, Volume 190, Issue 16, pp 3451-3474
Date: 07 Nov 2012

Unfolding in the empirical sciences: experiments, thought experiments and computer simulations

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Experiments (E), computer simulations (CS) and thought experiments (TE) are usually seen as playing different roles in science and as having different epistemologies. Accordingly, they are usually analyzed separately. We argue in this paper that these activities can contribute to answering the same questions by playing the same epistemic role when they are used to unfold the content of a well-described scenario. We emphasize that in such cases, these three activities can be described by means of the same conceptual framework—even if each of them, because they involve different types of processes, fall under these concepts in different ways. We further illustrate our claims by presenting a threefold case study describing how a TE, a CS and an E were indeed used in the same role at different periods to answer the same questions about the possibility of a physical Maxwellian demon. We also point at fluid dynamics as another field where these activities seem to be playing the same unfolding role. We analyze the importance of unfolding as a general task of science and highlight how our description in terms of epistemic functions articulates in a noncommittal way with the epistemology of these three activities and accounts for their similarities and the existence of hybrid forms of activities. We finally emphasize that picturing these activities as functionally substitutable does not imply that they are epistemologically substitutable.

This paper was in part written while the authors were doctoral students at IHPST and university Paris 1. The authors are grateful to participants in the Models and Simulations 2 conference (Tilburg, 2007), in particular Roman Frigg and Paul Humphreys for their insightful comments. An anonymous referee was also very generous with her/his time and suggestions, which significantly contributed to improving the paper. Anouk Barberousse’s mentoring was, as ever, priceless. Rawad El Skaf also thanks John Norton for his comments on earlier versions of this paper. Finally, Cyrille Imbert is happy to acknowledge his great intellectual debt to Jacques Dubucs and philosophical discussions with him regarding the question of unfolding. All remaining shortcomings are due to the authors.