Reduction: the Cheshire cat problem and a return to roots

Abstract

In this paper, I propose two theses, and then examine what the consequences of those theses are for discussions of reduction and emergence. The first thesis is that what have traditionally been seen as robust, reductions of one theory or one branch of science by another more fundamental one are a largely a myth. Although there are such reductions in the physical sciences, they are quite rare, and depend on special requirements. In the biological sciences, these prima facie sweeping reductions fade away, like the body of the famous Cheshire cat, leaving only a smile. ... The second thesis is that the “smiles” are fragmentary patchy explanations, and though patchy and fragmentary, they are very important, potentially Nobel-prize winning advances. To get the best grasp of these “smiles,” I want to argue that, we need to return to the roots of discussions and analyses of scientific explanation more generally, and not focus mainly on reduction models, though three conditions based on earlier reduction models are retained in the present analysis. I briefly review the scientific explanation literature as it relates to reduction, and then offer my account of explanation. The account of scientific explanation I present is one I have discussed before, but in this paper I try to simplify it, and characterize it as involving field elements (FE) and a preferred causal model system (PCMS) abbreviated as FE and PCMS. In an important sense, this FE and PCMS analysis locates an “explanation” in a typical scientific research article. This FE and PCMS account is illustrated using a recent set of neurogenetic papers on two kinds of worm foraging behaviors: solitary and social feeding. One of the preferred model systems from a 2002 Nature article in this set is used to exemplify the FE and PCMS analysis, which is shown to have both reductive and nonreductive aspects. The paper closes with a brief discussion of how this FE and PCMS approach differs from and is congruent with Bickle’s “ruthless reductionism” and the recently revived mechanistic philosophy of science of Machamer, Darden, and Craver.

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Correspondence to Kenneth F. Schaffner.

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Schaffner, K.F. Reduction: the Cheshire cat problem and a return to roots. Synthese 151, 377–402 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-006-9031-2

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Keywords

  • Emergence explanation
  • Field model system
  • Reduction