Saturday, January 31, 2009

Models and Fiction

In a forthcoming paper "Models and Fiction", Roman Frigg gives an argument for the view that scientific models are best understood as fictional entities whose metaphysical commitments are “none” (17). I think this argument is a new and important one, but I don’t agree with it. Frigg first considers the view that models are abstract structures. He points out that an abstract mathematical structure, by itself, is not a model because there is nothing about it that ties it to any purported target system. But "in order for it to be true that a target system possesses a particular structure, a more concrete description must be true of the system as well" (5). The problem is that this more concrete description is not a true description of the abstract structure and it is not a true description of the target system either in the case if idealization. So, for these descriptions to do their job of linking the abstract structure to their targets, they must be descriptions of "hypothetical systems", and it is these systems that Frigg argues are the models after all.

My objection to this argument is that there are things besides Frigg’s descriptions that can do the job of linking abstract structures to target systems. A weaker link is a relation of denotation between some parts of the abstract structure and features of the target systems. This, of course, requires some explanation, but a denotation or reference relation, emphasized, e.g. by Hughes, need not involve a concrete description of any hypothetical system.

(Cross-posted with Honest Toil.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Two Cases of Underdetermination?

Bryan at Soul Physics has an interesting post about underdetermination here.

New PGR Ranking of Philosophy of Science Faculties

A couple of weeks ago Brian Leiter has published a sneak-peek of the 2009 PGR ranking of the top 11 faculties in general philosophy of science in the English-speaking world here. The most surprising result is that Group 2 has expanded from 2 faculties in 2006 (LSE and Irvine) to 10 faculties in 2009 (LSE and Irvine plus Oxford, Columbia, Rutgers, UCSD, Western, Carnegie-Mellon, Madison and Michigan, which were all in Group 3 in 2006). How do you interpret this and what if any is the significance of this change? And how seriously should prospective PhD students interested in philosophy of science take this ranking?

What Was Wrong With the Syntactic View of Theories Exactly?

These days most philosophers of science (PoSs) seem to subscribe to the semantic view of scientific theories, according to which scientific theories are collections of models (the question obviously become what kind of thing a scientific models is. For my take on this question see here). In the heydays of logical empiricism however, the prevailing view was the so-called syntactic view of theories, by which I mean here the view that scientific theories were collections of sentences. Logical empiricists, unfortunately, saddled this view with a host of other less plausible views about language and truth, which most philosophers today seem unwilling to accept. However arguments against such views are not arguments against what I call the syntactic view. So, was the rejection of the syntactic view a case of guilt by association or are there any serious arguments against the view itself (rather than the views that were usually held in conjunction with it)? If not, what are the arguments in favour of the semantic view (other than its supposedly being more empirically adequate)?
Thinking about it the only serious argument that I can think of that seems to target what I call the syntactic view (as I am intending it here) is the one according to which the same scientific theory can be formulated by using different sets of sentences (e.g. in English and French or in Lagrangian and Newtonian terms) and, therefore, the theory cannot be identified with any set of sentences. But what if we substitute sets of sentences with sets of propositions? (Would this work in the case of Newtonian and Lagrangean mechanics or would one have to say that the two are distinct theories?) The only obstacle I can see to this way of recasting the syntactic view this way was the logical empiricists' prejudice against propositions. But I don't see any reason to think of propositions as being more metaphysically mysterious than sentences (utterances are physical events but sentences like propositions seem to be abstract entities).
Am I missing something major?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Following the example of many successful blogs in other areas of philosophy, we have decided to start a collective blog dedicated to issues in the general philosophy of science (which I take to cover a wide variety of topics including (but not limited to) confirmation, evidence, scientific realism, scientific explanation, scientific theories, scientific models, laws of nature, role of mathematics in science, causation, etc.).
We hope this can constitute a useful forum to exchange ideas and information related to general philosophy of science and to discuss issues that affect the field.
If you are interested in submitting a guest post please contact me at gabriele_contessa 'at' carleton 'dot' ca.
So, let's start blogging!