Robertson and Wilson on Theoretical Relicts at Bergen

On Friday 5 November 2021, Katie Robertson and Alastair Wilson discussed work in progress at the Annual Philosophy of Science Workshop at the University of Bergen, held over Zoom. Details of the workshop, including abstracts of all talks are here – videos will be available soon.

Theoretical Relicts: Progress, Reduction, and Autonomy
Katie Robertson and Alastair Wilson

ABSTRACT: When once-successful physical theories are abandoned, common wisdom has it that key theoretical entities are abandoned with them: examples include phlogiston, light rays, newtonian forces, euclidean space. In this paper we argue that the theoretical terms of superseded theories can typically be correlated with real and explanatorily relevant higher-level entities – ‘theoretical relicts’ – which enable successful description of non-fundamental phenomena. We describe a ‘verticalization’ procedure which transforms horizontal reductions (in which a reducing theory recaptures the reduced theory within a certain domain of application) into vertical reductions (in which a lower-level phenomenon constitutes or grounds a higher-level phenomenon). Theoretical relicts, as higher-level abstractions, correspond to distinct subject-matters from their lower-level realizers; this distinctness enables the relicts to retain distinctive explanatory power even in the presence of reduction. We suggest that theoretical entities from abandoned fundamental theories should be retained in a scientific realist worldview just when, reinterpreted as higher-level abstractions, they continue to perform distinctive explanatory work in providing the aptest, or most proportionate, explanation for non-fundamental phenomena of interest. In slogan form: a good relict is an emergent relict.

The presentation is here:

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