Approximation and Idealization: Why the Difference Matters

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John D. Norton
preprint description
It is proposed that we use the term “approximation” for inexact description of a target system and “idealization” for another system whose properties also provide an inexact description of the target system. Since systems generated by a limiting process can often have quite unexpected, even inconsistent properties, familiar limit systems used in statistical physics can fail to provide idealizations, but are merely approximations. A dominance argument suggests that the limiting idealizations of statistical physics should be demoted to approximations.

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