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Chapter 10
Getting a Grip
Nancy Nersessian
In an attempt to explore what the practices of scientists engaged in bio-system simulation
modeling can tell us about explanation, understanding, and control, I have studied the
practices of scientists, both through historical research and for the last 12 years by studying
research laboratories in the bioengineering sciences. In the past I looked at conceptual
models, but now I consider physical simulation models – that is, models made out of living
tissues and engineered parts – in order to simulate phenomena that scientists cannot have
access to physically, either because they are unable to obtain the control they want to do the
experiments or because there are ethical issues. Studying the modeling practices of these
scientists reveals the importance of understanding, as opposed to explanation, in science.
I find it interesting that the scientists I have studied, including historical figures, talk
about “understanding,” “getting a grip,” or “trying to figure it out,” but they do not really talk
about explanation. So in this chapter I’m going to gloss some of the history of the philosophy
of science, then outline a couple of cases and consider understanding and control in the
context of bio-simulation laboratories.
The History of the Philosophy of Science
Typically listed among the aims of science are understanding, explanation, and prediction.
Understanding and explanation generally lead to prediction, so there is little need to focus on
the latter.
In the positivist era, understanding was relegated to the
context of discovery
, which
involves history, psychology, and all of the non-evidential stuff that goes into scientific
discoveries. By contrast, explanation belonged to the
context of justification
, all of the
considerations that go into justifying scientific beliefs. So when Kekulé saw the ouroboros in
a dream, that was part of the context of discovery. The subsequent empirical findings that
confirmed the shape of the benzene ring were part of the context of justification.
Hempel (1965) stated, “Very broadly speaking, to explain something to a person is to
make it plain and intelligible to him, to make him understand it.… This pragmatic sense of
explanation is a relative notion.” Thus, understanding is a subjective phenomenon, as one
person might understand while another might not. The only sense in which understanding is
objective is in the theoretical sense of demonstrating that a phenomenon to be explained is a
special case of a general regularity – the covering model or deductive-nomological account of
explanation. The problem with understanding, on this account, is that it is a subjective by-
product of explanation. It requires an additional element beyond the explanation – a
connection between the explanans and the explanandum. However, this kind of feeling is