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4 The Semantic View

Philosophers of science took two different paths to meet the challenges of the new philosophy of science and of deconstructionist theories: either they have turned to history to see how, in fact, science works or they have remained faithful to the idea of a formal analysis of science, but with a different concept of what a scientific theory is. The latter way produced in the 1970s what is called the semantic view of scientific theories: van Fraassen (1980), Giere (1988), Sneed (1971), Suppe (1974), Suppes (2003). The semantic view considers a scientific theory not as body of propositions that can be literally true or false in the real world, but as a complex description that is true of some models of systems in the real world.

In mathematical logic a model is a structure that makes all the sentences of a theory true, where a theory is a (deductively closed) set of sentences in a formal language. For example, any structure in which all the axioms and theorems of Euclidean geometry are true is a model of Euclidean geometry. In this sense, a model is an abstract object, and a theory is viewed as a collection of many, alternative models with which we try to represent, explain and predict aspects of observed phenomena. The practice of science is trying to embed observed regularities within a model of a theory, so that any real system exhibiting that regularity may be treated as a system satisfying the theory. High level scientific hypotheses, as for example the fundamental law of Newtonian Mechanics (F¼mx a), are not literally true of any real system: they simply define a class of models, that is, the class of Newtonian systems whose members are all those structures to which the quantities F, m and a apply and for which the law is literally true.

Then the problem is how a model is connected with the world. Ronald Giere says

that we make an hypothesis about the existence of a similarity in structure between the model and the real system. The problem is that hypotheses of this kind go beyond what the approach can afford and it is not clear how to choose what respects of similarity are those which are relevant. According to Patrick Suppes' view, a theory is a hierarchical set of models with different degrees of abstraction, ranging from empirical models or models of data, describing experimental evidence, to abstract mathematical models: data themselves are an abstraction from the practical activity of producing them. The plane of observation has became an eventful region where scientists produce, process, and fit observations into a model of the data. A criticism raised against the semantic view is that in this activity of data making many types of models are involved that are not structural models in the sense required by the theory. Therefore it can neither account for how these models are constructed nor for how they work.[1]

  • [1] This criticism has been put forward by Cartwright (1999), who has developed a different perspective especially focused on economic theories in 2007
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