Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Chris Smeenk


A central component to scientific practice is the construction and use of scientific models. Scientists believe that the success of a model justifies making claims that go beyond the model itself. However, philosophical analysis of models suggests that drawing inferences about the world from successful models is more complex. In this dissertation I develop a framework that can help disentangle the related strands of evaluation of model success, model extendibility, and the ability to draw ampliative inferences about the world from models.

I present and critically assess two leading accounts of model assessment, arguing that neither is sufficient to provide a complete understanding of model evaluation. I introduce a more powerful framework incorporating elements of the two views, which can help answer these three questions: What is the target of evaluation in model assessment? How does that evaluation proceed? What licenses us in making inferences about the real world, based on the evaluation of our models as successful?

The framework identifies two distinct targets of model evaluation: representational similarity between the model and target system, and the adequacy of the model as a tool to answer questions. Both assessments must be relativized to a purpose, of which there are three general kinds: descriptive, predictive, and explanatory. These purposes differ in the way they inform the similarity relation, which is relevant for the similarity assessment, and the output they produce, which is relevant for the adequacy assessment. Any model can be assessed relative to any purpose, however a model encodes certain decisions made during the model’s construction, which impact its ability to be applied to a new purpose or new domain. My framework shows that extending a model, and drawing inferences from it, depends on its representational similarity.

I apply this framework to several examples taken from astrophysics showing in detail how it can help illuminate the structure of the models, as well as make the justification for inferences made from them clear. The final chapter is a detailed analysis of a contemporary debate surrounding the use of models in astrophysics, between proponents of MOND and the standard ΛCDM model.