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
    3.1 Computer simulations are just elaborate models
    3.2 Computer simulations are 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
7 Conclusions

3 Why computer simulations are merely models and not experiments

With regards to the nature and epistemic role of computer simulations, a definite consensus has not yet been reached by philosophers of science. I do not intend to enter into all the philosophical disputes about computer simulations. But I'd merely like to defend two positions that are important in the context of my article:

  1. Computer simulations are models. Therefore, computer simulations do not raise any other epistemological questions than models. In particular, the burden of validation is exactly the same for models and simulations.
  2. Computer simulations are not experiments. There is a sharp distinction between computer simulations and models on the one hand side and experiments on the other hand side. Just like models and theories, computer simulations belong to the theoretical side of science as opposed to the empirical side which encompasses experiments, observations and experiences.[2]

[2] To avoid a possible source of misunderstanding: A theory or model is per se considered to be a theoretical entity notwithstanding its higher or lower degree of empirical accuracy and confirmation. So even a well-tested theory about empirical objects is still something theoretical in this sense. It is only the objects themselves (i.e. the objects a theory describes) as well as the sort of actions that scientists perform in order to study empirical objects (i.e. experiments, observations, measurements) which I count to the “empirical side”.

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