Is explanation a guide to inference? A reply to Wesley salmon

In Giora Hon (ed.), The Why and How of Explanation: An Analytical Exposition. Springer (2001)
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Abstract

Earlier in this volume, Wesley Salmon has given a characteristically clear and trenchant critique of the account of non-demonstrative reasoning known by the slogan `Inference to the Best Explanation'. As a long-time fan of the idea that explanatory considerations are a guide to inference, I was delighted by the suggestion that Wes and I might work together on a discussion of the issues. In the event, this project has exceeded my high expectations, for in addition to the intellectual gain that comes from the careful study of his essay, I have benefited enormously from the stream of illuminating emails and faxes that Wes has sent me during our collaboration. Doing philosophy together has been an education and a pleasure. Salmon's essay would place Inference to the Best Explanation beyond the pale of acceptable philosophical accounts of inference. According to Salmon, Inference to the Best Explanation has serious internal difficulties and compares very unfavourably with Bayesian approaches to these matters. My aim in the following remarks is irenic. I hope to show that a number of the claimed difficulties either are not really difficulties or are avoidable. In some cases, the avoidance will require a mild reinterpretation of the account that lies behind the slogan `Inference to the Best Explanation'; in others, it will require admitting limits to the scope of the account. For I accept at the outset that Inference to the Best Explanation cannot possibly be the whole story about the assessment of scientific hypotheses. For me, the interesting idea is simply that we sometimes decide how likely a hypothesis is to be correct in part by considering how good an explanation it would provide, if it were correct. This is the idea of explanatory considerations providing a guide to inference, and this is the idea that I will here promote.

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