Scientific models as a bridge between theory and world
Reliance on models is pervasive in science, and scientists often need to construct models in order to be able to explain or predict anything of interest at all. The diversity of kinds of models one ﬁnds in science – toy models, theoretical models, scale models, mathematical models, material models, etc. – has attracted attention not only from scientists and philosophers, but also from historians and sociologists of science. As a result of such multi-disciplinary attention, there exists now a substantial body of case studies that describe and analyse in detail the different uses to which models have been put in specific scientiﬁc contexts.
At the same time, a lively philosophical debate has developed, which focuses on the representational function of scientific models and on the nature of scientific representation in general. While each side frequently invokes the other in order to motivate its task, the two projects – the close-up study of individual scientific models in speciﬁc scientific contexts, and the general con cern for representation as a bridge between theory and world – de facto often stand merely side by side with one another.
Achieving scientific representation
Through an international workshop, held at NUS in September 2008, the present project explored ways in which close attention to scientific practice – whether in the form of case studies or by emphasising sometimes neglected features of the practice of scientific modelling – can shed light on the philosophical issues connected with scientific representation. Instead of analysing representation as primarily an abstract relation, between a model and its target, the project started from the idea that scientific representation is, ﬁrst and foremost, something that requires effort and needs to be achieved: Successful representation stands at the end of a process of scientiﬁc modelling.
In order to function as sources of knowledge, or as representational devices, models must be speciﬁed in a way that makes them cognitively accessible. As a result, the project as a whole paid close attention to the way in which models are constructed, encountered, and constrained by general features of how present themselves to cognitive agents. The same holds for methods of evaluating models – in particular, models of complex systems – for example via computer simulations. The project thus aimed at shifting emphasis from the search for abstract necessary and sufficient conditions for representation, to more tangible features of the process of scientific modelling, including the media and material aspects of models.
Models and the special sciences
The papers presented at the workshop drew on examples from across the special sciences. While some stock examples from physics made their appearance (e.g. models of the atomic nucleus), several of the papers discussed cases from the biomedical sciences, thus contributing to our understanding of the changes in scientific culture emerging from the life sciences. Much attention was paid to models in interdisciplinary areas of research, such as the science of pain (which connects psychology, biomedicine, and the neurosciences) and climate science (with its computationally demanding general circulation models).
The workshop brought together researchers from six countries and has since give risen to long-term research collaborations among its participants. A selection of papers presented at the workshop, complemented by several additional contributions, will be published in early 2011 as a special issue in ‘Studies in History and Philosophy of Science’, one of the top-ranked journals in History and Philosophy of Science.
External Related Links
http://www.gelfert.net/Models/ (archived version of the Workshop website)
http://bit.ly/g1ZEUl (shortcut to the Special Issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Vol. 42 No. 2, June 2011)
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00393681 (website of journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science)