How special are special sciences?

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This essay deals with issues such as the unity of science, the autonomy of the special sciences, reductionism, physicalism, and the role that the concept of emergence plays in the debate about these topics. The author develops her point of view through critical examination of three significant perspectives held in contemporary epistemological discussion. Thus, according to Jerry Fodor, three theses are entailed by reductionism: the generality of physics, token physicalism, and reductionism itself (that is, the idea that every natural kind predicate of a special science is related to a natural kind predicate of physics). Fodor maintains that, in order to safeguard the autonomy of the special sciences, the reductionist thesis should be given up, as a consequence of the validity of the multiple realization thesis. Besides the generality of physics, only token physicalism is needed to guarantee both the autonomy of the special sciences and the unity of science on a physicalistic basis. However, reacting to Fodor’s thesis, Jaegwon Kim points out that adoption of token physicalism leads to consequences which are undesirable for the supporters of the autonomy of the special sciences. Moving from assumptions also shared by non-reductive physicalists, Kim argues that reductionism comes up again through “local reductions” and that, as a consequence, sciences such as psychology are devoid of any disciplinary unity. In the author’s view, Kim’s conclusions show that, in order to safeguard the autonomy of the special sciences, token-physicalism needs to be abandoned along with reductionism. In the context of present-day philosophy of science, John Dupre’s perspective is taken as an example of a position which gives up both of these conditions along with the unity of science thesis, as traditionally understood. The alternative to physicalism and to reductionism is an epistemological and ontological pluralism, according to which the different domains and levels of reality display autonomous characteristics and autonomous causal powers. But how should these latter be conceived? Does downward causation finds its place in the picture? The author’s aim in the final part of her essay is to show that Dupré’s allegiance to a liberalized form of empiricism is incompatible with an autonomous form of mental causation as well as with the most typical characteristics of the human being as a personal agent. The conclusion is drawn that in the particular case of psychology as the science of the mental, the last of Fodor’s conditions, the generality of physics, should also be rejected. Instead, a strong form of emergent property-dualism should, as a minimum, be accepted.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEmergence in Science and Philosophy
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2010

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in the Philosophy of Science


  • Physicalism
  • downward causation
  • emergence
  • emergent dualism
  • essentialism
  • mind
  • mind-body-nexus
  • pluralism
  • reductivism
  • unity of science


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