Opacity thought through: on the intransparency of computer simulations

Beisbart, Claus (2021). Opacity thought through: on the intransparency of computer simulations. Synthese, 199(3-4), pp. 11643-11666. Springer Netherlands 10.1007/s11229-021-03305-2

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Computer simulations are often claimed to be opaque and thus to lack transparency. But what exactly is the opacity of simulations? This paper aims to answer that question by proposing an explication of opacity. Such an explication is needed, I argue, because the pioneering definition of opacity by P. Humphreys and a recent elaboration by Durán and Formanek are too narrow. While it is true that simulations are opaque in that they include too many computations and thus cannot be checked by hand, this doesn’t exhaust what we might want to call the opacity of simulations. I thus make a fresh start with the natural idea that the opacity of a method is its disposition to resist knowledge and understanding. I draw on recent work on understanding and elaborate the idea by a systematic investigation into what type of knowledge and what type of understanding are required if opacity is to be avoided and why the required sort of understanding, in particular, is difficult to achieve. My proposal is that a method is opaque to the degree that it’s difficult for humans to know and to understand why its outcomes arise. This proposal allows for a comparison between different methods regarding opacity. It further refers to a kind of epistemic access that is important in scientific work with simulations.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Philosophy
06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Philosophy > Theoretical Philosophy

UniBE Contributor:

Beisbart, Claus


100 Philosophy
100 Philosophy > 120 Epistemology




Springer Netherlands




Claus Beisbart

Date Deposited:

11 Apr 2022 15:15

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 16:18

Publisher DOI:


Uncontrolled Keywords:

Epistemology of computer simulation Understanding why Verification of simulations Modeling Unsurveyability





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