Historical Reconstruction: Gaining Epistemic Access to the Deep Past

Philosophy and Theory in Biology 3 (20130604) (2011)
Of the many tasks undertaken in science, one is striking both in its scope and the epistemic difficulties it faces: the reconstruction of the deep past. Such reconstruction provides the resources to successfully explain puzzling extant traces, from fossils to radiation signatures, often in the absence of extensive and repeatable observations—the hallmark of good epistemic support. Yet good explanations do not come for free. Evidence can fail, in practice or in principle, to support one hypothesis over another (underdetermination). And when hypotheses do confront conflicting evidence, identifying the piece of theory to abandon can be notoriously difficult (testing holism). Good science, in any discipline, must overcome these challenges
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