Lorentz Center - Understanding and the Aims of Science from 31 May 2010 through 4 Jun 2010
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    Understanding and the Aims of Science
    from 31 May 2010 through 4 Jun 2010

Book Proposal Understanding Scientific Understanding

Scientific Report

Scientific background and motivation

The workshop focused on the topic of understanding as an aim of science. Both scientists and laypeople typically regard understanding as one of the most important and highly valued aims of scientific research. But what precisely is scientific understanding, and how is it achieved? These are philosophical questions, and there is hardly any consensus about the answers. The aim of the workshop was to advance the discussion about understanding as an aim of science by bringing together philosophers of science and practicing scientists from various scientific disciplines. The interdisciplinary nature of the workshop was meant to provide philosophers of science with first-hand information about scientific practice and about scientists’ criteria for understanding, and to press scientists to reflect on the aims of their research activities and to make their criteria for achieving understanding explicit.

The workshop: program and overview

The workshop featured 20 invited speakers and 8 young scholars, and attracted a further 19 registered attendees. Of all participants, 28 were based in the Netherlands, while the remainder came from Belgium, Germany, Denmark, the UK, France, Greece, Finland, the USA, and Canada. The interdisciplinary nature of the workshop was reflected in the background of the participants, among whom were philosophers of science and scientists from a wide variety of disciplines, ranging from physics to the social sciences.

Each workshop day focused on a specific topic, and opened with a short introduction to this topic by one of the organizers. The topics were:

·         Aims of Science and the Place of Understanding

·         Theories of Understanding I: Mechanism-Based Approaches

·         Theories of Understanding II: Unification- and Reduction-Based Approaches

·         Simulations and the Provision of Understanding

·         Understanding, Imagination, and Visualization

Each day featured three or four invited lectures, followed by ample discussion time. In addition, there were plenary sessions to evaluate the progress made during the workshop, a concluding wrap-up session, and short presentations by ‘young scholars’ (PhD students or recent PhDs).

On Tuesday, invited speaker Herman Verlinde (Princeton University) gave a public lecture, “On the Emergence of Space and Gravity”, in the lunchtime lecture series “This Week’s Discoveries” of the Faculty of Science. This lecture attracted a large audience of faculty members and students and stimulated a lively discussion.

Evaluation and conclusions

The chief aim of the workshop, interdisciplinary discussion and research on the nature of scientific understanding, was successfully realized. There was much fruitful discussion and interaction between scientists and philosophers with backgrounds in various scientific disciplines. Since ideas and presuppositions regarding the nature of understanding and the ways it can be achieved vary widely across disciplines, and since philosophers of science do not usually interact with scientists on a day-to-day basis, the workshop offered a unique opportunity for participants to widen their horizons and gain new insights.

At a more practical level, the excellent facilities of the Lorentz Center and the pleasant and efficient support of its staff contributed enormously to the success of the workshop. The Lorentz Center ‘home’, with office space for every participant and a common room, creates an informal atmosphere that fosters interaction and discussion between participants.

The abstracts and slides of all lecture presentations are available on the website. A selection of the invited papers will be published in a special issue of a philosophy of science journal, devoted to the topic ‘Understanding without Explanation’.


We thank the Lorentz Center, in particular Pauline Vincenten and Mieke Schutte, for the excellent local organization and facilities, and the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS) for supporting the workshop as part of the Lorentz Fellowship 2009–2010. Finally, we thank the Lorentz Center, NIAS, and the Institute of Philosophy, Leiden University, for financial support.

Henk W. de Regt (VU University Amsterdam / NIAS)

James W. McAllister (Leiden University)