • Semantic view
  • Theories
  • Reduction
  • Models