Physical models and fundamental laws: Using one piece of the world to tell about another

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Sterrett, Susan G.

Sterrett, Susan G. 2002. Physical models and fundamental laws: Using one piece of the world to tell about another. Mind & Society, 5, 2002, Vol. 3, pp. 51-66.


In this paper I discuss the relationship between model, theories, and laws in the practice of experimental scale modeling. The methodology of experimental scale modeling, also known as physical similarity, differs markedly from that of other kinds of models in ways that are important to issues in philosophy of science. In this paper, I examine how scale models are used in making inferences. The main question I address is "How are fundamental laws involved in the construction of and inferences drawn from, experimental scale models?" I propose there is a refreshing alter- native to the mainstream view that models can serve only as intermediaries between theory and exPeriment. Using the methodology of scale models, one can use observations on one piece of the worm to make inferences about another piece of the world, without involving an intermediate abstract model about which one reasons. The philosophical significance of that point to philosophy of science is that the method of physical similarity, which provides the basis for inferences based upon scale models, is a qualitatively different way in which fundamental laws can be used in analogical reasoning that is truly informative. Finally, as this method provides a formal basis for case-based reasoning, it may be helpful in formalizing methods used in some of the so-called "special sciences".

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