Contrast, inference and scientific realism

Synthese 160 (2):249-267 (2008)
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Abstract

The thesis of underdetermination presents a major obstacle to the epistemological claims of scientific realism. That thesis is regularly assumed in the philosophy of science, but is puzzlingly at odds with the actual history of science, in which empirically adequate theories are thin on the ground. We propose to advance a case for scientific realism which concentrates on the process of scientific reasoning rather than its theoretical products. Developing an account of causal–explanatory inference will make it easier to resist the thesis of underdetermination. For, if we are not restricted to inference to the best explanation only at the level of major theories, we will be able to acknowledge that there is a structure in data sets which imposes serious constraints on possible theoretical alternatives. We describe how Differential Inference, a form of inference based on contrastive explanation, can be used in order to generate causal hypotheses. We then go on to consider how experimental manipulation of differences can be used to achieve Difference Closure, thereby confirming claims of causal efficacy and also eliminating possible confounds. The model of Differential Inference outlined here shows at least one way in which it is possible to ‘reason from the phenomena’.

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George Steven Botterill
University of Sheffield

Citations of this work

Scientific Realism.Richard Boyd - 1984 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 21 (1&2):767-791.
Scientific Realism.Anjan Chakravartty - 2011 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Two Kinds of Causal Explanation.George Botterill - 2010 - Theoria 76 (4):287-313.

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References found in this work

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.Thomas Samuel Kuhn - 1962 - Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Edited by Otto Neurath.
Laws and symmetry.Bas C. Van Fraassen - 1989 - New York: Oxford University Press.
Inference to the Best Explanation.Peter Lipton - 1991 - London and New York: Routledge/Taylor and Francis Group.
The scientific image.C. Van Fraassen Bas - 1980 - New York: Oxford University Press.

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