Nina Emery

Nina Emery
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Frank Mullin/Brown University
Physics and metaphysics both describe the fundamental structure of what there is, albeit with different approaches. Nina Emery, Brown’s new philosopher of science, is interested in both. “Whether our best scientific theories coincide or compete with our best metaphysics, the study of each ought to inform the other,” she says.

“Scientists are great at developing sets of mathematical rules that predict outcomes of experiments with amazing accuracy,” says Nina Emery, who joins the Department of Philosophy this fall as its only specialist in the philosophy of science.

“But even when we know how to use this mathematical formalism to predict what will happen, our ability to explain the phenomena in question is often quite limited,” adds Emery, who completed her Ph.D. in philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012.

In quantum physics, for example, the attempt to understand well-established mathematical rules has generated such seemingly outlandish statements as “The physical world behaves differently if someone is observing it,” “It is possible for cats to be both dead and alive at the same time and for baseballs to tunnel through solid walls,” and “Everything that could possibly happen, happens in some branch of the universe.”

As a philosopher of science, Emery goes beyond experimental results to examine the assumptions upon which science is based, asking questions like “Is the goal of a scientific theory merely to predict what will happen, or do scientific theories also need to explain what happens? How, if at all, should we choose between scientific theories that make the same empirical predictions? Should a scientific theory present a comprehensible picture of what the world is like at the fundamental level? Does it matter at all if that picture is counterintuitive?”

Emery’s dissertation, Chance, Indeterminacy, Explanation, focuses on the role that the concept of chance plays in different scientific and philosophical theories. “The most common and influential view is that chance requires indeterminacy — that chances are probabilities that arise when fundamental laws are unable to predict certain outcomes. But this view undermines the distinction between chance and other types of probability and renders chance incapable of playing any scientifically significant role,” she argues. Emery proposes an alternative view, one that defines “chances as probabilities that play a certain explanatory role. If the chance of some type of event happening is very high, that explains why, most of the time, events of that sort do in fact happen,” she says.

Emery recently began a new research project on science and skepticism. “I am interested in investigating just how wild a scientific theory can be before we are allowed to discount it entirely,” she says. “What is the connection between a theory that says our world consists of a single particle moving in a multitude of dimensions, and more familiar skeptical hypotheses, like that there is no external world, or that we live in the matrix?” She will present a colloquium on her current research at the physics department in October.

This fall, Emery is teaching the philosophy of quantum mechanics, a course she has taught at MIT, as well as metaphysics, a core offering in the philosophy department. In the spring she will teach an introductory bioethics course, as well as a graduate seminar on the metaphysics of chance. In addition, Emery looks forward to managing the philosophy side of the philosophy and physics concentration, launched jointly by the two departments a few years ago.

“Nina adds important expertise as our sole specialist in the philosophy of science, and she will help perpetuate our long and distinguished history in the field of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that investigates the fundamental structure of what there is,” says Bernard Reginster, department chair. “Since a number of contemporary philosophers believe that the fundamental structures of reality are those described by theoretical physics, there is a natural alliance between metaphysics and philosophy of physics.”

Growing up in Connecticut, Emery was drawn to the sciences in high school and attended a math and science charter school in her senior year. She went on to study physics at Cornell University, “where I quickly discovered that I wanted to focus on the theoretical rather than practical aspects of physics,” she says. She spent a year at Oxford University in the philosophy of physics program before returning to Cornell to earn a B.A. in both physics and philosophy, graduating summa cum laude.

“Brown is such a welcoming and open scholarly environment,” says Emery, who lives on the East Side with her husband, Robert, a RISD-trained architect, and her dog, Charlie. “I am excited to be a part of that community and especially to be an advocate and mentor for women in philosophy and the sciences, fields where they have long been underrepresented.”

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