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to identify patterns that describe the behavior of tiny regions of space-time in distant galaxies, the behavior of the interior of the sun, and the behavior of the Queen of England’s left foot. This is a fantastically important project, but it is by no means the only scientific project worth pursuing[1]. The special sciences are all, to one degree or another, concerned with identifying patterns that hold only in sub-sets of the domain studied by physics. This is not to say that the special sciences all reduce to physics or that they’re all somehow parasitic on the patterns identified by fundamental physics. While I want to avoid engaging with these metaphysical questions as much as possible, it’s important to forestall that interpretation of what I’m saying here. The special sciences are, on this view, emphatically not second-class citizens—they are just as legitimate as fields of inquiry as is fundamental physics. Again (and contra Maudlin), the sense of “fundamental” in “fundamental physics” should not be taken to connote anything like ontological primacy or a metaphysically privileged position (whatever that might mean) within the general scientific project. Rather (to reiterate) it is just an indicator of the fact that fundamental physics is the most general part of the scientific project; it is the branch of science that is concerned with patterns that show up everywhere in the world. When we say that other sciences are concerned with restricted sub-sets of the physical world, we just mean that they’re concerned with picking out patterns in some of the systems to which the generalizations of fundamental physics apply[2].

  1. It is worth pointing out that it is indeed possible that there just are no such patterns in the world: it is possible that all laws are, to a greater or lesser extent, parochial. If that were true, then it would turn out that the goal underlying the practice of fundamental physics was a bad one—there just are no universal patterns to be had. Because of this possibility, the unity of science is an hypothesis to be empirically confirmed or disconfirmed. Still, even its disconfirmation might not be as much of a disaster as it seems: the patterns identified in the course of this search would remain legitimate patterns, and the discovery that all patterns are to some extent parochial would itself be incredibly informative. Many advances are made accidentally in the course of pursuing a goal that, in the end, turns out to not be achievable.
  2. Ladyman, Ross, Spurrett, and Collier (2007) put the point slightly differently, arguing that fundamental physics is