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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q048-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 03, 2024, from

Article Summary

Scientific analyses of particular phenomena are invariably simplified or idealized. The universe does not contain only two bodies as assumed in Newton’s derivation of Kepler’s laws, or only one body as assumed in Schwarzschild’s relativistic update; real economic agents do not act exclusively to maximize expected utilities, the surfaces of ordinary plate condensers are not infinitely extended planes, and the sine of an angle is not equal in measure to the angle itself. There are many reasons for the use of such misdescriptions. First and foremost is the need to achieve mathematical tractability. Science gets nowhere unless numbers, or numerical constraints, are produced that can form the basis of predictions and explanations. Idealizations may also be required because of the unavailability of certain data or because of the absence of necessary auxiliary theories.

The philosophical problem is to make normative sense of this common but complex scientific practice. For example, how can theories be tested given that they connect to the world only through the intermediary of idealized descriptions? In what sense can there be scientific explanations if what is to be explained must be misdescribed before theory can be brought to bear? The fact that idealizations can often be improved, with corresponding salutary effect on the accuracy of prediction or usefulness of explanation, suggests that idealizations should be understood as part of some sort of convergent process.

Citing this article:
Laymon, Ronald. Idealizations, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q048-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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