Idealization, representation, and explanation in the sciences

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 99 (C):10-14 (2023)
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A central goal of the scientific endeavor is to explain phenomena. Scientists often attempt to explain a phenomenon by way of representing it in some manner—such as with mathematical equations, models, or theory—which allows for an explanation of the phenomenon under investigation. However, in developing scientific representations, scientists typically deploy simplifications and idealizations. As a result, scientific representations provide only partial, and often distorted, accounts of the phenomenon in question. Philosophers of science have analyzed the nature and function of how scientists construct representations, deploy idealizations, and provide explanations. As such, our aim in this special issue is to bring these three pillars of research into closer contact with the contributions to it focusing on three main themes. The first set of papers, Alan Baker (2021) and Marc Lange (2021), address mathematical explanations in science. Baker (2021), a proponent of mathematical Platonism, examines its capacity to evade the critique that the so-called Enhanced Indispensability Argument is circular. Lange (2021) examines distinctively mathematical explanations, arguing that neither Platonism nor representationalism are successful paths, and instead argues in favor of Aristotelian realism. A second theme emerging from the papers in this special issue is the impact that various conceptualizations of idealization have on our abilities to offer scientific explanations, to pro- duce an analysis of what explanations are or should be, and to understand scientific representation. Peter Tan (2021) suggests amending inferentialist accounts of scientific representation to account for inconsistent idealizations. Michael Strevens (2021) advocates a view wherein the introduction of idealizations into a model is legitimate so long as it pertains to non-difference-making factors, arguing for a logical reading of the notion of difference-making. Natalia Carrillo and Tarja Knuuttila (2022) offer an alternative account to the idealization-as-distortion view, emphasizing instead the holistic nature of idealization. Finally, contributions by Carrillo and Knuuttila (2022), Terzian (2021), Valente (2021), and Rodriguez (2021) illustrate how issues regarding idealization, representation, and explanation are applied to specific contexts and across various sciences. Carrillo and Knuuttila (2022) examine conceptions of idealization in the context of models of the nerve impulse. Giulia Terzian (2021) extends the discussion of idealizations to the context of generative linguistics. Giovanni Valente (2021) examines how idealizations and evaluations of accurate representation impact capacities to explain phenomena in the context of statistical thermodynamics. Quentin Rodriguez (2021) examines the role of idealizations and analogies in various strategies to explain critical phenomena. In what follows, we offer a brief overview of important philosophical issues connected to representation, idealization, and explanation in science. We then provide short summaries of the eight papers in this special issue.



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Author Profiles

Elay Shech
Auburn University
Melissa Jacquart
University of Cincinnati
Martin Zach
Czech Academy of Sciences

Citations of this work

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: Idealisations and the aims of polygenic scores.Davide Serpico - 2023 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 102 (C):72-83.

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References found in this work

Galilean Idealization.Ernan McMullin - 1985 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 16 (3):247.
Minimal Model Explanations.Robert W. Batterman & Collin C. Rice - 2014 - Philosophy of Science 81 (3):349-376.
What Makes a Scientific Explanation Distinctively Mathematical?Marc Lange - 2013 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 64 (3):485-511.
The strategy of model-based science.Peter Godfrey-Smith - 2006 - Biology and Philosophy 21 (5):725-740.
Modelling and representing: An artefactual approach to model-based representation.Tarja Knuuttila - 2011 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 42 (2):262-271.

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