Imagination plays many roles in science; from generating hypotheses, to planning tests, communicating results, and sparking revolutions. I want to understand what the different kinds of imagination-use in science are, how they succeed or mislead, and how scientists themselves learn and teach their students to use this feature of their discipline. Last year, as a Fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, I conducted an ethnographic study of imagination-use in a computational systems biology laboratory. The year before that, I finished my doctoral degree on the history and philosophy of scientific thought experiments at the University of Toronto (2015). This year and the next while at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the LSE, I will be working on the role of imagination in model-building and scientific representation, as well as finishing up my work as editor of The Routledge Companion to Thought Experiments.
Dates of visit: September 2016 – September 2018
Project Description: Scientists create and learn from models of real-world systems that feature approximations, idealizations and abstractions. Such deviations from reality are heuristically necessary; without them science as currently practiced could not exist. Deviating from reality to learn about reality is epistemologically interesting as (part of) a method of investigation, and to investigate it, I want to look at the psychological processes and powers that enable scientists to do this. Principal among these powers is the imagination, which is crucial for taking us from the sentences and equations of scientific theory to the model systems which are their meanings, and getting from those model systems back to the world. With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), I hope to gather data on scientific imagination-use in vivo, and use this to develop a philosophical framework that is both taxonomical and explanatory concerning the scientific imagination. The next step is to develop a normative account that would be of use to scientists and educators who are interested in better training and constraining the scientific imagination. More at michaeltstuart.com.