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Hartmann, Stephan (2001): Effective Field Theories, Reductionism and Scientific Explanation. In: Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, Vol. 32, Nr. 2: 267 - 304

Abstract

Effective field theories have been a very popular tool in quantum physics for almost two decades. And there are good reasons for this. I will argue that effective field theories share many of the advantages of both fundamental theories and phenomenological models, while avoiding their respective shortcomings. They are, for example, flexible enough to cover a wide range of phenomena, and concrete enough to provide a detailed story of the specific mechanisms at work at a given energy scale. So will all of physics eventually converge on effective field theories? This paper argues that good scientific research can be characterised by a fruitful interaction between fundamental theories, phenomenological models and effective field theories. All of them have their appropriate functions in the research process, and all of them are indispensable. They complement each other and hang together in a coherent way which I shall characterise in some detail. To illustrate all this I will present a case study from nuclear and particle physics. The resulting view about scientific theorising is inherently pluralistic, and has implications for the debates about reductionism and scientific explanation.