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Journal of Philosophy, Inc.

Ontological Reduction
Author(s): Dale Gottlieb
Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Feb. 12, 1976), pp. 57-76
Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
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4- * _+


QO NTOLOGICALeconomy and reform are accomplishedin

many ways. The simplest is just to stop asserting the ex-
istence of entities we wish to eliminate, as in the cases of
witches and of spontaneously generated insects. A method which is
not so simple is to banish from our vocabulary all terms purporting
to refer to the undesirables, as in the cases of facts, numbers, proposi-
tions, physical objects, infinitesimals, etc. A consequence of the
second method is that sentences we have relied upon in formulating
our theories about the world are no longer part of the language.
Unless those sentences had no legitimate role to play in those
theories, we cannot view their loss with equanimity: they must be
replaced. This may be accomplished in two ways: (a) the problem-
atic sentences can be replaced by new sentences which, although not
referring to the same entities, "play the same role" in the theory that
the old sentences did, as in the case of infinitesimals; (b) the prob-
lematic sentences can be replaced by sentences that "play the same
theoretical roles"; moreover, the replacement is accomplished via a
translation of their primitive predicates by open sentences so that the
translation preserves logical form, as in the reduction of numbers
to sets. My concern is with reform of type b, which I shall label
ontological reduction. Since the medium of ontological reduction is
translation, I shall speak both of reducing (one group of) entities
to (another group of) entities and of reducing one theory to another.
This paper is a prolegomenon to the formulation of a criterion for
ontological reduction and an account of ontological reduction which
exhibits its justification.
* This researchwas supportedby the National ScienceFoundation. I am grateful
to Peter Achinstein, Stephen Barker, Robert Cummins, Larry Davis, Gilbert
Harman, and W. V. Quine for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


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Although the most widely discussed instances of ontological reduc-
tion are mathematical, the method extends deeply into traditional
philosophical concerns. Idealists and phenomenalists have attempted
to reduce physical objects to sensa. Some versions of the mind-body
identity thesis are attempts to reduce mental episodes to bodily
events. Some would reduce events to "constructions" of objects,
properties, and times. In fact, what is referred to as "constructive
philosophy" is the attempt to reduce one type of entity to another
in the service of some philosophical program. Thus the problem of
finding a criterion for ontological reduction is a natural outgrowth
of the constructive systems of Russell, Carnap, Goodman, and
others.1 What is wanted is a condition on translations of type b
which justifies their use in paring down our vocabulary so as to
avoid the unwanted ontological commitments. That this is the func-
tion of a criterion of ontological reduction has not always been
obvious, as we shall now see.
1 Bertrand Russell, in "The Philosophy of Logical Atomism" (1918) in Robert
C. Marsh, ed., Logic and Knowledge (New York: Macmillan, 1956), writes:
In that way [i.e. by showing how sentences about physical objects are trans-
latable into sentences about sense-data] all the ordinary objects of daily life
are extruded from the world of what there is, and in their place as what there
is you find a number of passing particulars of the kind that one is immediately
conscious of in sense. I want to make it clear that I am not denying the
existence of anything; I am only refusing to affirm it (273/4).
In other words, if the program of "translation" is successful, we need no longer
affirm the existence of the objects referred to by the sentences that are translated
into the phenomenal language. Rudolf Carnap, in The Logical Structure of the
TW1orld (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1967), anticipating the success of his
constructions, concluded:
Thus, each object which is not one of my experiences, is a quasi-object; I
use its name as a convenient abbreviation in order to speak about my experi-
ences. In fact, within construction theory, and thus within rational science,
its name is nothing but an abbreviation. Whether, in addition, it also designates
something which "exists by itself" is a question of metaphysics which has no
place in science (255)

And Russell's more cautious statement is echoed by Nelson Goodman, The

Structure of Appearance (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 2d ed., 1966):
What he [i.e. the phenomenalist who constructs less-than-observable regions
out of observable regions] is doing, rather, is proving that for the purposes at
hand we need not assume that the less-than-observable region is anything
other than the class of observable regions in question . . . In other words,
the reductive force of a constructional system consists not in showing that a
given entity is identical with a complex of other entities but in showing that
no commitment to the contrary is necessary (28/9)

Parenthetical references to these authors will be to these books.

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Carnap took extensional identity as necessary and sufficient for

the adequacy of a constructional definition (sec. 35). Goodman
criticized this choice on the grounds that there are clearly acceptable
constructions that violate the requirement (8/9). In fact, the ex-
istence of constructions of the same elements out of different bases
guarantees that the requirement will be violated. But it is important
to see that, in addition, there is a significant gap between the cri-
terion and the ontological impact attributed to construction. If 'The
United States of America', 'the tallest spy', and 'the first observed
molecule' are to be shown by construction to be nothing but ab-
breviations with which I speak about my experiences, so that no
commitment to entities other than my experiences (and classes of
them) is necessary, then it will be self-defeating to require extensional
equivalence of their definientia. As Goodman emphasizes, the con-
struction does not reveal to us that one entity is identical with a
complex of others. Rather we remain cognizant throughout that the
entity to be reduced is quite different in many respects from our
construction. The construction shows only that, from the point of
view of our total theory, the primitive predicates referring to that
entity can be replaced by open sentences that do not so refer.
Carnap's criterion sabotages this effort, since it guarantees that no
change whatsoever will take place in our ontological commitments.
Criteria avoiding Goodman's counterexample were propounded by
both Goodman and Quine. Goodman chose extensional isomorphism
(El): "the set of all the definientia of a system must be extensionally
isomorphic to the set of all the definienda" (13). For his part, Quine
suggested that T' is an ontological reduction of T iff
(R) There is an effective mapping of the primitive predicates of T
on open sentences of T' such that the result of replacingall primi-
tive predicates in a sentence of T with the correlated open
sentences of T' has the same truth value as the original.2
Now although (El) and (R) clearly avoid Goodman's early criti-
cisms, it is not so clear that they fare as well with respect to justifying
the ontologicalclaims of reduction. Let us suppose that we can provide
for the set of primitive predicates of our physical language an ex-
tensionally isomorphic set of open sentences of a phenomenal lan-
guage. How does this show that no commitment to physical objects
is necessary? All we know is that the intended model of our primitive
physical predicates is isomorphic to the intended model of certain
2 (R) is paraphrased from Quine's "Ontological Reduction and the World of

Numbers," in The W/ays of Paradox (New York: Random House, 1966), pp.
199-207, p. 203.

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phenomenal open sentences. How does this parallelism in set-theore-

tical structure justify the expulsion of the physical predicates from
the vocabulary of our theory? And the same questions can be asked
of (R): how does the existence of a translation preserving truth and
logical form prove that the objects referred to by T do not (or may
be assumed not to) exist? Lacking answers to these questions, we
may suspect that (El) and (R) are too weak. Our suspicions deepen
when we find it alleged that "blanket Pythagoreanism"-i.e., the
existence of a reduction of any (consistent) theory to a theory refer-
ring only to numbers-is a consequence of both.3 It seems clear that
this consequence is fatal to any criterion for ontological commitment.
But is the allegation true? Does (R) [the case of (El) is essentially
the same] imply that there is an acceptable translation of any
theory into a purely numerical theory? It does, we are told, by
virtue of the L6wenheim-Skolem (L-S) theorem. Now the L-S
theorem says merely that any consistent set S of first-order sen-
tences has a numerical model. That is, there exist sets of natural
numbers which, when assigned as extensions to the primitive
predicates of the members of S, make the members of S true. This
does not provide a translation of S's members into a purely numerical
theory. The latter requires (at least; cf. the next paragraph) the
existence of predicateswhose extensions are subsets of Nn (for some n)
which can be substituted for the primitive predicates of the members
of S and make them all true. Furthermore, we require in addition
an effective procedure for finding such predicates; a mere platonistic
assurance of their existence is not enough. For, in order for us to
escape our unwanted ontological commitments, we need a way to
replace the sentences that have the unwanted commitments, and
this means we need to be told how to find ontologically superior re-
placements for them. The key to ontological reduction is a transla-
tion of the theory with the unwanted commitments into a more
congenial theory, which translation is to be accomplished via a set
of constructional definitions. A dictionary in Plato's Heaven will not
help us wield Occam's razor.4
3 In Quine, ibid., and Richard Grandy, "On What There Need Not Be," this
JOURNAL, LXVI, 22 (Nov. 20, 1969): 807-811.
4 Some will object: "Why isn't the possibility of translationin principleenough?
Surely we don't have actually to give a complete translationof physical language
into phenomenallanguage to support the reduction of physical objects to sensa.
To show that thereis such a translationestablishes the philosophicallyinteresting
point, which is that we do not haveto refer to physical objects." Reply: no one
wants to requirethat the dictionary be written out. Suppose the existence of the
wanted translation is shown by actually carrying it through for a few paradigm
cases, or suppose we are given directions,even of the rough and ready kind, which
determine the translation for us. I am preparedto admit that this is all that is

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Does the L-S theorem provide an effective mapping from the

primitive predicates of any consistent set S of first-order sentences
to predicates whose extensions are purely numerical and which will
make the members of S true? No, it does not. But it might be
thought that this is accomplished by a strengthened form of L-S
which derives from the arithmetization of the completeness theorem.
It can be shown that any irrefutable first-order sentence F has a
numerical model that assigns recursively enumerable (r.e.) or com-
plement-recursively enumerable (co-r.e.) extensions to all F's
primitive predicates. Since, for every r.e. or co-r.e. set, there is a
predicate whose extension that set is, we know that there are purely
numerical predicates making F true. Furthermore, the proof pro-
vides an effective procedure for finding such predicates. And finally,
analysis of the proof reveals that the construction is independent of
the restriction to a single first-order sentence: the same holds for any
consistent set of first-order sentences. And so we have:
L-S* There is an effective mapping M such that if S is any
consistent set of first-order sentences whose primitive predicates
are P1, ..., P., then, for all i, M(Pi) is a predicate whose extension
is a subset of Nn, and the substitution of M(P1), ..., M(Pn) for
Pi, ...,I P, respectively, throughout S results in a set of true

required, for it enables us to forego the undesirablecommitmentsif we do desire.

This is on a par with explaininghow to contextually defineour talk of infinitesimals
or our use of singular terms, and then using that language freely-subject to the
prior understanding. But suppose we have no instructions for actually giving
constructionaldefinitions.Rather, we are told that the right open sentences exist,
but there is no way in general to obtain them. Then we are forced to continue to
use the same language with its problematiccommitmentsif we are to continue to
formulatetheoriesand acquireknowledge.We are forcedto referto the old entities
if the business of science is to carry on. Well then, we can't avoid those
5 Here is an outline of the structure of the proof; for details see S. C. Kleene,
Introductionto Metamathematics(Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1952), pp.
389-398, esp. 394-395. We put F in prenex form and then define the class F* of
Herbrandexpansionsof F. So F* is an infinite class of truth-functionalcompounds
of atomic wffs, where each atomic wff is a primitive predicate plus an n-tuple of
numerals. For a primitive predicate Pi of F we want M(Pi) to be true of
(a,, ..., a.) iff deducible from F*, for then the completenesstheorem assures us
that (M(PO), ..., M(Pi)) will make F true. Since the relation of deducibility is
arithmetizableand theset F* is recursive,we can expressthe condition on M(Pi) in
numbertheory. Indeed, as long as the set F* is arithmeticallydefinable,the con-
struction provides a definition for M(Pi) in number theory. But once the set F*
is not arithmetic, this is no longer so, as is obvious from the sketch of the con-
struction. Now the set of Herbrandexpansions of a single sentence is recursive,
and for an arithmetic set of sentences it is arithmetic; however, for a nonarith-
metic set of sentences it is not arithmetic. For any set S of sentences, the set S* of
the Herbrandexpansionsof the membersof S is arithmetic in S. Consider, then,

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And yet, despite L-S*, the proof of Pythagoreanism fails. To see the
flaw, we must carefully distinguish between predicates (i) which
have purely numerical extensions, and (ii) which require commit-
ment only to numbers. As an example of a predicate satisfying (i)
but not (ii), consider '(ny) (x is y's height in inches)'. This predicate
has a purely numerical extension, but its extension is nonempty only
if there are things with heights in inches. Thus it commits us to the
existence of nonnumbers (if we assert that its extension is non-
empty), even though its extension is a subset of N. Thus we must
tighten up our requirement for translation: the effective procedure
must deliver predicates that not only have purely numerical ex-
tensions but also require commitment only to numbers. And this
L-S* cannot in general do. If S is arithmetically definable, L-S*
works fine; otherwise it requires the use of predicates that require
commitment to precisely the same objects we were trying to avoid.5
And since the set of true sentences of our over-all theory of the
world is not arithmetical, L-S* will not provide a numerical transla-
tion of that set.6
Of course, we could provide a translation for the set of our beliefs
about the world, and even for its logical closure.7 And it might be
thought that this is enough. After all, it seems that we are committed
only to whatever must exist for our beliefs to be true. But this is a
mistake. Consider the case of number theory. Imagine that, as a
response to incompleteness, a search is instituted for new axioms.
From time to time new axioms are added. Now L-S* gives us a
method of translating number theory into set theory based upon the
current choice of axioms. As that choice changes the translation
changes, but we will never be at a loss to translate (assuming we
never adopt a set of axioms that is not effectively enumerable). Is

the set T of true sentences of our total theory of the world. T is not arithmetic
(since, if it were, the set of truths of arithmetic, which is arithmetic in T, would
also be arithmetic, and Tarski's theorem refutes that), and so neither is T*.
Now even if T* is not arithmetic, the predicates M(Pi) will have extensions in
Nn, as the construction shows. However, they will require commitment to what-
ever we quantify over in specifying T*. Since T* is arithmetic in T, this reduces
to the problem of specifying T, i.e., the set of true sentences of our total theory.
How de we specify that? Well, if we take as primitive the predicate 'x is a true
sentence of our total theory', it's easy, but then our predicates M(Pi) will contain
primitive semantic terms. So we Tarski-ize truth; but that requires the use of all
the primitive predicates of our total theory, and hence we are committed to all
the objects we sought to avoid.
I am very much indebted to Charles Parsons' patient correspondence, which
enabled me to get straight on the status of L-S*.
6Thanks are due to Timothy McCarthy for very helpful discussion.
7Assuming we believe only a finite number of sentences, the logical closure of our
set of beliefs is finitely axiomatizable and so comes under Kleene's theorem 38.

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this adequate as a reduction of number theory to set theory? No.

The reason is that, although at each stage we can translate our
"numerical" beliefs into set theory salva veritate, we must continue to
speak the old numerical language to continue our research. If the
numerical language with its commitment to numbers is still a
permanent feature of the knowledge-gathering enterprise, we are
still committed to numbers. The same is equally true of the proposed
translation of the rest of our beliefs into numerical language. When
new beliefs are added, the new corpus can be translated-but only
with a new dictionary. Thus new beliefs and new knowledge can
be acquired only by a two-stage process: acquire evidence and justifi-
cation in the old language and then translate. Thus a complete ac-
count of the justification we have for our beliefs in the numerical
language will rely upon evidence gathered in the old language: we
are left as dependent as before upon the original ontology.
But Pythagoras's revenge may not be dependent upon the fate of
L-S-inspired translations. Assume that we have reduced our material
ontology to volumes of space-time, in addition to the numbers
needed for mathematics. Gilbert Harman argues that, if we are
given the axes of a coordinate system for space-time, each such
volume is identifiable with a set of quadruples of real numbers.8
Thus our material ontology may be replaced with an ontology com-
posed solely of numbers and sets, and from there it is a short step
to eliminate the numbers and be left with a universe containing only
sets. And since it is possible to specify the open sentences with which
the physical predicates are to be replaced, the defense mustered
above will not apply. In this case, the "translation" is actually
provided so that we can replace our talk of regions of space-time
with talk of sets. Since even the strongest interpretation of (R) is
thus satisfied by Harman's reduction, (R) is seen to be inadequate
if Harman's reduction is inadequate. But what exactly is wrong with
Harman's reduction? Is it really on a par with the L-S type of
trivialization? One might argue: a procedure for reducing to numbers
any theory's commitments seems to show that we cannot need any
entities other than numbers, no matter what the truth about the
universe turns out to be; and this is paradoxical. But Harman is
merely remarking that our theory as it is requires only numbers.
Unless we have some proof that the universe must contain non-
numbers, it seems we must admit that we could discover that
Pythagoras was right; can't we interpret Harman's reduction as such
a discovery?
8 "Quine on Meaning and Existence," Review of Metaphysics, XXI, 1, 2 (Septem-
ber, December 1967): 124-151; 343-367, esp. pp. 356-367.

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Our uncertainty over Harman's reduction illustrates the depth

of the problem. Not only are we in search of an adequate criterion
for ontological reduction, but we are unclear concerning cases. We
have lost our grasp of what ontological reductions are supposed to
accomplish, and how they are to be justified. Thus the skepticism
expressed earlier with respect to (EI) and (R)-that they provided
no justification for reduction, even if they could not be faulted on
cases-is confirmed. To get an account of ontology-reducing transla-
tion between theories, we must start over, almost from the beginning.
(R) has survived the attack of blanket Pythagoreanism. Neverthe-
less, its inability to provide a justification of the supposed ontological
consequences of the translations it sanctions leaves us suspicious.
What is its intuitive basis? (R) guarantees that in trading sentences
of T for those in T' via the translation induced by C, we will preserve
the truth value of each sentence of T. We also preserve the predicate
structure of the sentences of T, and hence their logical relations with
one another will be unaltered. Also, the proxy function shows us
which objects of the universe T' are being used as proxies for which
objects of T. These three links between T and T' are the common
property of all the ontological reductions that are universally ac-
cepted, and it is intuitively appealing that at least truth value and
predicate structure should be preserved. For the idea of reduction
that (R) seeks to capture is automatic: T' reduces T by showing
that the work done by T can be done as well by T'. If a sentence of
T is mapped onto a sentence of T' which differs from it in truth
value, then T' is not filling the place of T. This holds for predicate
structure as well, since it is that structure which determines logical
relations. But now we may well wonder: is the cognitive role of a
theory exhausted by its assignment of truth values to sentences and
the logical relations among them ?' If not, that is, if a theory is more
than a set of sentences having first-order form and determinate truth
value, then a criterion that guarantees that only this will be pre-
9 Consider, for example, the standard explanation of Skolem's "paradox." A
wff of formal set theory "asserts" the existence of an uncountable set, and yet
the formal theory in which that wff is a theorem has a countable model. To those
who are puzzled by this state of affairs we explain: the wff per se asserts nothing.
Given an interpretation it asserts whatever content the interpretation assigns it.
In particular, the domain the interpretation assigns to quantifiers will affect
what the wff asserts in that interpretation. But now let us reflect upon the fact
that both the naive interpretation whose domain includes "all sets" and the
countable sub-interpretation provided by the L-S theorem assign identical truth
values to all the sentences of set theory, and of course do not alter their logical
form. And it is precisely in this case that we insist that there is all the difference
in the world between the theories.

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served in translation can be expected to sanction some pretty weird

translations. This is the case not only with (R), but with any cri-
terion such that:
(*) The definiens of a constructional definition satisfying the cri-
terion may be replaced by any known extensionalequivalent without
loss of satisfaction.
For a criterion with this feature will tell us, for example, that, since
any progression of entities of the order type of the natural numbers
will do for the reduction of the natural numbers, it makes no differ-
ence how we refer to the elements of the progression-as long as we
know we are so referring. But in fact it makes a great difference, as
the following example will show.
Consider the theory S of zero and successor, whose primitives are
'Zx' and 'Sxy' and whose axioms are:
(x) (y) (Zx D -Syx)
(x) (y) (z) (Sxy& Sxz Dy =z)
(x) (y) (z) (Syx & Szx D y = z)
(3x) Zx
(x) (3y) (Sxy)
The ordinary interpretation of the primitives is: 'x is zero' and 'x
immediately precedes y'. One set-theoretical reduction (Dl) would
have us interpret the primitives as: 'x is the null set' and 'y = {x}',
which then gives us X, 44 ((44)}, ..., as proxies for the natural
numbers. Now here is another set-theoretical reduction (D2): in-
terpret 'Zx' as before and 'Sxy' as '(y = x & (3x) (x is a unicorn)) v
y = {x)'. We know that the definientia of (D2) are extensionally
equivalent to those of (Dl). Nevertheless, (D2) is a totally unac-
ceptable reduction. For consider so uncontroversial a sentence as
(1) Nothing is its own successor.
On (D2), (1) will be translated as
(2) (x) ((x = x & (3x) (x is a unicorn)) v x = {x))
The trouble with (2) as a translation of (1) is made apparent if we
compare their relations to
(3) (x is a unicorn)
(1) has no interesting relation to (3). (2), by contrast, logically im-
plies (3). This is a problem, because the logical relations of the
theory we are reducing will be grossly misrepresented by the reducing
theory. Elementary truths of arithmetic do not logically imply the
nonexistence of unicorns. Any reduction that proposes sentences

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with such implications as translations of arithmetical sentences is

clearly unacceptable.
We now have a sharpened objection to (R) and a tentative
diagnosis. Unacceptable reductions such as (D2) are sanctioned by
(R), and in fact by any criterion satisfying (*). The culprit it seems,
is (*): an adequate criterion for ontological reduction cannot be
extensional. How then shall we characterize the successful onto-
logical reductions and explain their efficacy?
The reduction of the ontology of a theory T to that of a theory T' is
effected by a translation of the former theory into the latter. This
translation is supposed to show us how to do without T altogether;
thus, ontological reduction is a species of theoretical reduction. We
expect to be shown how all of T's legitimate functions as a cognitive
tool can be handled by T'. It will not do to replace T by T' if the
replacement bars the way to knowledge that T provides, or makes
inexplicable knowledge that T renders apparent. For example, it
will not do to "solve" the problem of abstract entities by simply
dropping all predicates that refer to them from our vocabulary, since
this will deprive us of mathematics. Likewise, if the logical relations
in T' are such that some belief that is justifiable in T has a transla-
tion that is not justifiable in T', or the nature of its justification
undergoes radical alteration in going from T to T', the replacement
of T by T' will mangle the structure of our knowledge. This is what
has happened with (D2) above. Imagine replacing arithmetical
sentences throughout the corpus of our knowledge by their (D2)
translations. (1) is then replaced by (2), and so in order to know the
translation of 'O s 1, we will have to know that there are no uni-
corns. Those who have their doubts about unicorns will thus be
unable to use (D2)'s version of elementary arithmetic with confi-
dence. Furthermore, even those of us who are sure that the universe
is devoid of unicorns can use (D2) arithmetic with no more confi-
dence than that surety possesses-which is a good deal less than we
ordinarily accord to arithmetic. It begins to emerge from these
reflections that, in order to preserve the cognitive usefulness of T,
the reduction to T' will have to do more than preserve truth value
and internal logical relations: the logical relations of T's sentences to
sentences outside T are of equal concern. If the latter are greatly
altered by the reduction we may expect cognitive anomalies as a
Just as deductive relations do not exhaust the relations of rational
support that make knowledge possible, so they do not provide the
sole type of cognitive anomaly which may plague an ontological

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reduction. The loss of relations of inductive support may be equally

damaging. For example, if we characterize molecules in the familiar
way and assume that gases are collections of molecules, we get the
dynamic explanation of the gas laws. If, however, we characterize
molecules as the units of chemical combination, the explanation is
not forthcoming. Likewise, if we identify Jones's pain at t with some
neural event in Jones's body at t, we may get an explanation of
Jones's pain behavior shortly after t-if we refer to the brain event
in neurophysiological terms. If we refer to that event merely as
"the brain event that was Jones's pain at t" the explanation will be
lost. Thus we can have two reductions that employ coextensive
definientia only one of which preserves relations of explanation.
The general point these examples illustrate is that the cognitive
role of a theory is (at least in part) determined by its epistemic struc-
ture, i.e., the relations of rational support which hold among the
sentences of the theory. Epistemic structure thus includes relations
of (i) deductive implication, (ii) confirmation, (iii) explanation, (iv)
so-called "analytic" implications or meaning relations, and so on.
In general, any relation R among sentences will contribute to
epistemic structure if a belief in S may be at least partially de-
fended by citing a justified belief in S' and the fact that S'RS.
What the examples of unsuccessful reduction show is that epistemic
structure may not be seriously altered with impunity. This suggests
that we should require the following as a necessary condition of
ontological reduction:
(Cl) An ontological reductionof T to T' must preservethe epistemic
structure of the language of our most comprehensivetheory.
And at the very least we must put firmly behind us the model-
theoretic approaches to ontological reductions We are never able to
specify a set of sentences and say: the theoretical role of the Fs is
to make these sentences true; therefore any model of that set of
sentences will do in place of the Fs for theory's sake. Reproduction
of epistemic structure cannot be explicated in terms of which entities
are referred to, in abstraction from the particular predicates doing
the referring.
10 It is the assumption that the model-theoreticapproach is appropriatewhich
led Leslie Tharp to remark: "nowhere . . . is it arguedwhy this general concept
of ontological reduction should not be trivialized, that is, why the reductions
given by the L6wenheim-Skolemconstruction are less satisfactory than others.
Likewiseit is not demonstratedthat the existenceof a proxyfunction is a necessary
or sufficientcondition for a reduction to fall under some independentlyexplained
concept of ontologicalreduction"["OntologicalReduction,"this JOURNAL, LXVIII,
6 (March 25, 1971): 151-164, p. 156].

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How satisfactory is (CI) ? Not very: exact preservation of episte-

mic structure is unfortunately impossible. And since there are suc-
cessful reductions, it follows that it cannot be necessary. Let us see
why this is so. The standard Zermelo reduction of the natural num-
bers [(Dl) of the last section] is a successful reduction. Now the
axioms and definitionsof Zermeloset theory do not logically imply
'0 e 1', but they do logically imply the (DI)-translation of that
sentence. Thus deductive relations are not preservedby the trans-
lation. In fact, it is easy to see that any translation, by replacing
predicateswith open sentences that are not logically equivalent to
those predicates,will alter the deductive relations of T's sentences
with sentences outside T. Let 'Fx' be translated by 'ox'. '(3x)Fx'
will not logically imply '(3x)+x', but its translationwill. Thus (Cl)
is wrong.
One may protest that the failure of (Cl) with respect to (Dl)
concernsonly sentences that are of no account. '0 e 1' is regardedas
false or truth-valueless,according to taste; but we all agree that
what its truth status and logical relationsare is of no cognitive im-
portance. If this were typical of (Cl)'s mistakes, we could tighten
it up by requiring preservation of epistemic structure only for
cognitively nontrivial sentences. But the more general observation
with which the previousparagraphends shows that this will not do.
'(3x) (x = 0)' and '(3x) (x = 0)' are deductively unrelated,but, since
the (Dl)-translation of the formeris the latter, we see that (Dl)
affects the logical relations of cognitively important sentences as
well. How then shall we describe the differencebetween (Dl) and
(D2)? Why is it that the deductive relations altered by (D2)
destroy its usefulness whereas those altered by (Dl) do not? The
answeris that only the formeradverselyaffects the kind of justifica-
tion we have for certain parts of our knowledge and in so doing
destroys their cognitive role.
In order to understandthis answer, consider proof theory for a
moment. Supposewe have a nonconstructiveproof of a sentence S.
Even those who do not feel bound to constructivismmathematically
or philosophicallyrecognizean advance when a constructive proof
of S is found. Similarly, when Quine shows us how to define the
natural numbers and prove induction without assuming the ex-
istence of any infinite sets,1"this is consideredan improvementon
the standard treatment. By contrast, there is little epistemic in-
terest in the differencesbetweenGentzen'sand Schutte'sconsistency
proofs for arithmetic. Both use the same controversialprinciple
induction up to eo-and differ only in the details of the formal
11Set Theory and Its Logic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1969), ch. 4.

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systems to which they are applied. Similar epistemic shifts can be

observed outside proof theory. Imagine someone arguing as follows:
"I know that all nonblack things are noncrows. Hence, by the
principle 'P D (Q D P)' of sentential logic, I know that if all crows
are black then all nonblack things are noncrows." If he knows the
premise he knows the conclusion as well, but only as the conclusion
of that argument, and hence only with the certainty that its premise
possesses. Furthermore, the kinds of observation and investigation
that we could suggest as relevant tests for the premise will be, for
him, relevant tests for the conclusion. Suppose we now point out to
him that, as an instance of the law of the contrapositive, the con-
clusion of the argument is logically valid. The result is a radical
change in the kind of justification, and hence in the kind of knowl-
edge, which he has for the conclusion. The epistemic role of his belief
in the conclusion is radically transformed. Now we may put the
difference between (DI) and (D2) as follows: the cognitive useful-
ness of arithmetic depends upon certain features of its epistemic role.
In this case, the fact that arithmetic sentences are not open to
refutation by simple observation is central. (Dl) preserves this
feature, but (D2) destroys it.
It is easy to generalize this description of the difference between
(DI) and (D2) into a successor for (Cl). The sentences of our
theories stand to one another in the various relations that constitute
epistemic structure. Those relations determine the epistemic role of
a sentence-the kinds of justification and knowledge of which each
sentence is susceptible. Certain features of a sentence's epistemic role
are essential to its cognitive function. And so:
(C2) An ontological reduction of T to T' must preservethe essential
features of the epistemic roles of the sentences of T.

Though hardly a model of clarity and precision, (C2)'s virtues in-

clude the following: (i) it distinguishes (Dl) and (D2) in a way
which shows why the former is acceptable and not the latter; (ii) it
is not trivialized by the appeal to "essential" features: the non-
observationality of arithmetical sentences can be defended as es-
sential without considering the possibility of ontological reductions;
and (iii) the kinds of epistemological investigation which are needed
to give clear content to (C2) are needed urgently for their own sake
as well. For the result of abandoning the analytic/synthetic distinc-
tion is not a homogeneous picture of our knowledge, but rather a
recognition of the need for a myriad of subtler distinctions which will
do justice to the differences in epistemic role among logic, mathe-
matics, deep theory, projectible regularities, observations, etc.

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Finally, (iv) (C2) is clearly an- outgrowth of the observation with

which we started, namely, that ontological reduction is a species of
theoretical reduction whose justification requires a guarantee that
the cognitive usefulness of the theory to be reduced not be destroyed
by the reduction. The strongest reservation concerning (C2) is one
of applicability: if we must have a completely adequate epistemology
before its content is clear, of what use is it now? Well, let's test it on
a difficult and controversial case: Pythagoreanism.
Two questions must be distinguished: Is Harman's reduction ac-
ceptable? Can any Pythagorean reduction be acceptable? I will
argue that the answer to both questions is "No" for the same reason:
violation of (C2). Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that the
two questions are of unequal scope. The former concerns a particular
reduction-a particular translation-which can be evaluated on its
merits. To establish the more general point that all purely numerical
universes are illegitimate requires showing that no purely numerical
translation can be adequate. In the light of the fact that (C2) appeals
to nonextensional features of predicates, an extensional result such
as this is unexpected and striking.
First, let me fill in the Quinean background. Once upon a time,
Quine would have given short shrift to our problem. He wrote:
Unless we change meaningsin midstream,the familiarbodies around
us are as real as can be; and it smacks of a contradictionin terms to
conclude otherwise. . . . Common-sense bodies . . are concep-
tually fundamental: it is by referenceto them that the very notions
of reality and evidence are acquired (The Wraysof Paradox, 238/9).
Thus a purely numerical universe is ruled out since it would exclude
physical bodies, which are the "paradigm cases" of reality. Later,12
however, Quine's position took a subtler turn:
In particularwe shall find, as we get on with organizing and ad-
justing various of the turns of phase that participate in what pass
for affirmations of existence, that certain of these take on key
significance in the increasingly systematic structure; and then, re-
acting in a manner typical of scientific behavior, we shall come to
favor these idioms as the existence affirmations"strictly so-called."
One could even end up, though we ourselvesshall not, by findingthat
the smoothest and most adequate overall account of the world does
not after all accord existence to ordinary physical things, in that
refinedsense of existence (Wordand Object,4).
In other words, physical bodies are genetically primary-it is through
12 Wordand Object(Cambridge,Mass.: MIT Press, 1960).

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theni that we learn the concepts of existence and reality-but the

gradual evolution of scientific language moves existence locutions
into a theoretical niche far from its roots. From that vantage point
it could conceivably cut its roots and tolerate the banishment of
physical bodies from reality. In the name of what ideals? Those of
scientific method, of course: "being guided by sensory stimuli, a
taste for simplicity in some sense, and a taste for old things (ibid.,
23)." The same considerations that lead us to posit molecules, fields,
and even numbers for the sake of a more satisfactory over-all
theory, even though these entities stray far from the paradigms of
reality, can lead us to repudiate those paradigms as well. Thus
Quine's later thoughts, with which I concur, assure us that our
worry over purely numerical ontologies is not idle. So I shall start
by examining Harman's reduction.
First of all, it is not so clear how his reduction is supposed to
work.'3 Although he claims that predicates can readily be provided
with which regions of space-time are reduced to sets of quadruples
of (sets representing) numbers, he does not specify those predicates.
I imagine the procedure roughly as follows. First there is the assign-
ment of a quadruple of numbers to each point-instant of space-time,
described by Quine thus:
We pick five particle-events a, b, c, d, e, not quite at random. (The
requirementis merely that they mark the vertices of a full-fledged
four-dimensional"hypersolid,"rather than all lying in a plane or a
three-dimensionalsolid.) . . . Now every point (or point-instant) in
space-time is uniquely determined once we specify its "distance"
. . . from each of the five (Wordand Object,255).
Next, a region of space-time is just a set of point-instants, and so is
identified with a set of quadruples of numbers, under the given cor-
relation. Finally, a predicate of regions of space-time is replaced by
a predicate that is true of exactly those sets of quadruples which are
correlated with regions of space-time of which the first predicate
was true. For example, 'red' might be replaced by 'set-of-quadruples-
correlated-with-a-red-region-of-space-time'. By virtue of the dashes
the latter is a monadic predicate that makes no reference to regions
of space-time; only sets of quadruples of set-numbers are mentioned.
If each of our primitive physical predicates is replaced in like fashion,
we can see how we will be left with a theory that refers only to
13 For an independent critique of a Harman-type
reduction, cf. John Myhill,
"Remarks on the Language of Physics," Philosophy of Science, xxx, 4 (October
1963): 305/6. Myhill objects that a reductionvia numericalcoordinatescommits
us to a specific subset of Euclidean four-space as the geometry of space-time,
despite the fact that the true geometry of space-time is unknown.

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classes (assuming numbers have been reduced to classes). In fact,

even direct reference to objects can be numerically interpreted as
deferred ostension. If by pointing to a brick I can refer to its color,
I can equally well refer to its code number (or set of quadruples).
Before we consider the status of the reduction induced by the
proposed translation, it will have to be modified in order to preserve
even truth.'4 For, if 'red' is translated as above, then '(ax) (x is
red)' will be translated '(3x) (x is-a-set-of-quadruples-correlated-

with-a-red-region-of-space-time)'; and that is true as long as there

is some set uncorrelated with anything, whetheror not there are red
regions of space time. That is, as long as the correlation mapping
is not one-one with respect to the full domain of the reducing set
theory, every sentence of the form '(3x) Fx' will be translated as

true. The remedy is to restrict the quantifiers of the translations to

(sets of) quadruples that come under the correlation. For any
plausible correlation, this is easily done within the language of set
theory. '(3x) Fx' is then rendered '(3x) (x is-correlated-with-
something & (x is-correlated-with-an-F))' which is true just in
case there are non-Fs, as desired.
Now, does this reduction satisfy (C2) ? No. To see this, consider
the sentence (A) (Ox)(x is a crow & x is black). Sam can come to
know (A) by "merely taking a look." The scare-quotes indicate that
coming to know via taking a look may be heavily dependent upon
background knowledge; accordingly, we are to assume that Sam
has that knowledge (Sam is good at identifying crows by sight and
can recognize black). Now the translation of this sentence is
(B) (3x) (x is-correlated-with-something& x is-correlated-with-a-
crow & - (x is-correlated-with-something-black))
Can Sam come to know (B) by taking a look? No. The reason is that
the truth of (B) depends upon certain features of the correlation
which may very well not be in Sam's background knowledge. Sup-
pose the correlation is not one-one. In particular, suppose that every
quadruple is correlated to some point-instant in some black thing,
in addition to being correlated to the point-instant assigned it by
the "distance" relation of the paragraph before last. Then (B) will
be false even though (A) is true. Now you and I, having studied the
proposed correlation, know that it is one-one. And so you and I
know that it does in fact preserve truth value, and so, since (A) is
true, (B) is also true. But what is at stake here is not preservation of
truth value, but preservation of epistemic role. (A) has the status
14 Discussion with Dave Flaxman eradicated a serious error at this
point in the
penultimate draft.

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of an observation sentence for Sam, but (B) does not. And the
difference between (A) and (B) does not turn on Sam's ignorance
of the fact that the correlation is one-one. For to know that the
correlation is one-one, Sam needs to know that the five particle-
events with which we started "mark the vertices of a full-fledged
four-dimensional hypersolid." Depending upon what particle events
are chosen, it may require observation, instrument theory, deep
physical theory, high-powered mathematics, etc. to certify that
choice. Even if Sam has this information, the fact that it is needed
in order to come to know (B) gives (B) an epistemic status far
removed from that of (A). It leaves (B) open to avenues of dis-
confirmation which are irrelevant to (A). A visual report of a non-
black crow can be challenged by appeal to lighting conditions and
the like; (B) can be challenged in addition by a critique of instru-
ment theory, etc.
The warp of epistemic status engendered by the need for the
knowledge that the correlation is one-one is not restricted to observa-
tion sentences. To know the translation of any sentence of the form
'(3x) , Fx' will require knowing that the correlation is one-one. If
knowledge of the original sentence does not require the relevant
science, its epistemic status will shift in translation by the need for
that science. Thus there will be sentences at many levels of our
knowledge-sentences known by observation, the projection of ob-
served regularities, so-called "analytic" truths-whose epistemic
status will be lost in translation. The result is that (C2) is violated
throughout our theory of the world.
Another instance in which epistemic status will be affected by
Harman's reduction is explanation; in particular, microreductions
will be lost. If the sentences that provide microreductions are robbed
of their ordinary referents, the explanation will normally be de-
stroyed. Take the molecular theory of gases as an example. When it
is coupled with the kinetic theory of heat, we get the familiar ex-
planation of the gas laws. Indeed, it is the fact that the molecular
theory of gases provides an explanation of the gas laws, instead of
merely having the gas laws as deductive consequences, that gives
such strong support to that theory. Many (I am among them)
believe that the explanatory power of this theory is due to its
enabling us to predict how gases will behave via a theory of the mate-
rial constituents of the gas. This is not to say that all microreductions
-i.e., all cases of deducing the behavior of an entity from the be-
havior of its parts-explain. (Think of explaining the flight of a
baseball into the stands by appeal to the flight of its elementary
particles to the same place.) Rather, it is held that in some cases and

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in particular, ill the case of the molecular theory of gases, explaiia-

tion depends essentially upon microreduction.15
Now imagine such an explanation numericalized. We have sets of
quadruples correlated-with-gaseous-portions-of-space-time, corre-
lated-with-molecule-portions-of-space-time, etc. The hyphens warn
us to read these predicates monadically: the universe contains
classes and nothing else. Thus, in translation, there is no microre-
duction; nothing is asserted to be composed of anything else. The
only significant tie between the explanation and the laws to be ex-
plained is deduction, and so we lose our account of the source of
support for the theory. Thus, if we continue to attribute the same
support to the molecular theory in translation, we are doing so only
by illicitly reading the numerical predicates as if the hyphens were
removed. If explanatory power and inductive support are due es-
sentially to microreduction in this case, we cannot maintain the
support in translation unless we read the translation as a case of
microreduction as well. Since there can be no literal microreduction
in a numerical universe, it is the illicit reference to the material
bodies correlated with the sets of quadruples which gives the illusion
of microreduction. If the translated theory is read literally, there is
no microreduction and, hence, little or no inductive support, and
again epistemic structure suffers in translation. The result is a second
clear violation of (C2): an essential feature of the epistemic role of
the molecular theory-namely, its ability to provide an explanation-
cum-microreduction of the gas laws-will not survive Harman's
Although examination of other features of epistemic structure is
desirable, enough has been done to show the illegitimacy of
Harman's neo-pythagoreanism. The violations of (C2), resulting in
the destruction of the cognitive usefulness of the reduced theory,
explain its failure. Furthermore, we see that (C2) is clear enough to
15 For one analysis with affinities to my point of view, cf. Robert Causey,
"Uniform Microreductions,"Synthese, xxv, 1/2 (November/December 1972):
176-218, esp. sec. vi. I would hope to avoid the appeal to attributes in explicating
microreduction,but the notion of identifying two domains seems to me to be
essential. Thus I applaud the statement of Noam Chomsky and Jerrold Katz,
"What the Linguist Is Talking About," this JOURNAL, LXXI, 12 (June 27, 1974):
347-367: "to explain observableeffects like the changeof the color of water when
dye is put in it in terms of the migrationof dye moleculesinto the spaces between
the water molecules commits scientists to the reality of the unobserved causal
conditions, since such explanations make sense only if we adopt the realistic as-
sumption that the theoretical terms in which they are couched actually refer to
things in nature. If one were to say that the term 'molecule' in the foregoing
explanationis a merefalon de parler,that it denotes nothing real, the 'explanation'
would become nonsense" (365).

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be applied to proposed reductions of considerable interest, in spite
of its dependence upon unresolved problems of epistemology for its
ultimate clarification. In addition, the case of lost explanation pro-
vides a starting point for the rejection of any Pythagorean reduction.
Recall that the violation of (C2) by the translation of the molecular
theory followed from (i) the necessity of interpreting the explanation
provided by that theory as a case of microreduction, and (ii) the
fact that in a numerical universe there are no microreductions. (i)
and (ii) together constitute a quite general argument against any
translation of physical theory into a theory whose ontology is purely
numerical or set-theoretical.
Let's stop a moment to take stock. We have seen that (i) the criteria
for ontological reduction advocated by Goodman and Quine do not
succumb to blanket Pythagoreanism, but nevertheless (ii) they are
incorrect, sanctioning as they do the unicorn-reduction of numbers
to sets. Furthermore, (iii) their failure is shared by any extensional
criterion, since (iv) (C2) is a necessary condition for the acceptability
of a reduction, and (C2) appeals to nonextensional features. Having
thus cleared the field of the errors of our forebears, what can be done
toward providing an acceptable criterion-i.e., a condition which is
both necessary and sufficient and which will integrate into an ac-
count of the ontological consequences of the successful reductions?
We already have (C2) as a necessary condition; so it is a natural first
step to try it out as sufficient as well. Unfortunately, some sticky
questions immediately appear whose treatment I can only hint at
in the briefest way.
First, we must decide what feature of ontological reductions we
want (C2) to be sufficient for. We must be careful not to confuse the
legitimacy of a reduction with its over-all desirability. We may admit
the legitimacy of various set-theoretical reductions of number
theory, and yet reject them because set theory is more poorly under-
stood than number theory. We may admit the legitimacy of a re-
duction of events to objects, properties, and times, and yet reject
the reduction because we abhor properties. The legitimacy of a
reduction of Fs to Gs is what entitles us to claim that "for the
purposes at hand . . . no commitment to [EFsbeing different from
Gs] is necessary." To conclude that we ought, all things considered,
to drop the Fs in favor of their G-counterparts requires in addition a
careful consideration of "all things" i.e., the impact this would
have on the simplicity, unity, explanatory power, etc. of our total
theory. Obviously, (C2) is not a sufficient condition for the over-all

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desirability of a reduction. Is it sufficient for the prior claim of

It may seem so. For existence of a reduction of T to T' satisfying
(C2) reveals the epistemic equivalence of those two theories taken
as wholes. From the point of view of our total theory of the world,
T and T' play the same role in providing rational support for our
beliefs. Hence our total theory is redundant, and, if larger methodo-
logical concerns are served by so doing, T may be dropped. Its
elimination can result in no cognitive loss; this is what the satis-
faction of (C2) guarantees. Here we have the germ of our two de-
siderata: an argument for the sufficiency of (C2) and a justification
for ontological reductions.
However, the need for the qualification "From the point of view
of our total theory" should give us pause. We are viewing the sen-
tences of T as providers of rational support for the rest of the sen-
tences we know, and we declare T redundant because T' does this job
well; is this really sufficient to justify T's elimination? Is the sole
function of a theory to provide cognitive lubrication for the rest of
our knowledge? We have to claim that when we drop T the result
is no cognitive loss; why isn't the loss of T itself a cognitive loss?
There are two responses to these questions.
(1) Capitulation: there is no reason to accord T this purely
functional status with respect to the rest of our knowledge. (C2) is
not sufficient even for the legitimacy of a reduction. We require in
addition that T be the kind of theory which functions in the indi-
cated manner. How this is to be established in particular cases be-
comes the focus of our search for a complete criterion and account
of ontological reduction.
(2) Rejoinder: we accept the seemingly counterintuitive conse-
quence that the cognitive function of any theory is specifiable
exhaustively in terms of its contribution to our total theory.
Our inability to answer the pointed questions of three paragraphs
back seems to ram capitulation down our throats. But try to think
of an example of a theory whose reduction is not legitimized by (C2).
Not only does (C2) work for mathematical and deep physical
theories, but it seems equally suited to reductions of physical objects
to sense data, and of events to objects, properties, and times. Until
we have an example of a theory that satisfies (C2) and yet whose
elimination could not be sanctioned on grounds of over-all theoretical
methodology, we must take (2) seriously. A complete account of
ontological reduction waits on the exploration of these alternatives.
The Johns Hopkins University

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