Lydia Patton

Associate Professor, Philosophy, Virginia Tech.

Specialization Philosophy of science, history of science, the history of philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics. See my CV [PDF].

Much of my recent work and work in progress centers on philosophical analysis of science and the history of science: on the process of developing and generating models and hypotheses, and finding links between that development and theory building and testing. The approach could be called ‘making and breaking theories’.

“Reconsidering Experiments” (HOPOS, PhilSciArchive, arxiv) analyzes the interplay between experimental optics and the development of special relativity. Nineteenth century ether theories were more sophisticated than is often recognized, and the Michelson-Morley experiment was not a direct falsification of all of those theories. Only once Einstein had constructed a theory that eliminated matter-ether interaction from electrodynamics and optics altogether was it possible to make a substantive argument, appealing to the Michelson-Morley experiments, that “ether” was no longer a meaningful variable in those theories.

“Experiment and Theory Building” (Synthese; PhilSciArchive) takes up Kuhn’s and Lakatos’s questions about the epistemic choices available to scientists when experiments are in conflict with accepted theory – when anomalies begin to accumulate. I argue that there is an available framework for decisions about the new theory available, even if the choice of a novel theory is not univocally determined a priori. In particular, as I also argue in “Reconsidering Experiments”, the falsifying experiments themselves can provide hints for the structure of a new theory.

These analyses raise the question of whether there can be an over-arching account of theory construction that deliberately takes into account the heuristic process of theory testing and (inevitable) revision.   “Methodological Realism and Modal Resourcefulness” (PhilSciArchiveSynthese) and “Kuhn, Pedagogy, and Practice” (PhilSciArchive; Thomas Kuhn’s Image of Science) set out an initial approach, systematically and historically, respectively. The first paper builds on Laura Ruetsche’s Interpreting Quantum Theories, especially Ruetsche’s defense of “a theoretical virtue I will call ‘modal resourcefulness’: that a theory be able to function as a guide in varying modal contexts, without requiring a unifying physical interpretation of the theory as a depiction of reality”.  

“Kuhn, Pedagogy, and Practice” emphasizes the local, practical features of Kuhn’s account in Structure, especially his account of how scientists are trained in a way of approaching the phenomena. That training goes beyond traditional semantic analyses of the confirmation of a theory, to include practical approaches to testing theories or conjectures, and broader capacities, including Polany’s “tacit knowledge” and Fleck’s “vademecum science”.

The focus on heuristic, exploratory reasoning unifies systematic work in philosophy of science with work on the history of science.  Work in progress begins to apply the methods developed above to contemporary scientific theories, especially fluid dynamics and research into black holes. Fluid dynamics and black hole mergers share a feature: the partial differential equations of the background theory (Einstein’s linearized field equations, the Navier-Stokes equations) can’t be solved analytically in many domains of interest. Heuristic, modal reasoning is not only helpful, but necessary, in these cases. Initial results of this research have been presented at the Joint Meetings of the American Mathematical Society, at the MidWest Philosophy of Mathematics Workshop at Notre Dame, at Cambridge University, at the MCMP, and at the inaugural Black Hole Initiative conference.

Even in the contemporary context, scientists are agents who make choices about how to construct theories, how to evaluate evidence, and how to use the materials at hand. My focus on theory development, on modal reasoning, and on the logic of theory construction and heuristics is the common thread between my interests in the history of science and in contemporary science and mathematics. All of these analyses begin with the evaluation of scientists as agents, as members of a community of scientific researchers, and as making decisions in practice.

Black Hole Initiative

Session 8: Philosophy
Session Chair: Peter Galison

Lydia Patton: Listening to the Chirps: Estimating Black Hole Parameters Using the LIGO Results  |  Slides
Erik Curiel: Classical Black Holes Are Hot |  Slides
David Wallace: Questions for Black Hole Evaporation from Quantum Statistical Mechanics  |  Slides
Jeroen van Dongen: History and Philosophy of the Black Hole Information Paradox  |  Slides

Note: Heuristic Reasoning was the focus of an eponymous collection edited by Emiliano Ippoliti in 2015 (Springer): link here.  My own, related use of ‘heuristic’ comes from Einstein’s discussions of relativity.





The image in the background is of a portable electrostatic machine, on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence. Click here for information. Photograph (c) Lydia Patton 2014.