Philosophers of science from around the world come to U of T to puzzle over reality

Victoria College hosts fifth annual Society for the Metaphysics of Science Conference
Scholars discussed topics ranging from the natures of space and time to the comparative strengths of biological evolutionary theories. TAHMEED SHAFIQ/THE VARSITY
Scholars discussed topics ranging from the natures of space and time to the comparative strengths of biological evolutionary theories. TAHMEED SHAFIQ/THE VARSITY

Philosophers of science from across the globe gathered at Victoria College for the fifth annual Society for the Metaphysics of Science Conference from November 7–9. As the first meagre snow of winter fell, scholars discussed topics ranging from the nature of space and time, to the comparative strengths of biological evolutionary theories.

The local organizers of the conference were U of T professors Michael Miller and Jessica Wilson, alongside PhD student Marissa Bennett; all are from the Department of Philosophy. Wilson also serves on the society’s council, and previously served as its president.

“When it came time to hold [the conference] somewhere in North America, I thought, ‘what about Toronto?’” remarked Wilson. “We have the [Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology] here, as well as a very strong philosophy department and a lot of people who are interested in metaphysics of science.”

What is ‘metaphysics of science?’

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that asks fundamental questions about the natural world that are often not tackled by the sciences. Examples of metaphysical enigmas are the nature of causality, substance, and reality itself. Metaphysics of science is a subset of theories that explores the philosophical questions raised by the scientific method and scientific discoveries. A metaphysicist of science may choose to critique the assumptions of causality in scientific theories, for example, rather than in our day-to-day lives.

In the modern age, philosophy and science are distinct fields — but that has not always been the case. “In the seventeenth century and prior, there was hardly any distinction at all between science and philosophy. It all fell under the rubric of ‘natural philosophy,’” said Wilson.

Since then, “[science] and philosophy have… focused on somewhat different ways of investigating phenomena, which nonetheless frequently overlap,” she added.

What was discussed?

The conference proceedings demonstrated the breadth of research topics in the metaphysics of science. While a conversation about the possibility of time travel occurred in one room, a talk was simultaneously being given elsewhere on the difference between valid and bogus patterns in scientific data.

Miller gave a talk about the assumptions we make concerning some laws of nature. Why do we assume that fundamental constants — like the mass of an electron — have real-world values that can be measured to infinite decimal places? 

An unsurprising answer would be that it seems to be an expectation formed by theory, where constants are never truncated to a finite decimal place. Miller argued that reality can differ from theory: fundamental constants could be naturally imprecise.

This idea would create a big shift in how we think about measurement — imprecision would not just occur due to our experimental equipment, but because of the universe itself.

One well-attended talk was a discussion on the nature of memory by Nick Huggett, a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His 1999 book Space from Zeno to Einstein has been taught in the Vic One Schawlow Stream program.

Patrick Fraser, a fourth-year undergraduate student in a physics and philosophy specialist, participated in that program in his first year. “It’s really exciting to have these kinds of [academic celebrities] showing up and asking you where to buy juice and stuff like that,” he said, recalling an interaction he had with Huggett.

Describing why he attends professional conferences as an undergraduate, Fraser said, “I really like to see what’s going on at the forefront of the field… and meeting the people actually making contributions to the field.”

Professor Katherine Brading of Duke University delivered a keynote lecture where she discussed the historical reasons for the schism between philosophy and physics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In attempting to understand the mechanics of particles, she argued, scientist-philosophers moved further toward theories that could be captured mathematically and away from more metaphysical foundations of theories of matter.

Whatever the reasons for the current divide between laboratory science and philosophical methods, conferences like these show that the theoretical connection between the two is very much alive and here to stay.

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