Do fictions explain?

Synthese 199 (1-2):3219-3244 (2020)

Abstract

I argue that fictional models, construed as models that misrepresent certain ontological aspects of their target systems, can nevertheless explain why the latter exhibit certain behaviour. They can do this by accurately representing whatever it is that that behaviour counterfactually depends on. However, we should be sufficiently sensitive to different explanatory questions, i.e., ‘why does certain behaviour occur?’ versus ‘why does the counterfactual dependency invoked to answer that question actually hold?’. With this distinction in mind, I argue that whilst fictional models can answer the first sort of question, they do so in an unmysterious way. Moreover, I claim that the second question poses a dilemma for the defender of the idea that fictions can explain: either these models cannot answer these sorts of explanatory questions, precisely because they are fictional; or they can, but in a way that requires reinterpreting them such that they end up accurately representing the ontological basis of the counterfactual dependency, i.e., reinterpreting them so as to rob them of their fictional status. Thus, the existence of explanatory fictions does not put pressure on the idea that accurate representation of some aspect of a target system is a necessary condition on explaining that aspect.

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James Nguyen
Stockholm University

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