Tools for Evaluating the Consequences of Prior Knowledge, but no Experiments. On the Role of Computer Simulations in Science

Abstract

There is an ongoing debate on whether or to what degree computer simulations can be likened to experiments. Many philosophers are sceptical whether a strict separation between the two categories is possible and deny that the materiality of experiments makes a difference (Morrison 2009, Parker 2009, Winsberg 2010). Some also like to describe computer simulations as a “third way” between experimental and theoretical research (Rohrlich 1990, Axelrod 2003, Kueppers/Lenhard 2005). In this article I defend the view that computer simulations are not experiments but that they are tools for evaluating the consequences of theories and theoretical assumptions. In order to do so the (alleged) similarities and differences between simulations and experiments are examined. It is found that three fundamental differences between simulations and experiments remain: 1) Only experiments can generate new empirical data. 2) Only Experiments can operate directly on the target system. 3) Experiments alone can be employed for testing fundamental hypotheses. As a consequence, experiments enjoy a distinct epistemic role in science that cannot completely be superseded by computer simulations. This finding in connection with a discussion of border cases such as hybrid methods that combine measurement with simulation shows that computer simulations can clearly be distinguished from empirical methods. It is important to understand that computer simulations are not experiments, because otherwise there is a danger of systematically underestimating the need for empirical validation of simulations.

Author's Profile

Eckhart Arnold
Bavarian Academy of Sciences And Humanities

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