Strategies of model-building in condensed matter physics: trade-offs as a demarcation criterion between physics and biology?

Synthese 190 (2):253-272 (2013)
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Abstract

This paper contrasts and compares strategies of model-building in condensed matter physics and biology, with respect to their alleged unequal susceptibility to trade-offs between different theoretical desiderata. It challenges the view, often expressed in the philosophical literature on trade-offs in population biology, that the existence of systematic trade-offs is a feature that is specific to biological models, since unlike physics, biology studies evolved systems that exhibit considerable natural variability. By contrast, I argue that the development of ever more sophisticated experimental, theoretical, and computational methods in physics is beginning to erode this contrast, since condensed matter physics is now in a position to measure, describe, model, and manipulate sample-specific features of individual systems – for example at the mesoscopic level – in a way that accounts for their contingency and heterogeneity. Model-building in certain areas of physics thus turns out to be more akin to modeling in biology than has been supposed and, indeed, has traditionally been the case.

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Axel Gelfert
Technische Universität Berlin

Citations of this work

Simplicity in the Best Systems Account of Laws of Nature.James Woodward - 2014 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 65 (1):91-123.

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References found in this work

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Making Sense of Life.Evelyn Fox Keller - 2002 - Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
How the Laws of Physics Lie.Malcolm R. Forster - 1985 - Philosophy of Science 52 (3):478-480.
Theories: Tools versus models.Mauricio Suárez & Nancy Cartwright - 2008 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 39 (1):62-81.

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