PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Hierarchies of Fundamentalities, in scientific explanation and metaphysical depth

Contemporary Philosophers of Science have constructed two major sets of hierarchies with which to understand science and make normative claims. The first follows from the legacy of Logical Positivism and Hempel and Oppenheim's Deductive-Nomological structure of scientific explanation. ``Fundamental'' laws of nature are exceptionless generalizations, and sit at the top. Specific applications of laws cascade down, toward comparison with experimental data. Earman, Roberts, and Smith (2002) are prominent defenders of this view. The second sort of hierarchy philosophers have built is metaphysical. These hierarchies divide scientific entities into two groups: fundamental and non-fundamental. In this poster, I focus on the example of Ontic Structural Realism. I agree with McKenzie (2014) that OSR is a fundamentality thesis: it holds that structures are the metaphysical ``ground'' on which objects, like electrons, are based. My aim for this poster is to interrogate the relationship between the two kinds of hierarchies. Structural Realists, such as French (2014), take the top of the explanatory hierarchy as the bottom of their metaphysical one: exceptionless laws become fundamental structures. Must they? Should they? I think not. However, here I only hope to sharply ask the question. One reason these questions are important arises from OSR's (under-examined) critique of historicism. Structural Realists accept that scientific object-terms like ``electron'' did not always refer to genuine objects, but they argue that the structural relations that electrons enter into (i.e. Coulomb's law) refer at all times. The problem I identify is that Coulomb's law is not an ``exceptionless generalization'' and sits underneath Maxwell's equations in OSR's explanatory hierarchy. To address this, OSR invokes reductionism. For example Ladyman and Ross (2007) endorse Ernest Nagel's picture of reductive explanations---modelled on the DN hierarchy. OSR's combination of reductionism and historical claims gives new relevance to classic critiques of Nagel's work (Glymour 1970, Brush 1976).


Brush, S. G. (1976). Statistical mechanics and the philosophy of science: Some historical notes. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, pages 551–584.

Earman, J., Roberts, J. T., and Smith, S. (2002). Ceteris Paribus Post. Erkenntnis, 57(3):281–301.

French, S. (2014). The Structure of the World : Metaphysics and Representation. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Glymour, C. (1970). On Some Patterns of Reduction. Philosophy of Science, 37(3):340–353.

Ladyman, J. and Ross, D. (2007). Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics naturalized. Oxford University Press, Oxford. With David Spurrett and John G. Collier.

McKenzie, K. (2014). Priority and Particle Physics: Ontic Structural Realism as a Fundamentality Thesis. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 65(2):353–380.

Author Information:

Aaron Sidney Wright    
Suppes Center for History and Philosophy of Science
Stanford University


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