Representing with imaginary models: Formats matter
Models such as the simple pendulum, isolated populations, and perfectly rational agents, play a central role in theorising. It is now widely acknowledged that a study of scientific representation should focus on the role of such imaginary entities in scientists’ reasoning. However, the question is most of the time cast as follows: How can fictional or abstract entities represent the phenomena? In this paper, I show that this question is not well posed. First, I clarify the notion of representation, and I emphasise the importance of what I call the “format” of a representation for the inferences agents can draw from it. Then, I show that the very same model can be presented under different formats, which do not enable scientists to perform the same inferences. Assuming that the main function of a representation is to allow one to draw predictions and explanations of the phenomena by reasoning with it, I conclude that imaginary models in abstracto are not used as representations: scientists always reason with formatted representations. Therefore, the problem of scientific representation does not lie in the relationship of imaginary entities with real systems. One should rather focus on the variety of the formats that are used in scientific practice.