FraMEPhys/MetaScience Workshop – Dec 2019

On 9 December 2019, FraMEPhys and the MetaScience project jointly hosted a one-day workshop at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.


  • Alexander Franklin
  • Katie Robertson
  • Michael Townsen Hicks
  • Toby Friend
  • Vanessa Seifert


09:15 – Registration

09:30 – Welcome

09:40 – Alexander Franklin: “How to be a Bohmian Reductionist”
Abstract: While advocates of Bohmian mechanics generally evince reductionism, it’s far from clear how to make those two positions compatible. The core issue is that reductive explanations of the kind ubiquitous in science require reference not just to particle positions but also to features only found in the pilot wave. However, the pilot wave is generally interpreted as a non-local field, law, or universal disposition. As such, reductive explanations of, say, the hardness of a table essentially refer to entities which are not localised to any subregion of the universe. The Bohmian is thus faced with a dilemma: either they should embrace radical holism or they should engage with the project of articulating an ontology of effectively localised wavefunctions. I suggest ways in which this latter project may be developed, but note significant technical and conceptual challenges. I conclude by arguing that both horns of the dilemma render Bohmian mechanics rather less intuitive than is claimed by Bohmian reductionists.

10:40 – Coffee Break

10:55 – Katie Robertson: “Reduction, Abstraction and Approximation”
Abstract: There is a common distinction between two types of reduction: (i) horizontal reduction: the reduction of an older theory to its successor, and (ii) vertical reduction: the reduction of a higher-level, or macroscopic, theory to an underlying microscopic theory. Each has different philosophical consequences. Horizontal reduction is important for continuity over theory change, and thus is key to the scientific realism debate, whereas vertical reduction has metaphysical consequences. But it is not always obvious how, or indeed whether, the two types of reduction can be distinguished. In this paper, I give an account of the distinction in terms of subject matters. In the case of horizontal reduction, the two theories describe the same subject matter, although the successor theory will be more accurate. Consequently, the older theory approximates the successor theory. In contrast, in the case of vertical reduction, the two theories describe different subject matters — it is not the case that one theory is more accurate than the other, since each theory answers different questions. In particular, the higher-level theory abstracts away from details described by the lower-level theory. Having made the distinction between vertical and horizontal reduction in terms of abstraction and approximation, I then discuss other views’ in the literature, and the dangers of failing to distinguish between abstraction and approximation. On the one hand, Strevens’ treats all approximation as abstraction, but this view fails to respect scientific practice: often scientists want to remove approximations, if possible. On the other hand, treating all abstraction as approximation results in treating all special sciences as an inferior handle on a fundamental description, and thus fails to respect the explanatory value of the special sciences.

12:00 – Toby Friend: “Indeterministic Compositional Emergence”
Abstract: I show that if there exists genuinely indeterminately composed objects then there will exist many cases of emergence which are strongly emergent whilst remaining consistent with physicalism. These cases threaten two common assumptions: that strong emergence occurs, if at all, only in rare cases, and that strong emergence is inconsistent with physicalism. I present a relatively mundane example involving sections composed from a row of coloured dominoes. Granting that these sections are genuinely indeterminately composed, it is straightforward to show they have causally novel features with respect to the directness of their causal powers. This, I argue, is sufficient for strong emergence, as it is defined within the powers-framework. The example also demonstrates how strongly emergent features can avoid ‘collapse’ into their base features despite being nomologically dependent on them, all the while remaining consistent with physicalism. I finally show how this proof of strong emergence can be applied to another more weighty case: that of the mind’s emergence from the physical. I question whether the ease with which strong emergence is proven reflects poorly on the powers-framework.

13:00 – Lunch 

14:30 – Michael Townsen Hicks: “Symmetries, Explanation, and the Metaphysics of Laws”
Abstract: Symmetry principles are regarded by many physicists as among the deepest and most explanatory physical principles. Noether’s first theorem and its inverse tell us that for every variational symmetry of a Lagrangian, there is a corresponding conserved quantity, and for every conserved quantity in a Lagrangian system, there is a corresponding variational symmetry. Many physicists and philosophers of physics have taken this to mean that symmetries explain conservation laws. But how does this explanation work? I’ll present two currently prominent views, criticize them, and argue for a third. First, Brown and Holland (2005) have argued that the symmetries don’t explain the conservation laws at all. Rather, they hold the conservation laws and the symmetries are both a result of the underlying Lagrangian dynamics. Second, Marc Lange (2007, 2009) has argued that the symmetry principles are higher-order laws that govern the first-order dynamical laws. On Lange’s view, the symmetry principles explain by governing: the relationship between symmetries and conservation laws is similar to the relationship between dynamical laws and the corresponding particular events they govern. Finally, I will argue that the symmetry principles explain the conservation laws by partially grounding them: the symmetry principles describe a more fundamental level of spatio-temporal structure than the conservation laws, and so the explanation goes via metaphysical dependence. After presenting these views, I’ll argue that Brown’s dynamics-first view fails to appreciate evidence for metaphysical dependence, and that Lange’s governing view is mistaken to take the symmetry principles to be higher-order. I’ll conclude by considering a counterexample to the claim that the symmetries explain dynamical facts by grounding them: Parity is not a symmetry of the laws dynamics, but this dynamic asymmetry arguably isn’t grounded in a spatiotemporal asymmetry.

15:30 – Coffee Break

15:45 – Vanessa Seifert: “The Chemical Bond as a Real Pattern”
Abstract: A central concept which is invoked in chemistry and in quantum chemistry in order to describe the structure of a molecule is the chemical bond. Given this, a pressing philosophical question is whether the chemical bond exists and what sort of thing it is. This question is primarily discussed in the context of Hendry’s distinction between the structural and the energetic conception of the chemical bond. The structural conception takes chemical bonds to be ‘material parts of the molecule that are responsible for spatially localized submolecular relationships between individual atomic centers’ (Hendry 2006: 917). The structural conception is taken as supporting an understanding of chemical bonds as entities. The energetic conception takes ‘chemical bonding’ to signify ‘facts about energy changes between molecular or supermolecular states’ (Hendry 2006: 919). The energetic conception remains agnostic as to whether the chemical bond is an entity (or as to whether it even exists) and it is consistent with an understanding of chemical bonds as properties of a molecule. The metaphysical interpretation of each conception allegedly creates a tension between the two conceptions because the former is consistent with an understanding of chemical bonds as entities, whereas the latter is consistent with an understanding of chemical bonds as either fictional entities, or real properties of molecules. I argue that this tension can be resolved in a manner that supports the reality of chemical bonds. Specifically, if one takes the two conceptions as representing distinct yet incomplete intensions of the same referent (i.e. the chemical bond), then both conceptions can be invoked to mutually support an understanding of chemical bonds as patterns within a molecule. Such an understanding of chemical bonds is also supported by how chemistry and quantum chemistry each describe and pictorially represent chemical bonds. Several questions need to be addressed in order to sufficiently support the reality of chemical bonds as patterns. First, if a chemical bond refers to a pattern within molecules, then what is it a pattern of? Secondly, assuming that chemical bonds are patterns, what is the respective ‘noise’ in the chemical and quantum chemical descriptions of a chemical bond, and what is the role of ‘noise’ in predicting a molecule’s structure? Thirdly, is there sufficient empirical evidence to support that the elements of this pattern are real and not merely apparent? I examine these questions in light of the literature on real patterns and briefly outline the advantages of understanding chemical bonds as real patterns. Examining the nature and reality of chemical bonds in the context of the literature on real patterns provides a novel perspective through which one can understand the nature of the chemical bond, but also through which one can reevaluate the tenability of structural realist accounts in the philosophy of science.
References: Hendry R.F., 2006, ‘Two Conceptions of the Chemical Bond’, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 75, No. 5, pp. 909-920

16:45 – Close