Workshop series “Scientific Understanding and Representation (SURe)”
Representations play a central role in scientists’ understanding of the world. From mathematical models to diagrams, different representations in highly varied contexts yield diverse insights across the physical, biological, and social sciences. Despite the fact that how a phenomenon is represented has far-reaching ramifications for how it is understood, the literatures on scientific understanding and scientific representation are largely independent of each other. The time is ripe to foster greater synergy between these two areas in the philosophy of science, as they face complementary problems—and hold the promise of complementary solutions.
Consider, for instance, idealizations, such as frictionless planes, infinite populations, ideal gasses, and rational actors. Idealizations misrepresent their target systems, yet frequently provide a deeper understanding than more accurate representations. However, to develop this idea, more detailed accounts of representation and of understanding must engage each other. Otherwise, it remains mysterious how a misrepresentation can provide genuine understanding.
Additionally, with the advent of big data and machine learning, scientists are increasingly finding themselves in situations where they have sizable gaps in their understanding of models that nevertheless afford them accurate representations and other cognitive goods, such as predictive power. Once again, more detailed accounts of representation and understanding hold the promise of reconciling this tension, which could have far-reaching implications for scientific practice.
Another, underdeveloped area of potential crosstalk concerns the cognitive capacities that characterize understanding, such as grasping, intuiting, and reasoning. These abilities seem to require some kind of mental representation. Yet, the relationship between mental representation, scientific representation, and understanding has hardly been touched. Moreover, “practice-oriented” philosophers of science may seek to reverse the order of analysis, i.e. to account for representation in terms of scientists’ cognitive activities.
Additionally, more integrated discussions of representation and understanding might yield philosophical insight in discussions of data and phenomena. Phenomena admit of different representations, and some of these representations yield better understanding because they are more amenable to embedding the phenomenon into a broader theoretical framework. Yet scientists’ flexibility in how they represent phenomena is constrained by the available data, detectors, and measurement practices.
Moreover, in the biological and social sciences, representations of phenomena may have implications for our moralunderstanding of ourselves, of others, and of our relationship to non-human organisms and the broader environment. In this way, understanding serves as bridge between the representation literature and the literature on science and values (both moral and epistemic).
These are not the only questions that call out for deeper connections between scientific representation and scientific understanding to be drawn. At the most general level, how do representations provide understanding? Is the relation between representation and understanding always mediated through explanation, or the understanding could be obtained directly from representation? Why do some representations provide better understanding than others?
This workshop series aim is to explore all these and many further related questions through focused meetings that will take place once a year, every time at a different location. The very first, inaugural workshop will be by invitation only, because it will gather top experts on many of these questions, and the purpose of it will be to establish a steering/scientific committee. Every other workshop in the series will have keynote speakers, and the participants will be chosen through a CFP and a blind review of extended abstracts. There will be no parallel sessions.
The founders of the workshop series are Daniel Kostic and Kareem Khalifa. If you need any additional information please contact either one of them at: firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com.