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Durham University

Durham Emergence Project


Scale and Strong Emergence


Patrick McGivern

Project Description

Examples of emergence often involve radical changes in scale. For example, in studying distributions of animal populations, ecologists are often interested in general trends that can only be observed across large collections of individual organisms. At the local scale of individuals, there might be no indication of the trends that eventually arise when large populations interact. Similarly, in materials science, understanding the behaviour of ordinary materials such as steel often involves integrating information from a range of scales: for some features, information on the properties of individual atoms might be relevant, while for others it is only much more coarse-grained information that matters.

This project aimed to understand the relationship between scale and some of the central concepts and concerns relating to emergence. One result is a better understanding of the range of problems of scale across a variety of sciences. Another result is an account of how the concept of emergence can be related to concepts of scale and measurement.


A workshop was held at the University of Wollongong in March 2016 on ‘Concepts and Problems of Scale’. This event involved Pierrick Bourrat, Robin Hendry, Lina Jansson, David Michael Kaplan, John Matthewson, Patrick McGivern, Michael Silberstein, and Johanna Wolff. Papers covered problems of scale in chemistry, biology, physics, and cognitive science, as well as the relationship between concepts of scale and concepts of abstraction, measurement, and mechanisms in explanation and modeling more generally in science.


(2015) “Emergence and Reduction in the Limit”. Invited presentation at the Centre for Time, University of Sydney, Conference on Time: Arrows, Experience, and Emergence.

(2015) “Multiscale Models and Emergence”. Invited presentation at Durham University, Conference on Physics and Emergence.

(2015) “Realism and Multiscale Modeling”. Invited presentation at the Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, Conference on Effective Theories, Mixed Scale Modeling, and Emergence.

(2016) “Concepts and problems of scale: new work for a theory of scale”. Presentation at the University of Wollongong, Workshop on Concepts and Problems of Scale.