Terra Incognita: explanation, reduction, and underdetermination in earth science

H.W. de Regt, M.G. Kleinhans, C.J.J. Buskes

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The present paper presents a philosophical analysis of earth science, a discipline that has received relatively little attention from philosophers of science. We focus on the question of whether earth science can be reduced to allegedly more fundamental sciences, such as chemistry or physics. In order to answer this question, we investigate the aims and methods of earth science, the laws and theories used by earth scientists, and the nature of earth-scientific explanation. Our analysis leads to the tentative conclusion that there are emergent phenomena in earth science but that these may be reducible to physics. However, earth science does not have irreducible laws, and the theories of earth science are typically hypotheses about unobservable (past) events or generalised - but not universally valid - descriptions of contingent processes. Unlike more fundamental sciences, earth science is characterised by explanatory pluralism: earth scientists employ various forms of narrative explanations in combination with causal explanations. The main reason is that earth-scientific explanations are typically hampered by local underdetermination by the data to such an extent that complete causal explanations are impossible in practice, if not in principle.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)289-317
JournalInternational Studies in the Philosophy of Science
Publication statusPublished - 2005


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