Tools or Toys?
On Specific Challenges for Modeling and the Epistemology of Models in the Social Sciences

Eckhart Arnold

1 Introduction
2 The role of models in science
3 Why computer simulations are merely models and not experiments
4 The epistemology of simulations at work: How simulations are used to study chemical reactions in the ribosome
5 How do models explain in the social sciences?
6 Common obstacles for modeling in the social sciences
    6.1 Lack of universal background theories
    6.2 Pluralism of Paradigms
    6.3 Why parsimony is a vice and not a virtue
    6.4 “Wholistic” nature of many phenomena in the social sciences
    6.5 Difficulties of measurement
    6.6 Pluralism of scientific styles
7 Conclusions

6.4 “Wholistic” nature of many phenomena in the social sciences

There is good reason to assume that many phenomena in the realm of social sciences are of a wholistic nature. By “wholistic nature” it is meant that the effect which a particular “entity” or “force” produces changes from one occasion to another and depends on the particular circumstances of each occasion. It is an empirical question whether this is true of many or most phenomena in the social sciences. But if it is true then it explains why explaining phenomena by breaking down their cause into single causes and then determining their joint effect by some law of combination does hardly ever work in the social sciences (see Alexandrova (2008, p.\ 390/391) and Cartwright (2009, p.\ 48ff.)).

In physics one can break down the forces acting upon a body into different components and then combine them with the rules of vector calculus. This works quite well in practice. The same thing does not work in the social sciences. The question can be left open whether it does not work because the “wholistic nature” of social phenomena poses an epistemic barrier, which merely makes it extremely difficult for us to find the right “capacities” (Cartwright) and rules of combination, or whether there is more to it and the “wholistic nature” of social phenomena raises an ontological barrier to the very existence of processes that could reasonably be broken down into single components. The epistemological consequence remains the same: One has to be very careful with drawing general conclusions from models about “capacities” or regularities.

As a sidenote it can be mentioned that this feature, too, is reflected in the scientific culture of some social sciences. Historians typically have a strong sensitivity for the individuality of events and historical processes. The idea was taken to its extreme by the school of historism which denied that there are “laws” in history.

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