Partial truth versus felicitous falsehoods
Elgin has argued that scientific models that are, strictly speaking, inaccurate representations of the world, are epistemically valuable because the “falsehoods” they contain are “felicitous”. Many, including Elgin herself, have interpreted this claim as offering an alternative to scientific realism and “veritism”. In this paper, I will argue that there is a more felicitous interpretation of Elgin’s work: “felicitous falsehoods” do play a role in the epistemic value of inaccurate models, but that role is of instrumental value. Elgin’s view is not best understood as claiming that falsehoods provide scientific understanding in and of themselves, only that they facilitate epistemic access to the fundamental, even if partial, truths that are contained within models. While falsehoods may be felicitous in that they facilitate exemplification, the epistemic value of inaccurate models ultimately relies on their partial accuracy.
KeywordsUnderstanding Idealization Models Factivity Realism
I would like to thank Armond Duwell, Kareem Khalifa, Henk de Regt, Stephen Grimm, and of course Kate Elgin for multiple illuminating and friendly conversations on scientific understanding. I would also like to recognize various institutions for the support I received from them while developing my views on scientific understanding: the University of Pittsburgh Center for Philosophy of Science, the IHPST in Paris, SND (FRE 3593 Paris-Sorbonne), and Labex Transfer (Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris).
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