Can asymptotic models be explanatory?

European Journal for Philosophy of Science 4 (2):233-252 (2014)
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Abstract

Asymptotic models in which singular limits are taken are very common in physics. They are often used to investigate the general behaviour of systems undergoing rapid, discontinuous, changes. The singularities in the mathematics of these systems have no physical counterparts; these models operate by containing non-physically interpretable fictional elements. As such there is an intuition that states that asymptotics only offer descriptions of systems not explanations of them. By contrast, in different areas of science other models containing fictional elements which are physically interpretable are claimed to be explanatory. I argue that both types of fictional model possess modal content, and therefore it is unclear why models that contain unphysical fictions are merely descriptions, but models that contain physical fictions are explanations. One must either reject both as unexplanatory because they use false ontology to explain, or one should accept both types as explanatory.

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