, Volume 190, Issue 2, pp 253-272

First online:

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

  • Axel GelfertAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, National University of Singapore Email author 

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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 models Trade-offs Model-building Mesoscopic models Complexity