On the dangers of making scientific models ontologically independent: Taking Richard Levins' warnings seriously

Biology and Philosophy 21 (5):703-724 (2006)

Abstract

Levins and Lewontin have contributed significantly to our philosophical understanding of the structures, processes, and purposes of biological mathematical theorizing and modeling. Here I explore their separate and joint pleas to avoid making abstract and ideal scientific models ontologically independent by confusing or conflating our scientific models and the world. I differentiate two views of theorizing and modeling, orthodox and dialectical, in order to examine Levins and Lewontin’s, among others, advocacy of the latter view. I compare the positions of these two views with respect to four points regarding ontological assumptions: (1) the origin of ontological assumptions, (2) the relation of such assumptions to the formal models of the same theory, (3) their use in integrating and negotiating different formal models of distinct theories, and (4) their employment in explanatory activity. Dialectical is here used in both its Hegelian–Marxist sense of opposition and tension between alternative positions and in its Platonic sense of dialogue between advocates of distinct theories. I investigate three case studies, from Levins and Lewontin as well as from a recent paper of mine, that show the relevance and power of the dialectical understanding of theorizing and modeling.

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Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther
University of California, Santa Cruz

References found in this work

How the Laws of Physics Lie.Nancy Cartwright - 1983 - Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Nature's Capacities and Their Measurement.Nancy Cartwright - 1989 - Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
The Fate of Knowledge.Helen E. Longino - 2001 - Princeton University Press.
Logic: The Theory of Inquiry.John Dewey - 1938 - New York, NY, USA: Henry Holt.

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Citations of this work

The Mind, the Lab, and the Field: Three Kinds of Populations in Scientific Practice.Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther, Ryan Giordano, Michael D. Edge & Rasmus Nielsen - 2015 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 52:12-21.
Robustness and Sensitivity of Biological Models.Jani Raerinne - 2013 - Philosophical Studies 166 (2):285-303.
Development and Mechanistic Explanation.Fabrizzio Mc Manus - 2012 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43 (2):532-541.

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