Abstract: The chapter addresses the philosophical issues raised by the use of hypothetical modeling in the social sciences. Hypothetical modeling involves the construction and analysis of simple hypothetical systems to represent complex social phenomena for the purpose of understanding those social phenomena.
To highlight its main features hypothetical modeling is compared both to laboratory experimentation and to computer simulation. In analogy with laboratory experiments, hypothetical models can be conceived of as scientific representations that attempt to isolate, theoretically, the working of causal mechanisms or capacities from disturbing factors. However, unlike experiments, hypothetical models need to deal with the epistemic uncertainty due to the inevitable presence of unrealistic assumptions introduced for purposes of analytical tractability. Computer simulations have been claimed to be able to overcome some of the strictures of analytical tractability. Still they differ from hypothetical models in how they derive conclusions and in the kind of understanding they provide.
The inevitable presence of unrealistic assumptions makes the legitimacy of the use of hypothetical modeling to learn about the world a particularly pressing problem in the social sciences. A review of the contemporary philosophical debate shows that there is still little agreement on what social scientific models are and what they are for. This suggests that there might not be a single answer to the question of what is the epistemic value of hypothetical models in the social sciences.