, Volume 180, Issue 1, pp 33–45 | Cite as

How scientific models can explain

  • Alisa BokulichEmail author


Scientific models invariably involve some degree of idealization, abstraction, or fictionalization of their target system. Nonetheless, I argue that there are circumstances under which such false models can offer genuine scientific explanations. After reviewing three different proposals in the literature for how models can explain, I shall introduce a more general account of what I call model explanations, which specify the conditions under which models can be counted as explanatory. I shall illustrate this new framework by applying it to the case of Bohr’s model of the atom, and conclude by drawing some distinctions between phenomenological models, explanatory models, and fictional models.


Models Explanation Fictions Structural explanation Bohr’s atom 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Batterman R. (2005) Critical phenomena and breaking drops: Infinite idealizations in physics. Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 36: 225–244CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bokulich A. (2008a) Reexamining the quantum-classical relation: Beyond reductionism and pluralism. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bokulich A. (2008b) Can classical structures explain quantum phenomena? British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 59(2): 217–235CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Clifton, R. (1998). Scientific explanation in quantum theory. Unpublished manuscript on PhilSci Archive.
  5. Craver C. (2006) When mechanistic models explain. Synthese 153: 355–376CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Elgin M., Sober E. (2002) Cartwright on explanation and idealization. Erkenntnis 57: 441–450CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Hitchcock C., Woodward J. (2003) Explanatory generalizations, Part II: Plumbing explanatory depth. Noûs 37: 181–199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hughes R.I.G. (1989) Bell’s theorem, ideology, and structural explanation. In: Cushing J., McMullin E. (eds) Philosophical consequences of quantum theory: reflections on Bell’s theorem. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, INGoogle Scholar
  9. Hughes R.I.G. (1990) The Bohr atom, models, and realism. Philosophical Topics 18: 71–84Google Scholar
  10. McMullin, E. (1968). What do physical models tell us? In B. van Rootselaar & J. Staal (Eds.), Proceedings of the third international congress for logic, methodology and philosophy of science, Amsterdam, 1967 (pp. 385–396). Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Co.Google Scholar
  11. McMullin E. (1978) Structural explanation. American Philosophical Quarterly 15: 139–147Google Scholar
  12. McMullin E. (1984) A case for scientific realism. In: Leplin J. (eds) Scientific realism. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, pp 8–40Google Scholar
  13. McMullin E. (1985) Galilean idealization. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 16: 247–273CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Morrison M. (1999) Models as autonomous agents. In: Morgan M., Morrison M. (eds) Models as mediators: Perspectives on natural and social science. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 38–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Railton, P. (1980). Explaining explanation: A realist account of scientific explanation and understanding. Ph.D. Dissertation, Princeton University.Google Scholar
  16. Wimsatt W.W. (1987) False models as means to truer theories. In: Nitecki M., Hoffman A. (eds) Neutral models in biology. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  17. Woodward J. (2003) Making things happen: A theory of causal explanation. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyBoston UniversityBostonUSA

Personalised recommendations