Synthese 196 (5):1809-1829 (2019)

Authors
Andrew Wayne
University of Guelph
Abstract
This paper explores the role of physically impossible idealizations in model-based explanation. We do this by examining the explanation of gravitational waves from distant stellar objects using models that contain point-particle idealizations. Like infinite idealizations in thermodynamics, biology and economics, the point-particle idealization in general relativity is physically impossible. What makes this case interesting is that there are two very different kinds of models used for predicting the same gravitational wave phenomena, post-Newtonian models and effective field theory models. The paper contends that post-Newtonian models are explanatory while effective field theory models are not, because only in the former can we eliminate the physically impossible point-particle idealization. This suggests that, in some areas of science at least, models invoking ineliminable infinite idealizations cannot have explanatory power.
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DOI 10.1007/s11229-017-1638-y
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