Missing Systems And The Face Value Practice


Call a bit of scientific discourse a description of a missing system when (i) it has the surface appearance of an accurate description of an actual, concrete system (or kind of system) from the domain of inquiry, but (ii) there are no actual, concrete systems in the world around us fitting the description it contains, and (iii) that fact is recognised from the outset by competent practitioners of the scientific discipline in question. Scientific textbooks, classroom lectures, and journal articles abound with such passages; and there is a widespread practice of talking and thinking as though there are systems which fit the descriptions they contain perfectly, despite the recognition that no actual, concrete systems do so-call this the face value practice. There are, furthermore, many instances in which philosophers engage in the face value practice whilst offering answers to epistemological and methodological questions about the sciences. Three questions, then: (1) How should we interpret descriptions of missing systems? (2) How should we make sense of the face value practice? (3) Is there a set of plausible answers to (1) and (2) which legitimates reliance on the face value practice in our philosophical work, and can support the weight of the accounts which are entangled with that practice? In this paper I address these questions by considering three answers to the first: that descriptions of missing systems are straightforward descriptions of abstract objects, that they are indirect descriptions of "property-containing" abstracta, and that they are (in a different way) indirect descriptions of mathematical structures. All three proposals are present in the literature, but I find them wanting. The result is to highlight the importance of developing a satisfactory understanding of descriptions of missing systems and the face value practice, to put pressure on philosophical accounts which rely on the practice, and to help us assess the viability of certain approaches to thinking about models, theory structure, and scientific representation.



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Models, Theory structure, Scientific representation, Semantic view, Idealization, Giere