Reduction, Emergence, and Renormalization

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Journal of Philosophy, ISSN: 0022-362X, Vol: 111, Issue: 1, Page: 5-49

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Butterfield, Jeremy
Philosophy Documentation Center, The Journal of Philosophy, Inc
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In previous work, I described several examples combining reduction and emergence: where reduction is understood a la Ernest Nagel, and emergence is understood as behaviour or properties that are novel (by some salient standard). Here, my aim is again to reconcile reduction and emergence, for a case which is apparently more problematic than those I treated before: renormalization. Renormalization is a vast subject. So I confine myself to emphasizing how the modern approach to renormalization (initiated by Wilson and others between 1965 and 1975), when applied to quantum field theories, illustrates both Nagelian reduction and emergence. My main point is that the modern understanding of how renormalizability is a generic feature of quantum field theories at accessible energies gives us a conceptually unified family of Nagelian reductions. That is worth saying since philosophers tend to think of scientific explanation as only explaining an individual event, or perhaps a single law, or at most deducing one theory as a special case of another. Here we see a framework in which there is a space of theories endowed with enough structure that it provides a family of reductions.

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