Chains of Reference in Computer Simulations

This research was lead in the framework of the ANR Program TRANSMONDYN 2011-2014 (dir. Léna Sanders). To be published in S. Vaienti, P. Livet (eds.), Simulations and Networks , Aix-Marseille, Presses de l’Université d’Aix-Marseille, coll. IMéRA, 2013.

First version: 2011/09/20 - Modified version: 2013/04/06.

This paper is published by the Groupe d’étude des méthodes de l’Analyse sociologique de la Sorbonne (GEMASS - CNRS, Paris Sorbonne, FMSH) in Paris, under the cover of the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme’s collection of working papers.

This paper proposes an extensionalist analysis of computer simulations (CSs). It puts the emphasis not on languages nor on models, but more precisely on symbols, on their extensions, and on their various ways of referring. It shows that chains of reference of symbols in CSs are multiple and of different kinds. As they are distinct and diverse, these chains enable different kinds of remoteness of reference and different kinds of validation for CSs. Although some methodological papers have already but implicitly taken into account the heterogeneity and variety of the relationships of reference in CSs, hence of cross-validations, this diversity is still overlooked in the epistemological literature on CSs. As a consequence, a particular outcome of this analytical and explicitly extensional view is an ability to classify existing epistemological theses on the epistemic status of CSs according to what their authors choose to select and put at the forefront: either the extensions of symbols, or the symbol-types, or the symbol-tokens, or the internal denotational hierarchies of the CS seen as a whole or the references of these hierarchies to external denotational hierarchies seen as wholes. Through the adoption of this extensionalist view together with its precise conceptual differentiations, it also becomes possible to explain more precisely the reasons why some complete reduction of the epistemic role of CSs to classical epistemic paradigms such as “experience”, “experiment”, or “theoretical argument” remains doubtful. On this last point, in particular, this paper is in agreement with what many epistemologists already have acknowledged. But it proposes new conceptual means - new in this context - to explain the situation further.