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[Review of the book Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives, by P.K. Stanford]

  • Author(s) / Creator(s)
  • Introduction: What makes Kyle Stanford’s book on scientific realism so valuable to philosophers of science is that it both presents new philosophical ideas and bases its argument on a detailed study of the history of science. While scientific realism—the idea that our most well‐confirmed theories give a literally true description of the world—has usually been debated in the context of physics, Stanford explores the history of biology. He develops a novel argument against realism (yet one that combines an improved version of the two main traditional arguments: the underdetermination of theory by evidence and the pessimistic metainduction over the history of science). His “problem of unconceived alternatives” claims that while scientists may have sufficient evidence to exclude all but one of several rival theories considered, endorsing the remaining theory is unwarranted as there are unconceived alternatives that are equally well confirmed by the evidence (p. 18). The support for this claim consists in the historical fact that, in the past, scientists have failed to conceive of theories that were eventually adopted, even though those unconceived theories would have been genuine alternatives as well supported by the original evidence as the theories those scientists did endorse. Of course, this inability to conceive of such a relevant alternative persists only temporarily (since the originally unconceived alternative is later proposed and accepted). Stanford’s point is that it is a recurrent predicament that at any point in history there are unconceived alternatives that are equally well supported by the available evidence, yielding a “new induction over the history of science” implying that the problem of unconceived alternatives challenges even our current theories (p. 19).

  • Date created
    2007
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  • Type of Item
    Review
  • DOI
    https://doi.org/10.7939/R3NC5SS9M
  • License
    © 2007 Brigandt, I. This version of this article is open access and can be downloaded and shared. The original author(s) and source must be cited.
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  • Citation for previous publication
    • Brigandt, I. (2007). [Review of the book Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives, by P.K. Stanford]. Isis, 98(2), 435-436. http://doi.org/10.1086/521503
  • Link to related item
    http://doi.org/10.1086/521503