One of my absolute favourites

6 November, 2015 at 19:42 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 5 Comments

Inference to the Best Explanation can be seen as an extension of the idea of `self-evidencing’ explanations, where the phenomenon that is explained in turn provides an essential part of the reason for believing the explanation is correct. For example, a star’s speed of recession explains why its characteristic spectrum is red-shifted by a specified amount, but the observed red-shift may be an essential part of the reason the astronomer has for believing that the star is receding at that speed. Self-evidencing explanations exhibit a curious circularity, but this circularity is benign.

WS00323Inference_zpsd842ff44The recession is used to explain the red-shift and the red-shift is used to confirm the recession, yet the recession hypothesis may be both explanatory and well-supported. According to Inference to the Best Explanation, this is a common situation in science: hypotheses are supported by the very observations they are supposed to explain. Moreover, on this model, the observations support the hypothesis precisely because it would explain them. Inference to the Best Explanation thus partially inverts an otherwise natural view of the relationship between inference and explanation. According to that natural view, inference is prior to explanation. First the scientist must decide which hypotheses to accept; then, when called upon to explain some observation, she will draw from her pool of accepted hypotheses. According to Inference to the Best Explanation, by contrast, it is only by asking how well various hypotheses would explain the available evidence that she can determine which hypotheses merit acceptance. In this sense, Inference to the Best Explanation has it that explanation is prior to inference.



  1. How does one select the ‘best’ explanation out of those that merit acceptance?

    • Good question — and one that Lipton tries to answer especially in the chapter on Bayesian inference and the discussion on “loveliest” and “likeliest” explanation 🙂

  2. W.H. Newton-Smith (ed) A Companion to the Philosophy of Science (Blackwell, 2000) 184-193.
    Inference to the Best Explanation PETER LIPTON

    has a more recent and more accessible version. My reading is that as a description of what many scientists and economists actually do, IBE is reasonable. But if, like Keynes, I have a different sense of what is loveliest or likeliest from mainstream economists then my ‘best’ explanations may be quite different. So IBE on its own guarantees nothing.

    Does Lipton provide any guide as to how we can tell when our sense of loveliness is reliable, as against when it may have been unduly influenced by groupthink or dogma?

    My own view is that many economists have confused genuine mathematical loveliness and pseudo-mathematical mathyness, which has corrupted their use of IBE.

    • You’re of course absolutely right that abduction (just as induction) does not GUARANTEE anything. That’s exactly the point why we need them. If you want guarantees you have to stick with deductive inference (entailment), but then you can’t get conclusions that give you knowlege beyond what’s in the premises. In social sciences we need that kind of defeasibel inferences! Otherwise we are stuck with barren axiomatics — as in mainstream economic theorizing! If the choice has to be between rigor & precision vs. relevance and producing new knowledge, I definitely choose the latter.

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