Crucial Instances and Francis Bacon’s Quest for Certainty

Daniel Schwartz
University of California, San Diego
Francis Bacon’s method of induction is often understood as a form of eliminative induction. The idea, on this interpretation, is to list the possible formal causes of a phenomenon and, by reference to a copious and reliable natural history, to falsify all of them but one. Whatever remains must be the formal cause. Bacon’s crucial instances are often seen as the crowning example of this method. In this article, I argue that this interpretation of crucial instances is mistaken, and it has caused us to lose sight of why Bacon assigns crucial instances a special role in his quest for epistemic certainty about formal causes. If crucial instances are interpreted eliminatively, then they are subject to the two problems related to underdetermination raised by Duhem: (1) that it is impossible to be certain one has specified all of the possible alternatives and (2) that an experiment falsifies a whole theory, not just a single hypothesis in isolation. I show that Bacon anticipates and aims to dodge both of these problems by conceiving of crucial instances as working, in the ideal case, through direct affirmations that are supported by links to more foundational knowledge.
Keywords Francis Bacon  Induction  Underdetermination  Duhem
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Reprint years 2017
DOI 10.1086/691131
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