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A talk at the workshop on "Agent-Based Models in Philosophy: Prospects and Limitations", Rurh University, Bochum, Germany
ABMs (like other kinds of model) can be used in a purely abstract way, as a kind of thought experiment - a way of thinking about some aspect of the world that is too complicated to hold in our mind (in all its detail). In this way it both informs and complements discursive thought. However there is another set of uses for ABMs - empirical uses - where the mapping between the model and sets of observation-derived data are crucial. For these uses, one has to (a) use the mapping to get from some data to the model (b) use the model for some inference and (c) use the mapping again back to data. This includes both predictive and explanatory uses of ABMs. These are easily distinguishable from abstact uses becuase there is a fixed and well-defined relationship between the model and the data, this is not flexible on a case by case basis. In these cases the reliability comes from the composite (a)-(b)-(c) mapping, so that simplifying step (b) can be counterproductive if that means weakening steps (a) and (c) because it is the strength of the overall chain that is important. Taking the use of models in quantum mechanics as an example, one can see that sometimes the evolution of the formal models driven by empirical adequacy can be more important than the attendent abstract models used to get a feel for what is happening. Although using ABM's for empirical purposes is more challenging than for purely abstract purposes, they are being increasingly used for empirical explanation rather than thought experiments, and there is no reason to suppose that robust empirical adequacy is unachievable.