Models as interpreters

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 42 (2):303-312 (2011)
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Most philosophical accounts of scientific models assume that models represent some aspect, or some theory, of reality. They also assume that interpretation plays only a supporting role. This paper challenges both assumptions. It proposes that models can be used in science to interpret reality. (a) I distinguish these interpretative models from representational ones. They find new meanings in a target system’s behaviour, rather than fit its parts together. They are built through idealisation, abstraction and recontextualisation. (b) To show how interpretative models work, I offer a case study on the scientific controversy over foetal pain. It highlights how pain scientists use conflicting models to interpret the human foetus and its behaviour, and thereby to support opposing claims about whether the foetus can feel pain. (c) I raise a sceptical worry and a methodological challenge for interpretative models. To address the latter, I use my case study to compare how interpretative and representational models ought to be evaluated.

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Chuanfei Chin
National University of Singapore


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