Scientific understanding and felicitous legitimate falsehoods

Synthese 198 (7):6859-6887 (2021)
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Science is replete with falsehoods that epistemically facilitate understanding by virtue of being the very falsehoods they are. In view of this puzzling fact, some have relaxed the truth requirement on understanding. I offer a factive view of understanding that fully accommodates the puzzling fact in four steps: (i) I argue that the question how these falsehoods are related to the phenomenon to be understood and the question how they figure into the content of understanding it are independent. (ii) I argue that the falsehoods do not figure into the understanding’s content by being elements of its periphery or core. (iii) Drawing lessons from case studies, I argue that the falsehoods merely enable understanding. When working with such falsehoods, only the truths we extract from them are elements of the content of our understanding. (iv) I argue that the extraction view is compatible with the thesis that falsehoods can have an epistemic value by virtue of being the very falsehoods they are.



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Insa Lawler
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Citations of this work

Understanding Philosophy.Michael Hannon & James Nguyen - forthcoming - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy.
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References found in this work

How the laws of physics lie.Nancy Cartwright - 1983 - New York: Oxford University Press.
True Enough.Catherine Z. Elgin - 2017 - Cambridge: MIT Press.
Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation.Michael Strevens - 2008 - Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Models in Science (2nd edition).Roman Frigg & Stephan Hartmann - 2021 - The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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