The Explanatory Role of Irreducible Properties

Published: Noûs 46:754–780, 2012.

Abstract: I aim to reconcile two apparently con´Čéicting theses:

  1. Everything that can be explained, can be explained in purely physical terms, that is, using the machinery of fundamental physics, and
  2. Some properties that play an explanatory role in the higher level sciences are irreducible in the strong sense that they are physically undefinable: their nature cannot be described using the vocabulary of physics.

I investigate the contribution that physically undefinable properties typically make to explanations in the high-level sciences, and I show that when they are explanatorily relevant, it is in virtue of their extension (or something close) alone. They are irreducible because physics cannot capture their nature; this is no obstacle, however, to physics' more or less capturing their extension, which is all that it need do to duplicate their explanatory power.

In the course of the argument, I sketch the outlines of an account of the explanation of physically contingent regularities, such as the regularities found in most branches of biological inquiry, at the center of which is an account of the nature of contingent, empirical bridge principles.

PDF version: The Explanatory Role of Irreducible Properties.