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The Monist

Volume 97, Issue 3, July 2014

Models and Simulations

Alisa Bokulich
Pages 321-338
DOI: 10.5840/monist201497321

How the Tiger Bush Got Its Stripes: ‘How Possibly’ vs. ‘How Actually’Model Explanations

Simulations using idealized numerical models can often generate behaviors or patterns that are visually very similar to the natural phenomenon being investigated and to be explained. The question arises, when should these model simulations be taken to provide an explanation (or part of an explanation) for why the natural phenomena exhibit the patterns that they do? An important distinction for answering this question is that between ‘how-possibly’ explanations and ‘how-actually’ explanations. Despite the importance of this distinction there has been surprisingly little agreement over how exactly this distinction should be drawn. I shall argue that inadequate attention has been paid to the different contexts in which an explanation can be given and the different levels of abstraction at which the explanandum phenomenon can be framed. By tracing how scientists are using model simulations to explain a striking periodic banding of vegetation known as tiger bush, I will show how our understanding of the distinction between how-possibly and how-actually model explanations needs to be revised.