Non-causal understanding with economic models: the case of general equilibrium


How can we use models to understand real phenomena if models misrepresent the very phenomena we seek to understand? Some accounts suggest that models may afford understanding by providing causal knowledge about phenomena via how-possibly explanations. However, general equilibrium models, for example, pose a challenge to this solution since their contribution appears to be purely mathematical results. Despite this, practitioners widely acknowledge that it improves our understanding of the world. I argue that the Arrow–Debreu model provides a mathematical how-possibly explanation which establishes claims of mathematical dependence. The account developed reveals how mathematical knowledge can inform claims about the world, allow ‘what-if-things-had-been-different’ inferences, and thus improve our understanding.