Selective Confirmation and the Historical Record

P. Kyle Stanford

in Exceeding Our Grasp

Published in print May 2006 | ISBN: 9780195174083
Published online May 2006 | e-ISBN: 9780199786367 | DOI:
  Selective Confirmation and the Historical Record

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The preceding chapter showed that the best remaining hope for defending realism from the challenges of history seems to lie with the strategy of “selective confirmation.” On this strategy, we defend only some parts or components of past theories as responsible for (and therefore confirmed by) their successes, while abandoning others as idle, merely presuppositional, or otherwise not involved in the empirical successes those theories managed to achieve, and therefore never genuinely confirmed by those successes in the first place. This chapter argues that without some prospectively applicable and historically reliable criterion for distinguishing idle and/or genuinely confirmed parts of our theories from others, the strategy of selective confirmation offers no refuge for the scientific realist. Without such a criterion, we can have no confidence in our ability to pick out the parts of theories needed for (and thus selectively confirmed by) their successes while those theories are live contenders. We will therefore not be in a position to identify those parts or features of our own theories we may safely regard as accurate descriptions of the natural world (even though we know that not all are), and thus the realist's opponent will again be entitled to the conclusion that was wanted all along. Such criteria are just what existing appeals to selective confirmation do not (and perhaps cannot) provide.

Keywords: scientific theory; idleness; structural realism; retention; natural world

Chapter.  11725 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Science

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