Scientific representation in practice: Models and creative similarity

Dissertation, (2019)


The thesis proposes an account of the means of scientific representation focused on similarity, or more specifically, on the notion of “creative similarity”. I first distinguish between two different questions regarding the problem of representation: the question about the constituents and the question about the means of representation (following Suárez 2003; van Fraassen 2008). I argue that, although similarity is not a good candidate for constituent of representation, it can satisfactorily answer the question about the means of representation if adequately characterized. To motivate this position, I dispute the main arguments offered against similarity as means of representation, namely the arguments from variety, vagueness, and misrepresentation, and contend that similarity plays a central epistemic role in practices of representing in science. The study of the role of similarity in scientific practice, I argue, requires the analysis of the uses of judgments of similarity in the construction of scientific models. I examine the cases of the Mississippi Basin Model and the San Francisco Bay Model to illustrate how judgments of similarity are directly involved in the production of epistemically fruitful models. Informed by the practical investigation developed throughout the thesis, I finally outline what I call the creative similarity account of the means of representation. The notion of “creative similarity” helps to capture the way in which similarity, as means of representation, intervenes in actual practices of representing, namely, in the form of a productive interplay of judgments of similarity and distortions (i.e. idealizations, abstractions, simplifications), which is employed by resourceful agents with the aim of understanding aspects of the natural world.

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Julia Sanchez-Dorado
Technische Universität Berlin

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