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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Seminar - Emergence, Complex Systems and Explanation

20th October 2014, 13:00 to 14:00, IAS Seminar Room, Palace Green, Professor Margaret Morrison (University of Toronto)

Philosophical definitions of emergence tend to characterise it in the following way: A phenomenon is emergent if it cannot be reduced to, or explained/predicted by its micro constituents. What this entails is an account of emergence that is epistemic – it can be given completely in terms of our lack of knowledge at some particular time. In physics the situation is different. A characteristic account of emergence given by Philip Anderson (1971) (Nobel Prize winning physicist) focuses on the fact that the whole is not only greater than but “different from” its constituent parts. This is a claim about the system itself rather than our ability to understand it. This is puzzling because in physics we tend to explain the behaviour of physical systems in terms of its parts; so how is it possible that a emergent phenomenon will turn out to be different in kind from the constituents that comprise it? An answer to this question can be given in terms of something called “universality”, behaviour that was explained using a mathematical technique called the renormalization group (RG). Since its development in the mid-70s RG methods have been applied in a variety of different contexts to treat complex systems (systems that display emergent behaviour), contexts that range from high energy physics to financial markets. My research focuses on trying to understand 1) why these methods are so successful in such diverse areas; 2) whether they provide us with any physical understanding of these systems or are they simply calculational tools and 3) if they can reveal any underlying order or structure that complex systems share. (1) and (2) are a methodological questions while (3) is a question about the systems themselves.

Fellows' seminars take place on Monday lunchtimes in the seminar room at Cosin's Hall.

Places are limited and so any academic colleagues interested in attending a seminar should contact the Institute in advance to reserve a place.

The aim of these seminars is to develop new thinking on the big issues that are of current concern/interest for the Fellows . Each Fellow is asked to present a core idea that informs their current work, or a problem that they are tackling, that could benefit from cross-disciplinary thinking. These seminars are informal and designed to encourage discussion.

Contact for more information about this event.