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Supervenience and explanation

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This paper explores the explanatory adequacy of lower-level theories when their higher-level counterparts are irreducible. If some state or entity described by a high-level theory supervenes upon and is realized in events, entities, etc. described by the relevant lower-level theory, does the latter fully explain the higher-level event even if the higher-level theory is irreducible? While the autonomy of the special sciences and the success of various eliminativist programs depends in large part on how we answer this question, neither the affirmative or negative answer has been defended in detail. I argue, contra Putnam and others, that certain facts about causation and explanation show that such lower-level theories do explain. I also argue, however, that there may be important questions about counterfactuals and laws that such explanations cannot answer, thereby showing their partial inadequacy. I defend the latter claim against criticisms based on eliminativism about higher-level explanations and sketch a number of empirical conditions that lower-level explanations would have to meet to fully explain higher-level events.

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Kincaid, H. Supervenience and explanation. Synthese 77, 251–281 (1988). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00869436

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  • Negative Answer
  • Special Science
  • Explanatory Adequacy
  • Empirical Condition