In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Computer Simulations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classic or Comprehensive Accounts of Computer Simulations
  • How Are Computer Simulations Used in Different Disciplines?
  • To What Extent Are Computer Simulations Novel?
  • Opacity and Understanding
  • Metaphysics of Computer Simulation

Philosophy Computer Simulations
Claus Beisbart
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0438


In a computer simulation, a digital computer is used to trace the time evolution of a system, e.g., of the atmosphere of the Earth. Using a model, the computer calculates the values of variables such as air pressure for a series of times and thus obtains state descriptions of the system for those times. The outputs of computer simulations are often visualized using animations. If all goes well in the simulation, humans can learn from the outputs how the system under consideration evolves with time. Computer simulations became possible with the advent of the digital computer in the 1940s. They contrast with analog simulations, which do without a digital computer and are not considered in this entry. Among the first computer simulations were programs that were intended to trace the explosion of nuclear weapons and the evolution of the weather. Nowadays, the use of computer simulations is widespread, in particular in education and in research in the natural and social sciences. But not every use of the computer qualifies as computer simulation; for instance, the classification of images using neural networks does not count as computer simulation because no time evolution is traced. In philosophy, computer simulation is mainly discussed as a scientific practice or method. Accordingly, it is mostly philosophers of science who study computer simulation. Their focus has been on the epistemology of computer simulation: They study how computer simulations are embedded in, and change, the workings of science. The most important questions are: (1) How are computer simulations used in different disciplines and what kinds of tasks do they fulfill? (2) How are simulation results justified? (3) How can we explain how computer simulations achieve their tasks? Since answers to this question often relate computer simulation to other methods, e.g., experimentation, they also tell us what kind of method computer simulation is. (4) To what extent are computer simulations novel in science and what are the consequences for our philosophical picture of science? The last question is pressing because well-established positions in philosophy of science, e.g., falsificationism, Bayesianism, and Kuhn’s position, have been developed without reference to computer simulation. An additional important topic that has emerged in the philosophical discussion of simulations is their black box character. This trait is often labeled “epistemic opacity” and seems relevant for the question of how computer simulations can provide understanding. The current wave of interest in computer simulations started in the 1990s, although there were a few philosophical publications on the theme before that time. This bibliography covers this wave without going further back to the past. The focus is entirely on philosophical appraisals of simulations within science. The use of simulations as a tool within philosophy is largely bracketed.

General Overviews

There are several valuable philosophical overviews of computer simulations. They are quite similar; typically, they discuss the very notion of computer simulation, distinguish different kinds of simulations, and survey the relevant philosophical debates, e.g., about the novelty of simulation or about its relation to experiment. Imbert 2017 and Winsberg 2019 are the most comprehensive survey articles, while Parker 2013 is a shorter overview. Saam 2017 has a narrower focus on the question of what kind of method computer simulation is. Grüne-Yanoff and Weirich 2010 focuses on simulations from the social sciences. Winsberg 2009 has the aim to convince philosophers that computer simulation is a worthwhile topic. Durán 2018 gives a philosophically minded introduction to computer simulations for a broader audience, in particular, working scientists.

  • Durán, Juan Manuel. Computer Simulations in Science and Engineering: Concept, Practices, Perspectives. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-90882-3

    Philosophical introduction to the method of computer simulation for a broader audience. Explains in detail how computer simulations work and how they are used. One of the few works that covers ethical aspects of simulations.

  • Grüne-Yanoff, Till, and Paul Weirich. “The Philosophy and Epistemology of Simulation: A Review.” Simulation and Gaming: An Interdisciplinary Journal 41.1 (2010): 1–31.

    DOI: 10.1177/1046878109353470

    Provides a survey of philosophical work on computer simulations with a focus on the social sciences. Contains a detailed discussion of the various uses to which computer simulations can be put.

  • Imbert, Cyrille. “Computer Simulations and Computational Models in Science.” In Springer Handbook of Model-Based Science. Edited by Lorenzo Magnani and Tommaso Bertolotti, 735–781. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Handbooks, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-30526-4_34

    Discusses many issues that have been debated in the philosophy of computer simulations, e.g., the comparison between simulations, real experiments, and thought experiments, and the contribution that computer simulations can make to understanding. Integrates a large body of literature and adds original points to arrive at a nuanced appraisal of computer simulation.

  • Parker, Wendy S. “Computer Simulation.” In The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Science. 2d ed. Edited by Martin Curd and Stathis Psillos, 135–145. London: Routledge, 2013.

    Excellent overview of philosophical work on computer simulations. Covers uses and kinds of simulations, epistemological issues, the relation to experiments, and the debate on the philosophical novelty of simulations.

  • Saam, Nicole J. “What Is a Computer Simulation? A Review of a Passionate Debate.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 48.2 (2017): 293–309.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10838-016-9354-8

    Reviews literature on the question what kind of method computer simulation is (are computer simulations experiments? Are they thought experiments?).

  • Winsberg, Eric. “Computer Simulation and the Philosophy of Science.” Philosophy Compass 4.5 (2009): 835–845.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2009.00236.x

    Surveys philosophical work on computer simulations with the intention to show that computer simulations deserve closer attention from philosophers of science.

  • Winsberg, Eric. “Computer Simulations in Science.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2019.

    Excellent overview of philosophy of science work on computer simulations. Reviews work on the very definition of computer simulation, offers useful distinctions between different kinds of simulations, and surveys the most important debates about computer simulations in philosophy of science.

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