The function of boundary conditions in the physical sciences

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4 Scopus citations


Early philosophical accounts of explanation mistook the function of boundary conditions for that of contingent facts. I diagnose where this misunderstanding arose and establish that it persists. I disambiguate between two uses of the term “boundary conditions” and argue that boundary conditions are explanatory via their roles as components of models. Using case studies from fluid mechanics and the physics of waves, I articulate four explanatory functions for boundary conditions in physics: Specifying the scope of a model, enabling stable descriptions of phenomena in a model, generating descriptions of novel phenomena, and connecting models from differing theoretical backgrounds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)234-257
Number of pages24
JournalPhilosophy of Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Received January 2019; revised January 2020. *To contact the author, please write to: Department of Philosophy, University of Kentucky, 1415 Patterson Office Tower, Lexington, KY 40506; e-mail: †I am grateful for many conversations with Bob Batterman and Mark Wilson, which aided in developing the view advanced here, and for discussions with Sara Green, Robin Hendry, Jennifer Jhun, Collin Rice, and Jeffrey Sykora, which shaped the contours of the argument. I am also grateful for the comments from three anonymous reviewers, which significantly improved the clarity of the ideas presented here, and for comments from Stephen Perry. This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation under grant 1247842. As ever, thanks to STARS.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 by the Philosophy of Science Association. All rights reserved.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Philosophy
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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