Where where you before coming to King’s?
I did my PhD and MPhilStud at King’s, so I’ve been here since 2013. However, most recently I came here from Bristol where I was a postdoc on a project with the grand title ‘The Metaphysical Unity of Science’. The great thing about that project is that it allowed me to work on my own research while also giving me the chance to collaborate with the other postdocs (Vanessa Seifert and Toby Friend) on exciting topics. The products of these collaborations should be completed soon!
How did you become interested in philosophy?
I’m lucky enough to have been introduced to philosophy from a very young age by my dad (who also has a PhD in philosophy). Throughout my childhood and later life we’d go on walks on Hampstead Heath discussing philosophy (though not necessarily calling it that) as well as various religious Jewish texts. So, it’s not clear to me that I’ve ever not been into philosophy. The choice to study philosophy professionally was likely motivated in part by the desire to keep up with the conversations when Oliver Black (a schoolfriend of my Dad’s) would join us on these walks! But I really became excited when, as an undergraduate, I started learning about the philosophy of physics!
Your work involves the role of emergence in science, do you think there is a single concept of emergence applicable across different levels of scientific explanation or are we talking about different things?
That’s a good question, and a difficult one to answer. In my more hubristic moments, I think that everyone is talking about the same thing, and that the account of it that I defend with Eleanor Knox, is the one to which everyone should appeal! I do think that many of the uses of the term ‘emergence’ across science have a lot in common with each other, and that, if one wants to use the philosophical jargon, scientists are mainly talking about weak ontological emergence (in its synchronic or diachronic forms). I think that strong emergence is almost exclusively found within philosophy (and that’s one reason to be sceptical of it!). Having said all that, it’s worth noting that I’ve read much more physics than any other science, and so my views should not be taken to result from a systematic study of the literature.
It has been argued in the past that special sciences are autonomous from more fundamental sciences. Do you think that we can ever give an explanation of this autonomy or will it remain a mystery?
The boring answer to this question is that it depends on how ‘autonomy’ is defined. A fair few philosophers assume (explicitly or implicitly) that autonomy is the kind of thing that just can’t be explained – that if a science is autonomous then the relations between it and the lower-level sciences aren’t the sorts of relation which allow for explanation of that autonomy. My view is that, while there’s a sense in which the special sciences are clearly autonomous, that’s a sense which is compatible with explaining how that autonomy comes about.
The basic idea is that autonomy corresponds to a kind of stability: my desk is autonomous because it will look the same even while its constituent particles are continually jiggling about. So part of explaining autonomy is explaining why the jiggling about of the particles just doesn’t make a difference to the macroscopic properties of the table. Once we’ve made this conceptual shift, then we can repurpose a great many scientific explanations to explanations of autonomy: the table’s autonomy is explained by the theories which tell us about how the particles are arranged in a lattice, and how wood is cohesive etc. I’ve written a paper about this that’s currently under review, so hopefully it’ll all be public soon!
Is there a philosophical idea that you endorse and that most people don’t but should?
I think that there may well be no fundamental level – that we may continue describing the world ever more precisely for ever and ever!