Spotlight Series

Each month, we sit down with a member of our research team to learn more about their areas of expertise, what the turning points have been in their career, and what inspires them in their daily lives…

Alison Fernandes

Assistant Professor; Director of Post-Graduate Studies

Alison joined TCD in August 2018. She was previously a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick, and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh. She has a PhD from Columbia University and Bachelor's degree in Science and Arts from the University of Sydney.

What is your current area of research?

My current work involves thinking about the role of scientific relations and using these roles to account for what these relations are like. For example, I argue that laws and probabilities help us reason about states of systems at different times, while causal relations help us make choices that achieve outcomes we seek.

I think this kind of `functionalist` method shows that we should accept so-called `modal` scientific relations as part of our picture of the world, if we want our metaphysics to be appropriately driven by science. (This is an interesting contrast to John`s view last month!)

What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work?

I got interested in this work in part because I was interested in temporal asymmetries. A key observation is that the laws of physics work (by and large) the same in both temporal directions- they don`t distinguish between the past and the future.

Yet so much of the world appears to be temporally directed: causes come before their effects, we remember the past and not the future, etc. I think that if we give the right accounts of relations like causation and chance, we can account for how temporal asymmetries like these arise.

Share a turning point or defining moment in your work as a philosophical researcher?

A big turning point for me was taking classes in philosophy of physics by David Albert as a first year PhD student. At the time, I was mainly interested in German Idealism, and very broad questions about how reality appears to be shaped by our engagements with it. I disliked metaphysics, in part because it seemed at best tenuously connected to the results of science.

In these classes, I found there were very concrete ways in which questions about agency arose in physics, particularly in accounting for what causation is and what we want a scientific theory to achieve. In other words, here was a way of doing philosophy that was responsive to science, but in which questions about our engagements with the world were still central.

Briefly, what excites you about your research?

I like how much there is to do and how much is still open to debate. It`s very easy to take temporal asymmetries in the world for granted. It took until the 20th century for people to even start framing questions about why the world is directed in time. So, there`s a lot of new avenues to explore.

What do you like to do when you are not working?

Too many things. Currently, sewing, piano, cooking, gardening and dancing (when I can) and looking after the inimitable Petal. Petal is a 9 month old miniature dachshund and quite possibly the most adorable dog in the world.

What are you currently reading?

I don`t do a lot of reading during term time. But I have been listening to Worn: A People`s History of Clothing and Elizabeth Gaskell`s Wives and Daughters.

Do you have a favourite movie?

Not really. I was a huge fan of the original Star Wars trilogy. These days I`m more of a TV watcher. A current favourite is Friday Night Lights and an old favourite is BBC`s 1995 Pride and Prejudice.

Is there a work of art that inspires you?

`Inspire` is perhaps the wrong word, but I do like a lot of Edward Hopper and 17th C. Dutch art.

What would people be surprised to find out about you?

I would love to help you find your best colours and lines to wear.

April 2023