David Bourget (Western Ontario)
David Chalmers (ANU, NYU)
Rafael De Clercq
Jack Alan Reynolds
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In P. D. Magnus & Jacob Busch (eds.), New Waves in Philosophy of Science. Palgrave Macmillan (2010)
How confident does the history of science allow us to be about our current well-tested scientific theories, and why? The scientific realist thinks we are well within our rights to believe our best-tested theories, or some aspects of them, are approximately true.2 Ambitious arguments have been made to this effect, such as that over historical time our scientific theories are converging to the truth, that the retention of concepts and claims is evidence for this, and that there can be no other serious explanation of the success of science than that its theories are approximately true. There is appeal in each of these ideas, but making such strong claims has tended to be hazardous, leaving us open to charges that many typical episodes in the history of science just do not fit the model. (See, e.g., Laudan 1981.) Arguing for a realist attitude via general claims – properties ascribed to sets of theories, trends we see in progressions of theories, and claimed links between general properties like success and truth that apply or fail to apply to any theory regardless of its content – is like arguing for or via a theory of science, which brings with it the obligation to defend that theory. I think a realist attitude toward particular scientific theories for which we have evidence can be maintained rationally without such a theory, even in the face of the pessimistic induction over the history of science. The starting point at which questions arise as to what we have a right to believe about our theories is one where we have theories and evidence for them, and we are involved in the activity of apportioning our belief in each particular theory or hypothesis in accord with the strength of the particular evidence.3 The devil’s advocate sees our innocence and tries his best to sow seeds of doubt. If our starting point is as I say, though, the innocent believer in particular theories does not have to play offense and propose sweeping views about science in general, but only to respond to the skeptic’s challenges; the burden of initial argument is on the skeptic..
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