Understanding (With) Toy Models

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Reutlinger, Alexander; Hangleiter, Dominik; Hartmann, Stephan
preprint description
Toy models are highly idealized and extremely simple models. Although they are omnipresent across scientific disciplines, toy models are a surprisingly under-appreciated subject in the philosophy of science. The main philosophical puzzle regarding toy models is that it is an unsettled question what the epistemic goal of toy modeling is. One promising proposal for answering this question is the claim that the epistemic goal of toy models is to provide individual scientists with understanding. The aim of this paper is to precisely articulate and to defend this claim. In particular, we will distinguish between autonomous and embedded toy models, and, then, argue that important examples of autonomous toy models are sometimes best interpreted to provide how-possibly understanding, while embedded toy models yield how-actually understanding, if certain conditions are satisfied.