Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 26, Issue 5, pp 717–736 | Cite as

Explanations in search of observations

Article

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.

Keywords

Model Credible world Similarity Isolation 

References

  1. Aydinonat NE (2007) Models, conjectures and exploration: an analysis of Schelling’s checkerboard model of residential segregation. J Econ Methodol 14:429–454CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barton NH (1979) The dynamics of hybrid zones. Heredity 43:341–359CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cartwright N (1998) Capacities. In: Davis J, Hands W, Mäki U (eds) The handbook of economic methodology. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, pp 45–48Google Scholar
  4. Cartwright N (2002) The limits of causal order, from economics to physics. In: Mäki U (ed) Fact and fiction in economics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 137–151CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cartwright N (2009) If no capacities, then no credible worlds. But can models reveal capacities? Erkenntnis 70:45–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Giere R (1988) Explaining science. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  7. Grüne-Yanoff T (2009) Learning from minimal economic models. Erkenntnis 70:81–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Karlin S, McGregor J (1972) Application of the method of small parameters to multi-niche population genetics. Theor Popul Biol 3:186–209CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Mäki U (2009) MISSing the world: models as isolations and credible surrogate systems. Erkenntnis 70:29–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Maynard Smith J, Parker G (1976) The logic of asymmetric contests. Anim Behav 24:59–175Google Scholar
  11. Maynard Smith J, Price G (1973) The logic of animal conflicts. Nature 246:15–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Maynard Smith J (1982) Evolution and the theory of games. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  13. Schelling TC (1978) Micromotives and macrobehavior. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  14. Schelling TC (2006) Dynamic models of segregation. In: Schelling TC (ed) Strategies of commitment and other essays. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 249–310. First published in Journal of Mathematical Sociology 1 (1971)Google Scholar
  15. Sugden R (1995) The coexistence of conventions. J Econ Behav Organ 28:241–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Sugden R (2000) Credible worlds: the status of theoretical models in economics. J Econ Methodol 7:1–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Sugden R (2004) The economics of rights, cooperation and welfare, 2nd edn. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke. First edition 1986CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Sugden R (2009) Credible worlds, capacities and mechanisms. Erkenntnis 70:3–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Economics and Centre for Behavioural and Experimental Social ScienceUniversity of East AngliaNorwichUK

Personalised recommendations