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Inference to the best explanation

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-P025-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P025-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/inference-to-the-best-explanation/v-1

3. The scope and success of inference to the best explanation

The discussion to this point has treated the legitimacy of inference to the best explanation as an all-or-nothing affair. However, explanatory inference seems to raise the greatest doubts when it is used to support hypotheses about theoretical entities – that is, about entities that are unobservable in principle. The basic concern seems to be that theory is underdetermined by evidence: if you can formulate one theory about unobservables to account for a body of evidence, you can formulate indefinitely many others. Inference to the best explanation will select one theory from among these as the correct theory if it best meets our criteria of explanatory adequacy. How, though, are we ever to verify that this choice is in fact the correct one? The candidate theories agree in the observations they predict, so no evidence we can collect will settle the matter.

The reservation here would appear to be that the use of inference to the best explanation in theoretical contexts exacerbates the possibility that explanatory value and truth may diverge. For, if inference to the best explanation does lead us astray in some theoretical context, we will be unable to discover the error by observation, and we will have gone hopelessly astray. One response to this heightened concern would be retrenchment. For example, Reichenbach (1976) held that it is indeed proper to choose the simplest curve that fits one’s data, as above – but only when that choice can be tested against additional data-points provided by observation. So, more generally, one might restrict the use of inference to the best explanation to non-theoretical contexts.

Another response by proponents of inference to the best explanation is to become more ambitious rather than less. Boyd (1991) and others maintain that science has historically demonstrated an impressive amount of convergence. That is, successor theories have tended to retain some important part of their predecessors’ content. The best explanation of this fact is supposedly that our theories have become progressively more accurate. Now, if inference to the best explanation has had a large role to play in selecting scientific theories, the phenomenon of convergence provides evidence that inference to the best explanation leads to the truth, even in theoretical contexts.

Opinion about this ambitious line of thought has been sharply divided. One prominent objection is that, in so far as the argument purports to legitimate inference to the best explanation, it is unacceptably circular, as the thesis that inference to the best explanation reliably leads to the truth is itself established by inference to the best explanation (see Scientific realism and antirealism). Proponents of the argument deny that this circularity is objectionable. Also, altogether different defences of inference to the best explanation may sanction its use in theoretical settings.

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Citing this article:
Vogel, Jonathan. The scope and success of inference to the best explanation. Inference to the best explanation, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P025-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/inference-to-the-best-explanation/v-1/sections/the-scope-and-success-of-inference-to-the-best-explanation.
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