Christoph Holzhey (Berlin): Reduction, Emergence, Complementarity

The Case of Boltzmann’s Defence of Atomism

07.12.2017 16:00 Uhr – 18:00 Uhr

wann: Donnerstag, 7. Dezember 2017, 16-18 Uhr

wo: Historicum, Schellingstr. 12, Raum K026

Vortrag im Rahmen des Oberseminars "Perspektiven der Wissenschaftsgeschichte"

The talk revisits Ludwig Boltzmann’s arguments for the ‘indispensibility of atomism in natural science’. Boltzmann’s 1897 paper can be situated within a growing controversy on atomism, which seems to get definitively settled with the advent of quantum mechanics. However, his critique of continuum theories concerned rather the reduction of thermodynamics to statistical and ultimately classical mechanics, and this reduction continues to be debated despite being widely accepted and even considered as paradigmatic for intertheoretic reductions. The talk proposes that Boltzmann’s defence of atomism helps understanding the recurrent and persistent controversies on taking thermodynamics – and with it also phenomena of emergence and irreversibility – ‘(too) seriously’. More specifically, it argues that his negotiation of mutually exclusive ontological assumptions and epistemological approaches corresponds well to what Niels Bohr will define as complementarity, which here takes the guise of a continuum-atomism complementarity. The talk is part of a larger project exploring the vitality and critical potential of complementarity in counter-acting both reductions and hierarchical binaries. In particular, if Canguilhem explores vitalism’s permanent oscillation with mechanism in the history of biological theories, and Foucault considers vitalism as a ‘critical indicator for reductions to be avoided’, the aim of this larger project is to explore the recurrent challenges to Newtonian mechanics within the history of physics and interpret the manifold vitalist mobilizations of post-Newtonian theories invested with the promise to overcome the modern split between the so-called two cultures, between nature and culture, or indeed between inanimate matter and the living.