Understanding with theoretical models

ABSTRACT. This paper discusses the epistemic import of highly abstract and simplified theoretical models using Thomas Schelling’s checkerboard model as an example. We argue that the epistemic contribution of theoretical models can be better understood in the context of a cluster of models relevant to the explanatory task at hand. The central claim of the paper is that theoretical models make better sense in the context of a menu of possible explanations. In order to justify this claim, we introduce a distinction between causal scenarios and causal mechanism schemes. These conceptual tools help us to articulate the basis for modelers’ intuitive confidence that their models make an important epistemic contribution. By focusing on the role of the menu of possible explanations in the evaluation of explanatory hypotheses, it is possible to understand how a causal mechanism scheme can improve our explanatory understanding even in cases where it does not describe the actual cause of a particular phenomenon.

KEYWORDS: models, explanation, causal mechanisms, segregation

JEL CODES: B40B41

Citation: Ylikoski, Petri & N. Emrah Aydinonat. 2014. “The Diversity of Models as a Means to Better Explanations in Economics.” Journal of Economic Methodology, 21 (1), 19-36. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350178X.2014.886470
Pre-print available at SSRN ResearchGate.