Playing with molecules

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 42 (4):580-589 (2011)
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Abstract

Recent philosophy of science has seen a number of attempts to understand scientific models by looking to theories of fiction. In previous work, I have offered an account of models that draws on Kendall Walton’s ‘make-believe’ theory of art. According to this account, models function as ‘props’ in games of make-believe, like children’s dolls or toy trucks. In this paper, I assess the make-believe view through an empirical study of molecular models. I suggest that the view gains support when we look at the way that these models are used and the attitude that users take towards them. Users’ interaction with molecular models suggests that they do imagine the models to be molecules, in much the same way that children imagine a doll to be a baby. Furthermore, I argue, users of molecular models imagine themselves viewing and manipulating molecules, just as children playing with a doll might imagine themselves looking at a baby or feeding it. Recognising this ‘participation’ in modelling, I suggest, points towards a new account of how models are used to learn about the world, and helps us to understand the value that scientists sometimes place on three-dimensional, physical models over other forms of representation.

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Adam Toon
University of Exeter

Citations of this work

Scientific representation.Roman Frigg & James Nguyen - 2016 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The turn of the valve: representing with material models.Roman Frigg & James Nguyen - 2018 - European Journal for Philosophy of Science 8 (2):205-224.
Mirrors without warnings.Roman Frigg & James Nguyen - 2019 - Synthese 198 (3):2427-2447.
Simplified models: a different perspective on models as mediators.C. D. McCoy & Michela Massimi - 2018 - European Journal for Philosophy of Science 8 (1):99-123.

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References found in this work

How the laws of physics lie.Nancy Cartwright - 1983 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Mimesis as Make-Believe.Kendall Walton - 1996 - Synthese 109 (3):413-434.
The strategy of model-based science.Peter Godfrey-Smith - 2006 - Biology and Philosophy 21 (5):725-740.

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