Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Imperfect Representations

F. Samaniego, M. Suarez and I. San Pedro
I currently hold a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Philosophical Research, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). I recently finished my doctoral research at the Complutense University in Madrid on interventionist explanations of entropy raising, under the supervision of Mauricio Suárez. He is Associate Professor in Logic and Philosophy of Science at Universidad Complutense de Madrid. During 2013-2015 he is a Marie Curie Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Philosophy (School of Advanced Studies, London University).

In this post I describe how the research interests of Mauricio Suárez partially overlap with the themes of the project on the epistemic innocence of imperfect cognitions. One of his main areas of research is the epistemology of science, more precisely, models, inference and scientific representation. Suárez defends that science is not as realistic and algorithmically objective as people commonly believe. He defends the view that, on the contrary, fictions and imperfect representations are often used in scientific practice. And this scientist’s creativity, this partial preservation of reality of their models, far of being negative is a positive and helpful engine in the scientific research.

In his book “Fictions in Science” (2009), Suárez collects a representative sample of articles written by experts on this topic. As an illustration of the inferential role of fictions in scientific modelling, Suarez develops in detail the case study of models of the internal structure of stars in astrophysics. This can be found in his article “Fictions, Conditionals, and Stellar Astrophysics” (2013). The emphasis on fictions, idealizations and imperfect match of model sources and targets, has some bearings on the present project since it suggests strongly that cognitive representations, even in the sciences, are incomplete, partial and suggestive rather than entirely descriptive of their systems.

Suárez's work emphasizes the ways in which scientific cognition involves models that incorporate incomplete and factually erroneous assumptions but can nonetheless serve helpful cognitive and heuristic purposes in research. There is therefore much emphasis on the role of erroneous or fictitious assumptions in practice. In opposition to the analytical inquiries into representation, Suarez's practice-based inquiry not only considers a diverse range of scientific modeling techniques, but also takes on account the purposes of those who use the representations. His practical account is designed to answer "what are the effective means that scientists employ to get representations to deliver the required ‘goods’".

During the construction of the representation itself it matters a great deal whether it is going to be used, for example, to transmit information, to perform some computation, or as an educational tool. Suárez argues for a sophisticated version of the practical account of representation. The details of the difficulties that his account overcomes, and a clear panoramic of the advantages and disadvantages of different accounts of representation (Pierce, Hughes, Campell, Hesse, Suárez) can be found in “Scientific Representation” (2009).

The other branch of the research developed by Suárez concerns the philosophical foundations of physics. More precisely, he has analyzed the role of causal inference in quantum mechanics, and he has widely explored the consequences of understanding physical probabilities as “propensities”, namely, as dispositions of the physical systems.

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