Please join us for a talk by Dr. Eric Hochstein (UVic). Snacks and refreshments will be available before the talk in HH 335 from 2:30-3:30.
Finding the Right “Level”
Talk of “levels” can be found throughout the sciences. The term is used to demarcate everything from divisions in the structure of reality (e.g. ecological phenomena exist on a different level than quantum phenomena), to mereological relations (e.g. the neuron exists at a lower level than the hippocampus of which it is a part), to scientific domains (e.g. the level of psychology vs the level of neuroscience vs the level of chemistry), to differences in descriptions (e.g. one model is at a higher level of abstraction than another), to name only a few. What, if anything, unites these different senses of the term “level”? Some philosophers have championed certain usages of the term, while explicitly rejecting others. Other philosophers have proposed that the different senses of “levels” are all useful and worth holding on to, but they having nothing substantial in common that unites them. Others still have argued that the very idea of “levels” is confused, and should be jettisoned entirely from our scientific theorizing.
In this talk, I argue that there IS a unifying sense of “levels” that captures the different ways in which the term is used within scientific reasoning. By necessity our scientific models and theories must be selective in terms of what information they contain, and what information they abstract away or idealize. In this regard, scientists must make deliberate choices regarding what kind of information they wish to put in the foreground, and what kind they wish to push into the background, when modeling or representing phenomena. I propose that the term “levels” is best understood as a linguistic cue that scientists invoke in order to signal to their audience that they are changing what information is being foregrounded, and what is being backgrounded, in their representations. I will demonstrate how this way of thinking about levels can unify the seemingly disparate senses of “levels” used in the different scientific contexts. Moreover, I argue that this account forces us to re-evaluate some traditional philosophical questions regarding the nature of reductionism/antireductionism, and unificationism in science.
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