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The Heuristic Conception of Inference to the Best Explanation

2017-05-24, Dellsén, Finnur

An influential suggestion about the relationship between Bayesianism and inference to the best explanation (IBE) holds that IBE functions as a heuristic to approximate Bayesian reasoning. While this view promises to unify Bayesianism and IBE in a very attractive manner, important elements of the view have not yet been spelled out in detail. I present and argue for a heuristic conception of IBE on which IBE serves primarily to locate the most probable available explanatory hypothesis to serve as a working hypothesis in an agent’s further investigations. Along the way, I criticize what I consider to be an overly ambitious conception of the heuristic role of IBE, according to which IBE serves as a guide to absolute probability values. My own conception, by contrast, requires only that IBE can function as a guide to the comparative probability values of available hypotheses. This is shown to be a much more realistic role for IBE given the nature and limitations of the explanatory considerations with which IBE operates.

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Scientific progress: Knowledge versus understanding

2016-04, Dellsén, Finnur

What is scientific progress? On Alexander Bird's epistemic account of scientific progress, an episode in science is progressive precisely when there is more scientific knowledge at the end of the episode than at the beginning. Using Bird's epistemic account as a foil, this paper develops an alternative understanding-based account on which an episode in science is progressive precisely when scientists grasp how to correctly explain or predict more aspects of the world at the end of the episode than at the beginning. This account is shown to be superior to the epistemic account by examining cases in which knowledge and understanding come apart. In these cases, it is argued that scientific progress matches increases in scientific understanding rather than accumulations of knowledge. In addition, considerations having to do with minimalist idealizations, pragmatic virtues, and epistemic value all favor this understanding-based account over its epistemic counterpart.

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Realism and the absence of rivals

2016, Dellsén, Finnur

Among the most serious challenges to scientific realism are arguments for the underdetermination of theory by evidence. This paper defends a version of scientific realism against what is perhaps the most influential recent argument of this sort, viz. Kyle Stanford’s New Induction over the History of Science. An essential part of the defense consists in a probabilistic analysis of the slogan 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'. On this basis it is argued that the likelihood of a theory being underdetermined depends crucially on social and historical factors, such as the structure of scientific communities and the time that has passed since the theory first became accepted. This is then shown to serve as the epistemological foundation for a version of scientific realism which avoids Stanford’s New Induction in a principled and non-question-begging way.

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Understanding without Justification or Belief

2016, Dellsén, Finnur

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest among epistemologists in the nature of understanding, with some authors arguing that understanding should replace knowledge as the primary focus of epistemology. But what is understanding? According to what is often called the standard view, understanding is a species of knowledge. Although this view has recently been challenged in various ways, even the critics of the standard view have assumed that understanding requires justification and belief. I argue that it requires neither. If sound, these arguments have important upshots not only for the nature of understanding, but also for its distinctive epistemic value and its role in contemporary epistemology.

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When Expert Disagreement Supports the Consensus

2017, Dellsén, Finnur

It is often suggested that disagreement among scientific experts is a reason not to trust those experts, even about matters on which they are in agreement. In direct opposition to this view, I argue here that the very fact that there is disagreement among experts on a given issue provides a positive reason for non-experts to trust that the experts really are justified in their attitudes towards consensus theories. I show how this line of thought can be spelled out in three distinct frameworks for non-deductive reasoning, viz. Bayesian Confirmation Theory, Inference to the Best Explanation, and Inferential Robustness Analysis.

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There May Yet Be Non-Causal Explanations (of Particular Events)

2016-09, Dellsén, Finnur

There are many putative counterexamples to the view that all scientific explanations are causal explanations. Using a new theory of what it is to be a causal explanation, Bradford Skow has recently argued that several of the putative counterexamples fail to be non-causal. This paper defends some of the counterexamples by showing how Skow’s argument relies on an overly permissive theory of causal explanations.

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Explanatory Rivals and the Ultimate Argument

2016-09, Dellsén, Finnur

Although many aspects of Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) have been extensively discussed, very little has so far been said about what it takes for a hypothesis to count as a rival explanatory hypothesis in the context of IBE. The primary aim of this article is to rectify this situation by arguing for a specific account of explanatory rivalry. On this account, explanatory rivals are (roughly speaking) complete explanations of a given explanandum. When explanatory rivals are conceived of in this way, I argue that IBE is a more plausible and defensible rule of inference than it would otherwise be. The secondary aim of the article is to demonstrate the importance of accounts of explanatory rivalry by examining a prominent philosophical argument in which IBE is employed, viz. the so-called Ultimate Argument for scientific realism. In short, I argue that a well-known objection to the Ultimate Argument due to Arthur Fine fails in virtue of tacitly assuming an account of explanatory rivalry that we have independent reasons to reject.

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Reconstructed Empiricism

2016, Dellsén, Finnur

According to Bas van Fraassen, scientific realists and anti-realists disagree about whether accepting a scientific theory involves believing that the theory is true. On van Fraassen's own anti-realist empiricist position, accepting a theory involves believing only that the theory is correct in its claims about observable aspects of the world. However, a number of philosophers have argued that acceptance and belief cannot be distinguished and thus that the debate is either confused or trivially settled in favor of the realist. In addition, another set of philosophers have argued that van Fraassen’s empiricist position appeals to an unmotivated distinction between observable and unobservable aspects of the world. This paper aims to reconstruct a van Fraassen-style empiricism about scientific acceptance that avoids these two objections – reconstructed empiricism.

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Deductive Cogency, Understanding, and Acceptance

2018-07, Dellsén, Finnur

Deductive Cogency holds that the set of propositions towards which one has, or is prepared to have, a given type of propositional attitude should be consistent and closed under logical consequence. While there are many propositional attitudes that are not subject to this requirement, e.g. hoping and imagining, it is at least prima facie plausible that Deductive Cogency applies to the doxastic attitude involved in propositional knowledge, viz. (outright) belief. However, this thought is undermined by the well-known preface paradox, leading a number of philosophers to conclude that Deductive Cogency has at best a very limited role to play in our epistemic lives. I argue here that Deductive Cogency is still an important epistemic requirement, albeit not as a requirement on belief. Instead, building on a distinction between belief and acceptance introduced by Jonathan Cohen and recent developments in the epistemology of understanding, I propose that Deductive Cogency applies to the attitude of treating propositions as given in the context of attempting to understand a given phenomenon. I then argue that this simultaneously accounts for the plausibility of the considerations in favor of Deductive Cogency and avoids the problematic consequences of the preface paradox.

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Reactionary Responses to the Bad Lot Objection

2017-02, Dellsén, Finnur

As it is standardly conceived, Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) is a form of ampliative inference in which one infers a hypothesis because it provides a better potential explanation of one’s evidence than any other available, competing explanatory hypothesis. Bas van Fraassen famously objected to IBE thus formulated that we may have no reason to think that any of the available, competing explanatory hypotheses are true. While revisionary responses to the Bad Lot Objection concede that IBE needs to be reformulated in light of this problem, reactionary responses argue that the Bad Lot Objection is fallacious, incoherent, or misguided. This paper shows that the most influential reactionary responses to the Bad Lot Objection do nothing to undermine the original objection. This strongly suggests that proponents of IBE should focus their efforts on revisionary responses, i.e. on finding a more sophisticated characterization of IBE for which the Bad Lot Objection loses its bite.