For a treat during winter break, I am reading back issues of Philosophy of Science and have been pleasantly surprised that there are articles that I am actually interested in reading! Vol. 74 (2007) has a number of articles that are not so terribly specialized as POS articles have sometimes been in the past. This is not to say that there are no super specialized articles, for those of you who are fans of such, just that there were several articles that were more like the articles that I enjoy reading.
In particular, Margaret Morrison has an article in which she suggests that the recent interests that many philosophers of science have developed in models has wrongly led to ignoring theory (Number 2, April 2007, 195-228). She argues that there is still an important role for theory in philosophy of science and sketches an account of the relationship between theory, model, and the world that shows this. Her account of models differs from the semantic view, which identifies theory as a family of models.
Gabriele Contessa also has an article on models, but his focus is more squarely on the question of how models represent the systems they are models of (Number 1, January 2007. 48-68). Since I am currently working on a paper that deals with representation, I found this article particularly intriguing and so I am raising some questions about it here.
Contessa argues that it is possible to give necessary and sufficient conditions for a model representing a system. He contrasts this view to that of Mauricio Suarez, who denies that this can be done. Contessa’s argument rests on several distinctions and is worth reading the paper, even if only for an overview of several of the key positions that are currently being defended in this discussion. I won’t go into detail about these distinctions but will focus on the one at the core of Contessa’s account of representation.
Contessa claims that much of the confusion over representation comes from a failure to distinguish between representing and representing faithfully. If we (wrongly) think that representation requires faithful or even partially faithful representation we are likely to draw the conclusion that Suarez does. Contessa makes the case that in order for a vehicle to represent a target it need not be a faithful representation. Of course, we are interested in what makes a representation faithful and he acknowledges that a full account of representation would include an account of faithful representation. What he does in this paper is give necessary and sufficient conditions for representation simpliciter (what else is required for faithful representation will have to wait, he notes at the end of the paper). In order to represent, the vehicle must be used by someone as an interpretation of the target system. (I am not doing full justice to the account because I haven’t discussed his definition of interpretation and its connection to surrogative reasoning, a notion that he takes from Chris Swoyer (1991).)
The account that Contessa gives solves several problem and has some intuitively compelling features. However, what may not be quite so intuitive is that at first blush the account seems to commit Contessa to the view that it is possible for anything to represent anything else. There do not seem to be any inherent constraints on what the features objects that become models must have in order to be used as interpretations. On the one hand, this makes sense. Suarez’s point that there isn’t anything that we can point to in the model that would give us the necessary and sufficient conditions for it to function as a representation is vindicated. But Contessa asks us to look more closely at the use of the model to understand what it is to represent. On the other hand, I feel uncomfortable about the idea that a model that is not at all (even partially) faithful could be meaningfully said to represent a system because a user’s interpretation turns it into a model of that system. Why am I uncomfortable with this? Is it because I am confusing faithful representation with representation as Contessa contends?
I am not sure, but here is my first pass at the answer. I am wondering to what extent someone can use an object (a model) as an interpretation of a particular system if there are no features of the model (object) that bear any relation to the system in some way that is independent of the user. If this is right, Contessa’s account begs the question because when a model can be used as an interpretation it already requires that it have some other features in virtue of which it represents. It seems pretty clear from his article that he does not see this as being circular, so either I have not fully understood his account of interpretation, or I am slipping into that confusion of representation and faithful representation. All the force of my worries would then be addressed in the account (yet to be given) of faithful representation.
I am not sure what is going on here but this discussion reminds me of another similar one. Philip Kitcher criticized van Fraassen’s pragmatic account of explanation because the way van Fraassen sets up the relevance relation between the explanandum and the explananda allows anything to be an explanation of anything else under the right circumstances (as long as the right relevance relation holds and what counts as the right relevance relation is dependent on context, so given the right context anything could be an explanation). The similarity between these two cases seems to be connected to the fact that both accounts depend on how something is used by someone. Van Fraassen did not seem to be terribly worried by Kitcher’s criticism, because this was indeed what he intended. Kitcher later acknowledged that the flexibility had been intentional. (Sorry that I don’t have the references here. I will fill them in later.) Another similarity between Contessa’s account of reference and van Fraassen’s account of explanation is that Contessa’s argument precedes by asking us to draw a distinction between representing and representing faithfully. Van Fraassen’s discussion depends on a similar distinction between having an explanation and having a good explanation.
This is all very incomplete, but I offer a final thought here. Could it be that the ambiguity is in “use”? To use and to use successfully are different are different in the same way as the other two concepts vary. It seems to me that making this distinction can only be done as a matter of degree however. There is some point when it no longer makes sense to describe what is going on as using A in order to do B. So, for instance, I can use a hammer to remove a screw, in the sense that I can pick the hammer up with the intention of taking out the screw with it. I can take the hammer and touch the screw with it and so on, but I cannot remove the screw with it. So I cannot successfully use the hammer to remove the screw. I think it would be reasonable for someone to describe what is happening in the following way: “She thought that she could use the hammer to remove the screw but in fact she cannot use it that way.” It is not just that I was using it and failed, but rather that I wasn’t really using it though I believed that I was. In a similar vein, I might think that I can use Newtonian physics to explain iridescence, but in fact, all explanations that I give in this way will be bad. So am I explaining? I may believe that I am but I will be wrong and since I can only be wrong we might reasonably say, at least at some point during my attempts, that I am not explaining at all, not just that I am explaining badly. Finally, to come back to representing, I might use the salt and pepper shakers on the table to represent the structure of the atom. This would mean, according to Contessa, that I am interpreting the salt and pepper shakers as a representation of the atom. The problem here is that I do not know how I would determine what sorts of things might appropriately represent others, that is, whether it is even plausible to claim that I or anyone else could use these objects in this way. Of course, how I do use any of these things in each of these examples (as a tool, as an explanation, as a representation, via using it as an interpretation) depends on background knowledge and so perhaps my worry about whether it is possible to make a distinction between something being a good tool, good explanation, or faithful representation and being simply a tool, an explanation, or a representation respectively can be resolved by specifying that all judgments about use are relative to background knowledge. But doesn’t this just push the issue of the distinction between a good x and an x into background knowledge and so not eliminate the problem just move it around?
Well, these are some of the puzzles that I have had while thinking about Contessa’s account of representation. I worry that it may be circular and so wonder if it gets us anywhere, but I like that it is so based in use. I hope to have more to say about this as I get clearer on what I want to do with the issue.
Swoyer, Chris (1991), “Structural Representation and Surrogative Reasoning,” Synthese 87: 449-508.