Simply the best – scientific realism and inference to the best explanation

27 July, 2013 at 15:42 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 1 Comment

In a time when scientific relativism is expanding, it is important to keep up the claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level. We have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as principally independent of our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality. Perhaps the most important contribution a researcher can make is reveal what this reality that is the object of science actually looks like.

Science is made possible by the fact that there are structures that are durable and are independent of our knowledge or beliefs about them. There exists a reality beyond our theories and concepts of it. It is this independent reality that our theories in some way deal with. Contrary to positivism, I would as a critical realist argue that the main task of science is not to detect event-regularities between observed facts. Rather, that task must be conceived as identifying the underlying structure and forces that produce the observed events.

In a truly wonderful essay – chapter three of Error and Inference (Cambridge University Press, 2010, eds. Deborah Mayo and Aris Spanos) – Alan Musgrave gives strong arguments why scientific realism and inference to the best explanation are the best alternatives for explaining what’s going on in the world we live in:

For realists, the name of the scientific game is explaining phenomena, not just saving them. Realists typically invoke ‘inference to the best explanation’ or IBE …

IBE is a pattern of argument that is ubiquitous in science and in everyday life as well. van Fraassen has a homely example:
“I hear scratching in the wall, the patter of little feet at midnight, my cheese disappears – and I infer that a mouse has come to live with me. Not merely that these apparent signs of mousely presence will continue, not merely that all the observable phenomena will be as if there is a mouse, but that there really is a mouse.” (1980: 19-20)
Here, the mouse hypothesis is supposed to be the best explanation of the phenomena, the scratching in the wall, the patter of little feet, and the disappearing cheese.
alan musgraveWhat exactly is the inference in IBE, what are the premises, and what the conclusion? van Fraassen says “I infer that a mouse has come to live with me”. This suggests that the conclusion is “A mouse has come to live with me” and that the premises are statements about the scratching in the wall, etc. Generally, the premises are the things to be explained (the explanandum) and the conclusion is the thing that does the explaining (the explanans). But this suggestion is odd. Explanations are many and various, and it will be impossible to extract any general pattern of inference taking us from explanandum to explanans. Moreover, it is clear that inferences of this kind cannot be deductively valid ones, in which the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion. For the conclusion, the explanans, goes beyond the premises, the explanandum. In the standard deductive model of explanation, we infer the explanandum from the explanans, not the other way around – we do not deduce the explanatory hypothesis from the phenomena, rather we deduce the phenomena from the explanatory hypothesis …

The intellectual ancestor of IBE is Peirce’s abduction, and here we find a different pattern:

The surprising fact, C, is observed.
But if A were true, C would be a matter of course.
Hence, … A is true.
(C. S. Peirce, 1931-58, Vol. 5: 189)

Here the second premise is a fancy way of saying “A explains C”. Notice that the explanatory hypothesis A figures in this second premise as well as in the conclusion. The argument as a whole does not generate the explanans out of the explanandum. Rather, it seeks to justify the explanatory hypothesis …

Abduction is deductively invalid … IBE attempts to improve upon abduction by requiring that the explanation is the best explanation that we have. It goes like this:

F is a fact.
Hypothesis H explains F.
No available competing hypothesis explains F as well as H does.
Therefore, H is true
(William Lycan, 1985: 138)

This is better than abduction, but not much better. It is also deductively invalid …

There is a way to rescue abduction and IBE. We can validate them without adding missing premises that are obviously false, so that we merely trade obvious invalidity for equally obvious unsoundness. Peirce provided the clue to this. Peirce’s original abductive scheme was not quite what we have considered so far. Peirce’s original scheme went like this:

The surprising fact, C, is observed.
But if A were true, C would be a matter of course.
Hence, there is reason to suspect that A is true.
(C. S. Peirce, 1931-58, Vol. 5: 189)

This is obviously invalid, but to repair it we need the missing premise “There is reason to suspect that any explanation of a surprising fact is true”. This missing premise is, I suggest, true. After all, the epistemic modifier “There is reason to suspect that …” weakens the claims considerably. In particular, “There is reason to suspect that A is true” can be true even though A is false. If the missing premise is true, then instances of the abductive scheme may be both deductively valid and sound.

IBE can be rescued in a similar way. I even suggest a stronger epistemic modifier, not “There is reason to suspect that …” but rather “There is reason to believe (tentatively) that …” or, equivalently, “It is reasonable to believe (tentatively) that …” What results, with the missing premise spelled out, is:

It is reasonable to believe that the best available explanation of any fact is true.
F is a fact.
Hypothesis H explains F.
No available competing hypothesis explains F as well as H does.
Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that H is true.

This scheme is valid and instances of it might well be sound. Inferences of this kind are employed in the common affairs of life, in detective stories, and in the sciences.

Of course, to establish that any such inference is sound, the ‘explanationist’ owes us an account of when a hypothesis explains a fact, and of when one hypothesis explains a fact better than another hypothesis does. If one hypothesis yields only a circular explanation and another does not, the latter is better than the former. If one hypothesis has been tested and refuted and another has not, the latter is better than the former. These are controversial issues, to which I shall return. But they are not the most controversial issue – that concerns the major premise. Most philosophers think that the scheme is unsound because this major premise is false, whatever account we can give of explanation and of when one explanation is better than another. So let me assume that the explanationist can deliver on the promises just mentioned, and focus on this major objection.

People object that the best available explanation might be false. Quite so – and so what? It goes without saying that any explanation might be false, in the sense that it is not necessarily true. It is absurd to suppose that the only things we can reasonably believe are necessary truths.

What if the best explanation not only might be false, but actually is false. Can it ever be reasonable to believe a falsehood? Of course it can. Suppose van Fraassen’s mouse explanation is false, that a mouse is not responsible for the scratching, the patter of little feet, and the disappearing cheese. Still, it is reasonable to believe it, given that it is our best explanation of those phenomena. Of course, if we find out that the mouse explanation is false, it is no longer reasonable to believe it. But what we find out is that what we believed was wrong, not that it was wrong or unreasonable for us to have believed it.

People object that being the best available explanation of a fact does not prove something to be true or even probable. Quite so – and again, so what? The explanationist principle – “It is reasonable to believe that the best available explanation of any fact is true” – means that it is reasonable to believe or think true things that have not been shown to be true or probable, more likely true than not.

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1 Comment

  1. In my observation of social science, economy and so forth, I have observed that it is not only the relation between hypothesis and fact that is problematic.

    They have been given a tool that will ALWAYS give a respons, called quantitative method. Statistics.

    So what they are actually doing when they do their fishing expedition is to only observe facts that give a respons from the system. In the mouse example they would observe variations in the cheese bill over time, this is the measurable quantity that the quantitative method will look at, all other things are ignored. The sound of little feet do not give a system respons thus it does not exist. The quantitative social scientist will then start to ask a lot of stupid questions. Maybe the cheese dissapearance are related to the phase of the moon. They will put the cheese-bills in relation to the phase of the moon. This is a stupid question to everyone else, but the quantitative social scientist believe there is no such thing as a stupid question and crunch the numbers anyway, and get a respons. The respons is taken as truth because it would be unlikely to arise by chance. Well there are an infinite number of stupid questions to ask and most of them will ONLY give a respons by chance, no matter how unlikely the numbers say that this respons has arisen by chance, the stupid question can only give a respons by chance and that is a 100% risk no matter what the numbers say.

    The error occurs already when formulating hypothesis.


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