As Eric Schliesser explains in his recent post and comments, the old Unity of Science project is dead. That project had two main aims. One of these was to reduce the substantive claims of all science to those of physics. For instance, biology was to be shown to arise from biochemistry, biochemistry in turn from physics. In order to achieve this, the terms of the “special sciences” had to be reduced to those of physics: gene to DNA segment to some physical term. In short: all causal claims were to be reduced to claims about the entities of physics, and the special sciences themselves are reduced to sets of existential claims about certain combinations of the entities of physics.
This project died with the autonomy of science movement. Hilary Putnam, Jerry Fodor, and Philip Kitcher all argued that the claims of the special sciences did not depend in any way on the reduction to physics, and that the causal claims of these sciences could hold independently of their physical realization. For instance, Mendel’s Laws depend only on the independent segregation and recombination of genes, and their underlying structure is unimportant. This meant that the original unreduced meaning of the term gene was indispensable to biology, and the whole reduction process described above is nugatory.
In recent years, we have seen two rather controversial developments in this area – and because of the weakness of general philosophy of science they have not been properly scrutinized from the perspective of scientific methodology.
The first development is autonomy gone ontological. One example occurs in philosophy of biology where it has been claimed that natural selection and drift are “population level causes” in the sense that they act on populations in a way that has nothing to do with causes that act on individual organisms. This goes much further than the claim that populations (cp genes) are constituted by structural features that are indifferent to particular realizations. This is an extreme application of the autonomy arguments.
The second development is ontology being pushed deeper than physics. In the 1920s, Bertrand Russell argued that the terms of physics are functional: mass is nothing but resistance to acceleration; charge, once again, is to be understood interactionally. He asked what intrinsic properties of matter underlay these functional terms. Russell proposed a “neutral monism” in answer to this question, on which the fundamental properties of matter were the stuff of consciousness.
Recently, this proposal has been revived by David Chalmers and Daniel Stoljar, who suggest that the fundamental and intrinsic properties of matter are “protophenomenal”. Consciousness arises out of these deep properties of matter, as do the interactional properties described by physics. This seems like a radical application of the old Unity assumptions.
Both these developments beg for the critical discourse of general philosophers of science. C’mon girls and guys: where are you? Are these uses of Unity/Disunity of science maxims legitimate?