Local Reduction in Physics

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Joshua Rosaler
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A conventional wisdom about the progress of physics holds that successive theories wholly encompass the domains of their predecessors through a process that is often called “reduction.” While certain influential accounts of inter-theory reduction in physics take reduction to require a single “global” derivation of one theory’s laws from those of another, I show that global reductions are not available in all cases where the conventional wisdom requires reduction to hold. However, I argue that a weaker “local” form of reduction, which defines reduction between theories in terms of a more fundamental notion of reduction between models of a single fixed system, is available in such cases and moreover suffices to uphold the conventional wisdom. To illustrate the sort of fixed-system, inter-model reduction that grounds inter-theoretic reduction on this picture, I specialize to a particular class of cases in which both models are dynamical systems. I show that reduction in these cases is underwritten by a mathematical relationship that follows the broad prescriptions of Nagel/Schaffner reduction, and support this claim with several examples. Moreover, I show that this broadly Nagelian analysis of inter-model reduction encompasses several cases that are sometimes cited as instances of the “physicist’s” limit-based notion of reduction.

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