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Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellows' Seminar - Are Some Scales More Natural Than Others?

5th December 2016, 13:00 to 14:00, IAS Seminar Room, Palace Green, Professor Patrick McGivern (University of Wollongong, Australia)


Many discussions of scale involve concerns about the naturalness of different scales. Sometimes this is described as a concern with the objectivity or ‘reality’ of scales, and it is contrasted with the view that scales are purely subjective or in some other way unreal. These kinds of questions can be found across a range of areas, both in the natural sciences and the social sciences. They raise a variety of interesting philosophical questions about the role of scale in science. Here, Dr Patrick McGivern will focus on two of these questions.

The first question concerns the idea of naturalness itself: what exactly is at issue with regard to the naturalness of scale? For instance, what criteria – if any – would distinguish ‘natural’ from ‘unnatural’ scales? Similar distinctions arise in various other contexts in science. It is common, for example, to distinguish between natural and unnatural kinds or types of entities. Elementary particles in physics, elements in chemistry, and species in biology are all examples that are often associated with natural kinds in this sense. Is there some analogous way of distinguishing natural scales?

The second question concerns the significance of the answer we give to the first question. What difference would it make if some scales were more natural than others? For instance, would this change our assessment of different models or explanations – leading us to look for models based on natural scales and reject those associated with unnatural ones? Obviously, the answer depends on the account of naturalness we give in responding to the first question: being ‘natural’ in one sense might be significant in certain contexts but irrelevant in others.

Developing a complete answer to either of these questions would be a major work. My goal in the seminar is to clarify some of the underlying issues in these questions and to explain how we might begin to address them.

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.

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Contact enquiries.ias@durham.ac.uk for more information about this event.