Simulation models as opaque thought experiments

We review and critique a range of perspectives on the scientific role of individual-based evolutionary simulation models as they are used within artificial life. We find that such models have the potential to enrich existing modelling enterprises through their strength in modelling systems of interacting entities. Furthermore, simulation techniques promise to provide theoreticians in various fields with entirely new conceptual, as well as methodological, approaches. However, the precise manner in which simulations can be used as models is not clear. We present two apparently opposed perspectives on this issue: simulation models as “emergent computational thought experiments” and simulation models as realistic simulacra. Through analysing the role that armchair thought experiments
play in science, we develop a role for simulation models as opaque thought experiments, that is, thought experiments in which the consequences follow from the premises, but in a non-obvious manner which must be revealed through systematic enquiry. Like their
better-known transparent cousins, opaque thought experiments, when understood, result in new insights and conceptual reorganisations. These may stress the current theoretical position of the thought experimenter and engender empirical predictions which must
be tested in reality. As such, simulation models, like all thought experiments, are tools with which to explore the consequences of a theoretical position.

Di Paolo, E. A., Noble, J. & Bullock, S. (2000). Simulation models as opaque thought experiments.  Artificial Life VII: The Seventh International Conference on the Simulation and Synthesis of Living Systems, Reed College, Portland, Oregon, USA, 1-6 August, 2000.

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