European Journal for Philosophy of Science

, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 419–445 | Cite as

Decoupling emergence and reduction in physics

Original paper in Philosophy of Physics


An effective theory in physics is one that is supposed to apply only at a given length (or energy) scale; the framework of effective field theory (EFT) describes a ‘tower’ of theories each applying at different length scales, where each ‘level’ up is a shorter-scale theory. Owing to subtlety regarding the use and necessity of EFTs, a conception of emergence defined in terms of reduction is irrelevant. I present a case for decoupling emergence and reduction in the philosophy of physics. This paper develops a positive conception of emergence, based on the novelty and autonomy of the ‘levels’, by considering physical examples, involving critical phenomena, the renormalisation group, and symmetry breaking. This positive conception of emergence is related to underdetermination and universality, but, I argue, is preferable to other accounts of emergence in physics that rely on universality.


Emergence Effective field theory Renormalization group RG Critical phenomena Universality Novelty Autonomy Symmetry breaking Quantum field theory 



Thank you to Robert Batterman and Ian McKay for their comments on a previous draft of this paper. I am appreciative, also, for the suggestions made by the anonymous reviewers.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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