Theory Choice and Social Choice: Kuhn versus Arrow

Mind 120 (477):83-115 (2011)
Kuhn’s famous thesis that there is ‘no unique algorithm’ for choosing between rival scientific theories is analysed using the machinery of social choice theory. It is shown that the problem of theory choice as posed by Kuhn is formally identical to a standard social choice problem. This suggests that analogues of well-known results from the social choice literature, such as Arrow’s impossibility theorem, may apply to theory choice. If an analogue of Arrow’s theorem does hold for theory choice this would refute Kuhn’s thesis, but it would also pose a threat to the rationality of science, a threat that is if anything more worrying than that posed by Kuhn. Various possible ‘escape routes’ from Arrow’s impossibility result are examined, in particular Amartya Sen’s idea of ‘enriching the informational basis’. It is shown that Sen’s idea can be applied to the problem of theory choice in science. This in turn sheds light on two well-known approaches to inductive inference in philosophy of science: Bayesianism and statistical model selection
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DOI 10.1093/mind/fzr010
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