, Volume 26, Issue 5, pp 717-736

Explanations in search of observations

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Abstract

The paper explores how, in economics and biology, theoretical models are used as explanatory devices. It focuses on a modelling strategy by which, instead of starting with an unexplained regularity in the world, the modeller begins by creating a credible model world. The model world exhibits a regularity, induced by a mechanism in that world. The modeller concludes that there may be a part of the real world in which a similar regularity occurs and that, were that the case, the model would offer an explanation. Little concrete guidance is given about where such a regularity might be found. Three modelling exercises in evolutionary game theory—one from economics and two from biology—are used as case studies. Two of these (one from each discipline) exemplify ‘explanation in search of observation’. The third goes a step further, analysing a regularity in a model world and treating it as informative about the real world, but without saying anything about real phenomena. The paper argues that if the relation between the model and real worlds is understood in terms of similarity, and if modelling is understood as an ongoing discovery process rather than as the demonstration of empirical truths, there can be value in creating explanations before finding the regularities that are to be explained.