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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: August 2010

1 - Intertheoretic relations: Are imperialism and isolationism our only options?


… that was to this, Hyperion to a satyr.

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 2


The issue of intertheoretic relations is concerned with how our various theoretical descriptions of the world are supposed to fit together. As the physicist Sir Michael Berry describes it, “Our scientific understanding of the world is a patchwork of vast scope; it covers the intricate chemistry of life, the sociology of animal communities, the gigantic wheeling galaxies, and the dances of elusive elementary particles. But it is a patchwork nevertheless, and the different areas do not fit well together” (Berry 2001, p. 41). This uncomfortable patchwork exists even if we restrict our attention to within the field of physics alone. Physics itself consists of many subtheories, such as quantum field theory, quantum mechanics, condensed-matter theory, thermodynamics, classical mechanics, and the special and general theories of relativity – just to name a few. Each of these theories is taken to be an accurate description of some domain of phenomena, and insofar as they are supposed to be describing one and the same world, it is important to ask how these very different – and in many cases prima facie mutually inconsistent – theories are supposed to fit together.

Hitherto, the philosophical frameworks available for thinking about intertheory relations have been rather limited. Traditionally, discussions of intertheoretic relations have been framed in terms of reductionism.