Boetti_rosso_gilera_rosso_guzziOne attractive answer is that works of fiction are thought experiments. Like literary fictions, thought experiments neither are nor purport to be physically realized. Nevertheless, they evidently enhance understanding of the phenomena they pertain to. If fictions are thought experiments, they advance understanding of the world in the same way that (other) thought experiments do.

Idealized scientific representations are fictions that afford an understanding of the phenomena they concern by exemplifying features they share with those phenomena. I begin by explaining what exemplification is and what epistemological role it plays. I then explain how a fiction can exemplify something that obtains (but may be hard to recognize) in fact. Finally, I argue that construing scientific idealizations as fictions that exemplify features they share with the facts makes sense of the way they figure in understanding.

Scientific experiments are vehicles of exemplification. They do not purport to replicate what happens in the wild. Instead, they select, highlight, control and manipulate things so that features of interest are brought to the fore and their relevant characteristics and interactions made manifest

As Nancy Cartwright has emphasized, experiments are highly artificial. They are not slices of nature, but contrivances often involving unnaturally pure samples tested under unnaturally extreme conditions. The rationale for resorting to such artifices is plain. A natural case is not always an exemplary case. A pure sample that is not to be found in nature, tested under extreme conditions that do not obtain in nature, may exemplify features that obtain but are not evident in nature. So by sidelining, marginalizing or de-emphasizing confounding factors, experiments afford epistemic access to properties of interest.

The above passages come from papers written by Catherine Elgin (paper 1, paper 2, paper 3), a Harvard Philosopher whose work focuses on the theory of knowledge and philosophies of art and science. I like her work a great deal and recently got the opportunity to see her speak at Bucknell University where she presented some of her ideas about exemplification and her thesis that art, like science, embodies, conveys and advances understanding.

Painting above: “Rosso Gilera 60 1232 Rosso Guzzi 60 1305” by Alighiero Boetti

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