Mainz Colloquium for History and Philosophy of Science / Mainzer Kolloquium für Geschichte und Philosophie der Wissenschaft


The Mainz Colloquium for History and Philosophy of Science is jointly organized by the Department of Philosophy, the research group in History of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the Institute of Mathematics, and the Studium generale.

Conveners: Ralf Busse (Department of Philosophy), Meinard Kuhlmann (Department of Philosophy), Cornelis Menke (Studium generale and Department of Philosophy), and Tilman Sauer (Institute of Mathematics)

Email list: On the foot of the page, you can subscribe to the announcement list of the Mainz Colloquium.


Einstein-Zitat (1916), Fassade Johann-Joachim-Becher-Weg 14, Campus JGU Mainz. Foto Privat
Einstein quote (1916). Face of Building J, Johann-Joachim-Becher-Weg 14, Mainz University. Foto Privat



Winter semester 2021/2022


This winter semester, most talks will be on campus.

Alexander Blum, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science MPIWG, Berlin

“Wie John Wheeler sein Vertrauen in die Naturgesetze verlor”
(Gemeinschaftsarbeit mit Stefano Furlan)

27 October 2021, 6.15 pm – Philosophicum, room P 108

Abstract: In der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts war die Physik als wissenschaftliche Disziplin auf dem Höhepunkt. Dieser Höhepunkt war zugleich der Beginn eines langsamen Niedergangs, und die Biologie wurde zunehmend als “Leitwissenschaft” wahrgenommen. Ein Aspekt dieser Entwicklung waren wachsende Zweifel an der Anwendbarkeit und Relevanz von mikroskopischen, reduktionistischen Naturgesetzen; ein anderer die zunehmende Bedeutung innerhalb der Physik von Konzepten aus den Lebenswissenschaften, wie Emergenz oder Evolution.

In meinem Vortrag untersuche ich diese Entwicklungen anhand der wissenschaftlichen Biographie des amerikanischen Physikers John Wheeler, der in den frühen 1970ern begann, die Ansicht zu vertreten, dass die Welt in ihren Grundlagen “gesetzlos” sei, und versuchte, die kosmologische Genese physikalischer Naturgesetze mithilfe evolutionärer Ideen zu erforschen.

Ralf Busse - Kommentar: Meinard Kuhlmann, Mainz University

“Metaphysischer Kohärentismus: Das (vermeintliche) Beispiel der Quanten-Verschränkung”

17 November 2021, 6.15 pm – Philosophicum, room P 108

Abstract: Dem metaphysischen Fundamentalismus zufolge ruht die Realität auf einem Fundament an Dingen oder Tatsachen, die von nichts weiter mehr metaphysisch abhängig sind. Aus diesem Fundament resultieren verschiedene Ebenen an derivativen Dingen oder Tatsachen in asymmetrischen Abhängigkeitsverhältnissen. Dem metaphysischen Kohärentismus zufolge besteht die Realität hingegen in einem Netzwerk von Dingen oder Tatsachen, die alle von etwas abhängig sind und wobei zumindest in manchen Fällen metaphysische Abhängigkeit wechselseitig besteht, so dass Abhängigkeit nicht asymmetrisch ist. Als Beleg für den Kohärentismus wird häufig auf das Phänomen der Quantenverschränkung verwiesen. Bei genauerem Hinsehen leidet die kohärentistische Deutung der Quantenverschränkung jedoch unter drei phänomenologischen Defiziten: 1. Oberflächlichkeit: Die behauptete wechselseitige Abhängigkeit von Teilchen-mit-bestimmten-Eigenschaften erweist sich als derivativ gegenüber relationalen Wesensbestimmungen bezüglich mehrerer Teilchen zugleich, die mit dem Fundamentalismus vereinbar sind. 2. Ambiguität: Plausiblerweise bestehende wechselseitige Abhängigkeiten zwischen Tatsachen über Teilchen und ihre Eigenschaften sind kausal-kontrafaktischer Art und nicht metaphysischer Art. 3. Substanzlosigkeit: Eine metaphysische Analyse von Verschränkungszuständen mittels wechselseitiger Abhängigkeit wird nur abstrakt behauptet, ohne dass eine konkrete metaphysische Theorie diese Ko-Abhängigkeit substanzialisieren könnte. Insgesamt vermag das Phänomen der Quantenverschränkung keine kohärentistische Metaphysik zu stützen. Die fundamentalistische Standard-Position in der Metaphysik bleibt unberührt.

Hanne Andersen, Section for History and Philosophy of Science, Dept. of Science Education, University of Copenhagen

“Learning from the past in developing machine learning for the future”

12 January 2022, 6.15 pm – online: please find further information at the Mainz colloquium page in Mainz University's LMS or contact the conveners. 

Abstract: Machine learning is being applied to more and more topics in human life. However, as the use of machine learning is becoming more and more widespread, there is also a growing concern about the possible negative implications of this development, especially with respect to high-stake decisions regarding individuals. This has spurred a rapidly growing literature on how to develop machine learning responsibly.

In much of this literature, issues such as bias, fairness, and explanatory transparency are addressed primarily as ethical issues and as challenges derived from the emergence and development of machine learning. However, first, in dealing with these issues, ethics is closely intertwined with epistemology. Second, although the importance of the challenges may have been amplified by the rapid development of machine learning and algorithmic decision systems, they are not necessarily new concerns. Instead, many of the challenges derive from well-known epistemic and ethical issues related to decision-making under uncertainty. In this talk, I shall provide a brief overview of some major strands in these debates and on this background discuss where the use of machine learning amplifies problems already known, and where it creates new issues that need to be resolved.

Talk cancelled:  Wolfgang Pietsch, Munich

“Datenwissenschaft als kausale Wissenschaft ((Big) Data Science as Causal Science)”

We will try to reschedule for a later date.

Abstract: There are many kinds of data science. I first discuss different usages of the term focussing on a narrow understanding of data science as machine learning applied to big data sets. I then propose a roadmap for examining the epistemic potential of such data science. A crucial conceptual tool in this regard is the distinction between phenomenological and theoretical science. The former establishes causal knowledge, which can be used for prediction and possibly manipulation. The latter aims at theoretical and abstract frameworks, which are non-causal and provide explanations by unifying seemingly disparate phenomena. I argue that data science belongs to phenomenological science and thus is primarily a causal science. This insight can shed light for example on the question whether we should expect an ‘artificial Einstein’ from present advances in machine learning and data science.



Summer semester 2021

Till Grüne-Yanoff, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm

“KISS in the Times of Pandemic: Different Modelling Approaches to COVID-19”

19 May 2021

Wendy Parker, Virginia Tech

“Relocating value influence in science”

7 July 2021

Abstract: Should social and political values influence how scientists choose among models, analyze data and reach conclusions? According to the “value-free ideal” for science, they should not. Recently, however, a number of philosophers have argued that such value influence can be entirely appropriate. I will suggest that the responsiveness to values that these philosophers find appropriate can be relocated within the research process, in a way that not only preserves the value-free ideal but may be more comfortable for scientists as well. I call this approach to accommodating value considerations the “epistemic projection approach”.

Simultaneously part of the Kolloquium des Philosophischen Seminars.


Winter semester 2020/2021

Uljana Feest, Leibniz-Universität Hannover

“Kognitive Ontologie”

18 November 2020

Simultaneously part of the Colloquium for Philosophy / Zugleich Vortrag im Kolloquium des Philosophischen Seminars (Programm/PDF)

Abstract: Folk-Psychological Concepts, Cognitive Kinds, and Investigative Practice. – When psychologists investigate their objects of research, such as (kinds of) memory, they operate with concepts that are typically derived from folk-psychology but which are – for the purposes of research – tied to specific material-conceptual set-ups, also known as experimental designs. In this vein, researchers tentatively define their concepts in terms of particular experimental tests/tasks, assumed to provide epistemic access to the “objects” in question. But what is the ontological status of such objects? Are they cognitive kinds? And if so, what kinds of things are cognitive kinds? In my paper I will argue that cognitive kinds are cognitive-behavioral whole-organism capacities, which are comprised of multiple phenomena, including (but not limited to) behavioral phenomena. With this I depart from the assumption that the behavioral criteria by which cognitive kinds are empirically individuated are mere epistemic vehicles that aid in the investigation of cognitive kinds. Rather, they are part of what it is to be such a kind. While I take cognitive kinds to be sustained by structural features in the world, I argue that they are not uniquely determined by neural mechanisms. My account of cognitive kinds is relational in that I claim that cognitive kinds are constituted relative to our sensory-conceptual apparatus and maintained by our conceptual and causal practices surrounding cognitive kinds. In turn, I argue that researchers take advantage of the relational character of their subject matter as they utilize existing concepts and fine-tune their conceptual apparatus

Andrea Loettgers, Universität Wien

“Organizationsprinzipien in der Biologie”

9 December 2020

Abstract: Scientists constructing models out of genes and proteins aim to explore basic organizational principles in biology. At the same time such material models are supposed to provide the possibility to engineer new biological parts of even whole systems. Are those epistemic and engineering goals compatible? What kind of explanations can be gained by this material model?

Dennis Lehmkuhl, Universität Bonn

“Einstein on Spacetime Geometry”

20 January 2021

Abstract: Einstein actively opposed the idea that the general theory of relativity (GR) should be interpreted as reducing the gravitational field to the geometry of spacetime. However, he also regularly pointed out that the metric tensor of general relativity gives a measure of the distance between any two spacetime points and is connected to the measurements of rods and clocks. How do these opinions fit, and how did they come to co-exist in Einstein’s interpretation of GR? I propose that an important hint to this lies in Einstein’s work on a relativistic theory of gravity before he ever represented gravity by a metric tensor. Thus, I will review and give a new analysis of Einstein’s work on a scalar theory of gravity in 1911 and 1912, taking into account the discussion surrounding the concept of a rigid body in relativity theory in the works of Born, Ehrenfest and von Laue in the years preceding Einstein’s scalar theory, and Einstein’s correspondence on the issue between 1909 and 1911.


Summer semester 2020

All talks during the summer semester 2020 had to be cancelled.


Winter semester 2019/2020

Cornelis Menke, University of Mainz

P < .05 – Ronald Fischer als Pragmatist”

6 November 2019

Simultaneously part of Kolloquium des Philosophischen Seminars

Abstract: Das in vielen Forschungsfeldern etablierte Signifikanzniveau von 5% bei statistischen Tests ist erklärungsbedürftig. Nach der Standard-Auffassung ist es ein eigentlich willkürlicher Grenzwert, der -- im Sinne von Neyman-Pearson-Entscheidungsverfahren -- als Fehlerhäufigkeit interpretiert werden sollte. Dies ist befremdlich, denn der Grenzwert ist älter als diese Entscheidungsverfahren und die Interpretation statistischer Tests, mit denen sie einhergehen, und ein festes Niveau für Fehlerhäufigkeiten ist diesen Verfahren eigentlich fremd. Die These des Vortrags ist, dass das .05-"limit of significance", das auf Ronald Fisher zurückgeht, bei Fisher aber eine gänzlich andere Funktion hat und, in dieser Funktion, auch kein willkürlicher Grenzwert ist.

Marie I. Kaiser, Universität Bielefeld

“How Biologists Study Animal Personalities”

4 December 2019

Giora Hon, University of Haifa

“James Clerk Maxwell’s Methodological Odyssey in Electromagnetism: A Philosophical Perspective”

29 January 2020

Simultaneously part of the Oberseminar zur Geschichte der Mathematik und der Naturwissenschaften

Abstract: Einstein (1931): “The greatest alteration in the axiomatic basis of physics – in our conception of the structure of reality – since the foundation of theoretical physics by Newton, originated in the researches of Faraday and Maxwell on electromagnetic phenomena... Since Maxwell’s time Physical Reality has been thought of as represented by continuous fields, governed by partial differential equations, and not capable of any mechanical interpretation. This change in the conception of Reality is the most profound and fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”

We ask, then, What was Maxwell’s key to this fundamental change in the conception of Physical Reality? By following closely the trajectory of Maxwell’s several contributions to electromagnetism, which we characterize as an odyssey, we uncover one fundamental aspect of this success – innovative methodologies.



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