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DescriptionPhilosophers 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.The aim of the conference is to analyze, differentiate, and connect the various notions and practices of simplicity and complexity, in physics as well as in other sciences, guided by the following questions:
- Which kinds and levels of simplicity can be distinguished (e.g. formal or ontological, structural or practical)? Which roles do they play and which purposes do they serve? Does simplicity, in a suitable reformulation, remain a valid ideal – and if so, in which fields and problem contexts? Or, instead, where has it been abandoned or replaced by a plurality of interconnected approaches and alternative perspectives?
- What about complexity? How is the complexity of an object of investigation addressed (represented, mirrored, negated, etc.) by the adopted theoretical and empirical approaches in different fields?
- Addressing complex problems, especially those relevant to society, requires institutional settings beyond the traditional research laboratory. How does the complexity of such settings relate to the complexity of epistemic strategies and of the problems themselves? In what sense can we trust the other players in a complex epistemic network?
- How should we conceive of the relation between simplicity and complexity? Are there alternatives to seeing complexity in opposition to simplicity? Does physics, in virtue of its history, maintain its special position in the contemporary debates on simplicity and complexity? What do reflections on the epistemic cultures of ecology, cultural anthropology, economics, etc. have to offer in terms of how simplicities and complexities can be balanced?
We invite contributors from a spectrum of disciplines, scientists and scholars reflecting on their respective and neighboring research fields, as well as historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science investigating the epistemologies, practices, and discourses of fellow epistemic communities. The conference will thrive on intense discussion surpassing disciplinary boundaries.