Are computer simulations experiments? And if not, how are they related to each other?

  • Claus Beisbart
Original Paper in Philosophy of Science


Computer simulations and experiments share many important features. One way of explaining the similarities is to say that computer simulations just are experiments. This claim is quite popular in the literature. The aim of this paper is to argue against the claim and to develop an alternative explanation of why computer simulations resemble experiments. To this purpose, experiment is characterized in terms of an intervention on a system and of the observation of the reaction. Thus, if computer simulations are experiments, either the computer hardware or the target system must be intervened on and observed. I argue against the first option using the non-observation argument, among others. The second option is excluded by e.g. the over-control argument, which stresses epistemological differences between experiments and simulations. To account for the similarities between experiments and computer simulations, I propose to say that computer simulations can model possible experiments and do in fact often do so.


Methods Computer simulation Experiment Intervention Experimental control Observation Modeling 



Thanks to Christoph Baumberger and Trude Hirsch Hadorn for extremely useful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. I’m also very grateful for detailed and helpful comments and criticisms by two anonymous referees. One of them provided extensive, constructive and extremely helpful comments even about a revised version of this paper – thanks a lot for this!


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für PhilosophieUniversität BernBern 9Switzerland

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