Explanation via Uncontrollable Idealization

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Many putative explanations in physics rely on idealized models of physical systems. These explanations are inconsistent with standard philosophical accounts of explanation. A common view holds that idealizations can underwrite explanation nonetheless, but only when they are what have variously been called Galilean, approximative, traditional or controllable. Controllability is the least vague of these categories, and this paper focuses on the relation between controllability and explanation. Specifically, it argues that the common view is an untenable half-measure. It gives the example of a simple pendulum with quadratic damping, an uncontrollable idealization that makes use of singular limits and for which the behaviour at the limit is qualitatively new—but a system whose behaviour is fully explained in terms of the idealization. It shows that uncontrollable idealizations can have explanatory capacities (and in a way distinct from Batterman’s “asymptotic explanation”).