, Volume 190, Issue 2, pp 253–272

Strategies of model-building in condensed matter physics: trade-offs as a demarcation criterion between physics and biology?


DOI: 10.1007/s11229-012-0145-4

Cite this article as:
Gelfert, A. Synthese (2013) 190: 253. doi:10.1007/s11229-012-0145-4


This paper contrasts and compares strategies of model-building in condensed matter physics and biology, with respect to their alleged unequal susceptibility to trade-offs between different theoretical desiderata. It challenges the view, often expressed in the philosophical literature on trade-offs in population biology, that the existence of systematic trade-offs is a feature that is specific to biological models, since unlike physics, biology studies evolved systems that exhibit considerable natural variability. By contrast, I argue that the development of ever more sophisticated experimental, theoretical, and computational methods in physics is beginning to erode this contrast, since condensed matter physics is now in a position to measure, describe, model, and manipulate sample-specific features of individual systems—for example at the mesoscopic level—in a way that accounts for their contingency and heterogeneity. Model-building in certain areas of physics thus turns out to be more akin to modeling in biology than has been supposed and, indeed, has traditionally been the case.


Scientific modelsTrade-offsModel-buildingMesoscopic modelsComplexity

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyNational University of SingaporeSingaporeRepublic of Singapore