Professor Margaret Morrison

IAS Fellow at Trevelyan College, Durham University (October – December 2014)

Margaret Morrison is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto where she teaches a broad range of topics in the philosophy of science and in the history of philosophy, especially Kant. She earned her PhD in Philosophy of Science at the University of Western Ontario in 1987. Before taking up a position at the University of Toronto she held faculty positions at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis). In 1995-6 she was a research fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and spent many years (1993-2003) as a research fellow at the Centre for the Philosophy of the Natural and Social Sciences at the London School of Economics. In 2004 she was elected to the Leopoldina – the German National Academy of Science.

Her interest in philosophy of science began when she was an undergraduate research assistant in the department of biophysics at Dalhousie University. Her work spans a variety of topics in the philosophy and history of physics. One area of particular interest is the nature of theory unification – how exactly the unifying process takes place and what epistemological value should be placed on unified theories. Her book, Unifying Scientific Theories: Physical Concepts and Mathematical Structures, published by Cambridge University Press in 2000, provides an in depth look at a number of unified theories including Maxwell’s electrodynamics, Special Relativity and the Electroweak theory which is part of the Standard Model. Morrison argues that in each of these cases the ability to unify phenomena was largely dependent on a particular type of mathematical structure that formed the foundation of each theory. Moreover, each theory displayed different characteristics with respect to unification. What this entails is that while mathematics plays a significant role in unification there is no single feature that is common in different types of unified theories. In other words, there is no “unified account” of theory unification.

A good deal of Professor Morrison’s work in the philosophy of science addresses the role that mathematics plays in our understanding of the physical world. Her work on scientific modelling is widely discussed in the philosophical literature and she is one of the founders of the well known “Models as Mediators” view that has resulted in a shift away from the more logic oriented treatment of models to one that attempts to accommodate features of scientific practice that are fundamental to model construction and use. Many of her papers on scientific models focus on the question of how we are able to extract practical information from abstract mathematical models, models that often bear little relation to the concrete physical world. This question is of particular importance not only in philosophy of science but in economics, policy making and all fields that rely on mathematical modelling.

More recently she has extended this interest into the realm of computer simulation and how we can use simulation as a source of reliable information or as a substitute for experimental data. Her forthcoming (2014) book with Oxford University Press entitled Reconstructing Reality: Mathematics, Models and Simulation represents the culmination of many years of work on these issues and offers some novel approaches for thinking about the complex relationship between abstract mathematical representations and the reality we are trying to understand.

While at the IAS in Durham Professor Morrison intends to develop these themes in the field of complex systems. This is a particular challenging area not only due to the difficulty in understanding the nature of complex systems but in explaining and predicting their behaviour. Because so much of our daily life depends on how these systems evolve (e.g. weather forecasting, financial markets, etc.) philosophical questions concerning our ability to understand them are especially timely and important.