The Metaphysical Unity of Science Project

The Metaphysical Unity of Science ('MetaScience') project will pursue the question of what, if anything, unifies the natural sciences. The project studies the question from the perspective of metaphysics and philosophy of science by way of employing case studies from biology, chemistry, and physics.

What does it mean for one scientific phenomenon to be explained in terms of another? Under what conditions does scientific unification take place? In philosophy these questions are often discussed under the rubric of reduction. Typically, in asking whether one phenomenon reduces to  another, we aim to understand what the ultimate or fundamental basis of the first phenomenon is. In the mid to late 20th century, there was a hope to reduce all higher level phenomena to fundamental physics. Yet, it was soon discovered that there are phenomena that cannot be easily reduced, so unification may not be available via this route.

The project ’s ambitious goal is to produce a novel account of unification. This is made possible by recent breakthroughs in the methodology of metaphysics, an area sometimes called “metametaphysics”. The project’s objectives are:  

  1. To establish the criteria for scientific unification
  2. To conduct case studies of actual scientific reductions at the biology-chemistry and the chemistry-physics interfaces
  3. To study the role of dependence relations weaker than reduction

A cross-disciplinarily applicable toolbox for unification would be enormously useful for identifying the kind of expertise needed for understanding a given phenomenon. This is not merely a philosophical problem. If there are reasons to think that a given biological phenomenon reduces to chemical phenomena, then biologists studying that phenomenon had better be prepared to consult and collaborate with the chemists. If a unification can be achieved, we can determine when scientists ought to consult their colleagues in other sciences and also when this is likely to be a hindrance instead of an advantage.  

Image above modelled after Oppenheim & Putnam (1958), ’Unity of Science as a Working Hypothesis’, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 2: 3-36

Horizon 2020

MetaScience is an interdisciplinary research project hosted at the University of Bristol's Department of Philosophy. We are funded by the European Research Council's  'Consolidator Grant' scheme - part of the European Union's 'Horizon 2020' research and innovation programme.

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