Report: Emergence in Physics Conference

I have just returned from the Emergence in Physics conference in London, organized by Eleanor Know at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London, announced also on this blog.

The whole conference was very well organized and boasted a great line-up of other speakers. Without exception, I greatly enjoyed all their talks and find it hard to remember of which other conference I could truly say that!

It was notable, as Adam Caulton put it, that we seem to be witnessing a Renaissance of Nagelian reduction–at least as far as the philosophers of physics are concerned. Jeremy Butterfield, in his signature peacemaking fashion, as well as the conglomerate consisting of Foad Dizadji-Bahmani, Roman Frigg, and Stephan Hartmann presented a total of three papers highlighting the virtues of Nagelian reduction (or contemporary extensions of it).

Eleanor Knox presented her recently developed views on explanatory emergence, drawing a careful distinction between abstraction and explanation to argue for the (existence and) value of a weaker, explanatory, notion of emergence compatible with reduction.

Using Conway’s “Life”, Putnam’s peg problem, and the solar system as examples, David Wallace argued that higher-level objects can avoid being redundant without being irreducible to the fundamental theory and showed how weaker versions of a unity hypothesis (i.e., the idea that all of the structure has at bottom one system) are defensible in a semantic understanding of theories.

Finally, David Papineau argued that causation has a “thermodynamic-like”, and hence non-fundamental, quality because the fundamental dynamical laws do not exhibit asymmetries that would be necessary to underwrite the asymmetric features of causation. Of course, this argument would face a serious challenge, were we to discover that the true fundamental theory does, after all, have the requisite asymmetry.

And all of this in a room of the architecturally remarkable Senate House with all the style and grandeur fit to function as the meeting room of the rectors of the University of London. Cool (although not temperature-wise)!



Filed under Conference announcements/CFPs, wuthrich

5 responses to “Report: Emergence in Physics Conference

  1. Sounds like it was a great conference! Must have been a pretty busy week for some of those people too, after the the BSPS and the Joint Session last weekend

  2. Alex

    Papineau’s view sounds very much like Price’s. How does he think causal asymmetries arise?

    • The idea is that something like the Bayesian nets analysis a la Glymour, Spirtes, Scheines or Pearl should deliver that. I.e. from that we gain asymmetric causal laws, and then use them to explain counterfactual and singular causal claims.

  3. Eric Schliesser

    Are the Nagelian reduction types addressing the (once influential) arguments against it, or simply assuming Nagelian reduction to get on with their work?

    • No, no, they are of course addressing them and think that they have good reasons for dispelling these old worries. Whether they have good counters to all of these worries, and whether all the counters succeed, is, of course, another matter.

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