Constitutive elements in science beyond physics: the case of the Hardy–Weinberg principle

Synthese (Suppl 14):3437-3461 (2018)


In this paper, I present a new framework supporting the claim that some elements in science play a constitutive function, with the aim of overcoming some limitations of Friedman's (2001) account. More precisely, I focus on what I consider to be the gradualism implicit in Friedman's interpretation of the constitutive a priori, that is, the fact that it seems to allow for degrees of 'constitutivity'. I tease out such gradualism by showing that the constitutive character Friedman aims to track can be captured by three features - namely, quasi-axiomaticity (QA), generative potential (GP), and empirical shielding (ES) - which are exhibited to a maximal degree by the examples Friedman deploys, particularly in his analysis of Newtonian mechanics. I argue that not all varieties of 'constitutivity' can be captured by the kind of gradualism implicit in Friedman's view, although developing the gradualism itself might provide useful insights. To show this, I analyse the function of the Hardy-Weinberg principle (HWP) in population genetics in terms of its QA, GP, and ES. Whereas the HWP does not count as constitutive in classical philosophical interpretations (Sober 1984), nor does it within Friedman's framework, it does nonetheless perform a minimally constitutive function. By means of historical details and considerations on the prospects of replacing the HWP, I show that the HWP is minimally constitutive by being a counterfactual instantiation of a paradigmatically constitutive stability principle, where the latter might itself be regarded as an enabling condition for a variety of modelling practices across the sciences

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Michele Luchetti
Max-Planck Institute for The History of Science

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