Mechanisms and Reduction in Organic Chemistry

Conference paper
Part of the European Studies in Philosophy of Science book series (ESPS, volume 5)


Organic chemistry has a century-long tradition of thinking about mechanisms, yet chemistry is a striking omission from recent philosophical literature. In this paper I argue that current philosophical accounts of mechanism are too abstract, missing what’s important about mechanisms in chemistry. Given that they have been informed by studies of the biological and cognitive sciences, they also have a tendency to make general claims about mechanisms that fail for a physical science such as chemistry. I then critically examine arguments that successful mechanistic explanations effect reductions of special-science relationships. I argue that they need not. Mechanistic explanations illuminate by identifying lower-level realisers for higher-level entities or properties and (sometimes) applying the general laws that govern them to yield new information about those mechanisms. None of this assumes that the lower-level realisers causally exclude the things they realise, which is what the argument for reduction requires. Exclusion may be a widely shared assumption in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, but it finds no support in the mechanistic explanations provided by organic chemistry. I argue that it has no place in naturalistic discussion of mechanism in the philosophy of science.


Chemistry Mechanisms Reduction 



I would like to thank Gergely Kertész, Paul Teller and members of the Durham Emergence Project for their comments on an earlier version of this paper. I would also like to thank the John Templeton Foundation for generously funding the Durham Emergence Project.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyDurham UniversityDurhamUK

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