How models represent

Dissertation, (2016)
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Scientific models are important, if not the sole, units of science. This thesis addresses the following question: in virtue of what do scientific models represent their target systems? In Part i I motivate the question, and lay out some important desiderata that any successful answer must meet. This provides a novel conceptual framework in which to think about the question of scientific representation. I then argue against Callender and Cohen’s attempt to diffuse the question. In Part ii I investigate the ideas that scientific models are ‘similar’, or structurally morphic, to their target systems. I argue that these approaches are misguided, and that at best these relationships concern the accuracy of a pre-existing representational relationship. I also pay particular attention to the sense in which target systems can be appropriately taken to exhibit a ‘structure’, and van Fraassen’s recent argument concerning the pragmatic equivalence between representing phenomena and data. My next target is the idea that models should not be seen as objects in their own right, but rather what look like descriptions of them are actually direct descriptions of target systems, albeit not ones that should be understood literally. I argue that these approaches fail to do justice to the practice of scientific modelling. Finally I turn to the idea that how models represent is grounded, in some sense, in their inferential capacity. I compare this approach to anti-representationalism in the philosophy of language and argue that analogous issues arise in the context of scientific representation. Part iii contains my positive proposal. I provide an account of scientific representation based on Goodman and Elgin’s notion of representation-as. The result is a highly conventional account which is the appropriate level of generality to capture all of its instances, whilst remaining informative about the notion. I illustrate it with reference to the Phillips-Newlyn machine, models of proteins, and the Lotka-Volterra model of predator-prey systems. These examples demonstrate how the account must be understood, and how it sheds light on our understanding of how models are used. I finally demonstrate how the account meets the desiderata laid out at the beginning of the thesis, and outline its implications for further questions from the philosophy of science; not limited to issues surrounding the applicability of mathematics, idealisation, and what it takes for a model to be ‘true’.



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James Nguyen
Stockholm University

Citations of this work

Models, information and meaning.Marc Artiga - 2020 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 82:101284.

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References found in this work

Philosophical Investigations.Ludwig Wittgenstein - 1953 - New York, NY, USA: Wiley-Blackwell. Edited by G. E. M. Anscombe.
Ontological relativity and other essays.Willard Van Orman Quine (ed.) - 1969 - New York: Columbia University Press.
How the laws of physics lie.Nancy Cartwright - 1983 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Laws and symmetry.Bas C. van Fraassen - 1989 - New York: Oxford University Press.

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