“Simplicities and Complexities” will take place from 22 to 24 May 2019 at the University of Bonn, Germany. It aims to bring together scientists and scholars from a spectrum of disciplines such as physics, biology, ecology, chemistry, and computational science, as well as from philosophy, sociology, and history of science. This conference is organized by the interdisciplinary, DFG- and FWF-funded research unit “Epistemology of the LHC“.
Philosophers and scientists alike have often assumed simplicity to be an epistemic ideal. Some examples of theories taken as successful realizations of this ideal include General Relativity and Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. These theories influenced early and mid-20th century philosophers’ understanding of the criteria successful scientific theories and practices had to meet, even when facing complex phenomena. However, this influence did not mean that the notion of simplicity was clear-cut. A suitable and encompassing definition of simplicity has yet to be developed. Some unanswered questions include: In what sense can and do physicists consider a theory, such as the Standard Model of elementary particle physics, as being sufficiently simple? How do ideals of simplicity differ when applied to disciplines other than physics? Biological concepts, for example, do not tend to refer to laws, whereas concepts from the social sciences frequently resort to notions of order and structure that are different from those of natural sciences. Are there, accordingly, simplicities (in plural) rather than a unified logic-inspired notion? Finally, are there cases where simplicity is simply a bad epistemic ideal, and not merely for the reason that it is often unreachable? Throughout the 20th century the sciences have approached more and more complex phenomena, in tune with the increased social relevance of scientific knowledge. The perceived need to address complexity head-on has led to a broader reaction against simplification and reductionism within the sciences. However, if simplicity, in its various outfits, has proven an unreliable guide, what should it be replaced with? Looking at the various strategies of addressing complexity in the sciences and the disciplines reflecting upon them, it appears that the notion is at least as variegated as simplicity. To be sure, there exist measures of complexity as well as mathematical, empirical, or discursive strategies to deal with it, but they vary strongly from one discipline to another.