The Epistemic Superiority of Experiment to Simulation

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This paper defends the naïve thesis that the method of experiment has per se an epistemic superiority over the method of computer simulation, a view that has been rejected by some philosophers writing about simulation, and whose grounds have been hard to pin down by its defenders. I further argue that this superiority does not come from the experiment’s object being materially similar to the target in the world that the investigator is trying to learn about, as both sides of dispute over the epistemic superiority thesis have assumed. The superiority depends on features of the question and on a property of natural kinds that has been mistaken for material similarity. Seeing this requires holding other things equal in the comparison of the two methods, thereby exposing that, under the conditions that will be specified, the simulation is necessarily epistemically one step behind the corresponding experiment. Practical constraints like feasibility and morality mean that scientists do not often face an other-things-equal comparison when they choose between experiment and simulation. Nevertheless, I argue, awareness of this superiority and of the general distinction between experiment and simulation is important for maintaining motivation to seek answers to new questions.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 8 May 2017


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