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The Epistemic Role of Scientific Idealization

Final Report Summary - IDEALIZATIONS (The Epistemic Role of Scientific Idealization)

The research carried out in this project identifies and clarifies, on the one hand, previously overlooked tensions between the causal approach to scientific explanation and typical idealization procedures in physics. In particular, it argues that at least some idealized models of natural phenomena (i.e. models involving infinite idealizations) fail to represent relevant causal factors in the physical systems of interest. On the other hand, the research enhances our understanding of the role of idealization in pursuing scientific objectivity. It points out that idealized models of natural phenomena introduce non­contentual elements of discourse, which renders them independent from the subjective appreciation of causal content. It also emphasizes that a careful analysis of widespread idealization procedures in physics indicates the need for a new conception of scientific objectivity which overcomes certain limits of the widely­ advocated criterion of structural invariance. The research ultimately develops a new conception of scientific idealization which contends, despite views to the contrary, that idealization can serve both scientific objectivity and understanding. More specifically, it claims that one condition under which idealization can do this is expressed by the notion of idealization control (which obtains if one can prove that the deviation of theoretical results from actual observations is smaller than may be due to experimental error). The research focuses in particular on the relation between idealization control and semantic indeterminacy, and draws naturalistic conclusions about modal ontology.

Work on this project was done at the Center for Logic, Philosophy and History of Science at the University of Bucharest, Department of Theoretical Philosophy, and resulted in over 20 invited talks and contributed presentations at international scientific conferences; several articles and chapters published or forthcoming in top international journals and presses (e.g. Synthese, History and Philosophy of Logic, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, Foundations of Physics, Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, Western Ontario Studies in Philosophy of Science); organization of numerous international workshops; and newly designed courses and seminars for both undergraduates and graduate students in Bucharest. The research output is relevant primarily to academic philosophers working in philosophy of science and philosophy of physics, but may also be interesting to the large intellectual public.