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April 2019
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Kain aka That Evil Guy [userpic]
It is untrue that "science will eventually discover all systematic details and answer all questions"

Underdetermination of Scientific Theory


An especially pertinent section quoted below:

2.1 Holist Underdetermination: The Very Idea

Duhem's original case for holist underdetermination is, perhaps unsurprisingly, intimately bound up with his arguments for confirmational holism: the claim that theories or hypotheses can only be subjected to empirical testing in groups or collections, never in isolation. The idea here is that a single scientific hypothesis does not by itself carry any implications about what we should expect to observe in nature; rather, we can derive empirical consequences from an hypothesis only when it is conjoined with many other beliefs and hypotheses, including background assumptions about the world, beliefs about how measuring instruments operate, further hypotheses about the interactions between objects in the original hypothesis' field of study and the surrounding environment, etc. For this reason, Duhem argues, when an empirical prediction turns out to be falsified, we do not know whether the fault lies with the hypothesis we originally sought to test or with one of the many other beliefs and hypotheses that were also needed and used to generate the failed prediction:

A physicist decides to demonstrate the inaccuracy of a proposition; in order to deduce from this proposition the prediction of a phenomenon and institute the experiment which is to show whether this phenomenon is or is not produced, in order to interpret the results of this experiment and establish that the predicted phenomenon is not produced, he does not confine himself to making use of the proposition in question; he makes use also of a whole group of theories accepted by him as beyond dispute. The prediction of the phenomenon, whose nonproduction is to cut off debate, does not derive from the proposition challenged if taken by itself, but from the proposition at issue joined to that whole group of theories; if the predicted phenomenon is not produced, the only thing the experiment teaches us is that among the propositions used to predict the phenomenon and to establish whether it would be produced, there is at least one error; but where this error lies is just what it does not tell us. ([1914] 1954, 185)

Duhem supports this claim with examples from physical theory, including one designed to illustrate a celebrated further consequence he draws from it. Holist underdetermination ensures, Duhem argues, that there cannot be any such thing as a “crucial experiment”: a single experiment whose outcome is predicted differently by two competing theories and which therefore serves to definitively confirm one and refute the other. For example, in a famous scientific episode intended to resolve the ongoing heated battle between partisans of the theory that light consists of a stream of particles moving at extremely high speed (the particle or “emission” theory of light) and defenders of the view that light consists instead of waves propagated through a mechanical medium (the wave theory), the physicist Foucault designed an apparatus to test the two theories' competing claims about the speed of transmission of light in different media: the particle theory implied that light would travel faster in water than in air, while the wave theory implied that the reverse was true. Although the outcome of the experiment was taken to show that light travels faster in air than in water,[3] Duhem argues that this is far from a refutation of the hypothesis of emission:

in fact, what the experiment declares stained with error is the whole group of propositions accepted by Newton, and after him by Laplace and Biot, that is, the whole theory from which we deduce the relation between the index of refraction and the velocity of light in various media. But in condemning this system as a whole by declaring it stained with error, the experiment does not tell us where the error lies. Is it in the fundamental hypothesis that light consists in projectiles thrown out with great speed by luminous bodies? Is it in some other assumption concerning the actions experienced by light corpuscles due to the media in which they move? We know nothing about that. It would be rash to believe, as Arago seems to have thought, that Foucault's experiment condemns once and for all the very hypothesis of emission, i.e., the assimilation of a ray of light to a swarm of projectiles. If physicists had attached some value to this task, they would undoubtedly have succeeded in founding on this assumption a system of optics that would agree with Foucault's experiment. ([1914] 1954, p. 187)

From this and similar examples, Duhem drew the quite general conclusion that our response to the experimental or observational falsification of a theory is always underdetermined in this way. When the world does not live up to our theory-grounded expectations, we must give up something, but because no hypothesis is ever tested in isolation, no experiment ever tells us precisely which belief it is that we must revise or give up as mistaken:

In sum, the physicist can never subject an isolated hypothesis to experimental test, but only a whole group of hypotheses; when the experiment is in disagreement with his predictions, what he learns is that at least one of the hypotheses constituting this group is unacceptable and ought to be modified; but the experiment does not designate which one should be changed. ([1914] 1954, 187)

The predicament Duhem here identifies is no rainy day puzzle for philosophers of science, but a methodological challenge that constantly arises in the course of scientific practice itself. It is simply not true that for practical purposes and in concrete contexts a single revision of our beliefs in response to disconfirming evidence is always obviously correct, or the most promising, or the only or even most sensible avenue to pursue. To cite a classic example, when Newton's celestial mechanics failed to correctly predict the orbit of Uranus, scientists at the time did not simply abandon the theory but protected it from refutation by instead challenging the background assumption that the solar system contained only seven planets. This strategy bore fruit, notwithstanding the falsity of Newton's theory: by calculating the location of a hypothetical eighth planet influencing the orbit of Uranus, the astronomers Adams and Leverrier were eventually led to discover Neptune in 1846. But the very same strategy failed when used to try to explain the advance of the perihelion in Mercury's orbit by postulating the existence of “Vulcan”, an additional planet located between Mercury and the sun, and this phenomenon would resist satisfactory explanation until the arrival of Einstein's theory of general relativity. So it seems that Duhem was right to suggest not only that hypotheses must be tested as a group or a collection, but also that it is by no means a foregone conclusion which member of such a collection should be abandoned or revised [My note: i.e. where we arrive at the new theory e.g. Einstein's General Relativity]in response to a failed empirical test or false implication. Indeed, this very example illustrates why Duhem's own rather hopeful appeal to the ‘good sense’ of scientists themselves in deciding when a given hypothesis ought to be abandoned promises very little if any relief from the general predicament of holist underdetermination.

As noted above, Duhem thought that the sort of underdetermination he had described presented a challenge only for theoretical physics, but subsequent thinking in the philosophy of science has tended to the opinion that the predicament Duhem described applies to theoretical testing in all fields of scientific inquiry. We cannot, for example, test an hypothesis about the phenotypic effects of a particular gene without presupposing a host of further beliefs about what genes are, how they work, how we can identify them, what other genes are doing, and so on. And in the middle of the 20th Century, W. V. O. Quine would incorporate confirmational holism and its associated concerns about underdetermination into an extraordinarily influential account of knowledge in general. As part of his famous (1951) critique of the widely accepted distinction between truths that are analytic (true by definition, or as a matter of logic or language alone) and those that are synthetic (true in virtue of some contingent fact about the way the world is), Quine argued instead that all of the beliefs we hold at any given time are linked in an interconnected web, which encounters our sensory experience only at its periphery:

The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. But the total field is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to reevaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole. (1951, 42–3)

One consequence of this general picture of human knowledge is that any and all of our beliefs are tested against experience only as a corporate body—or as Quine sometimes puts it, “The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science” (1951, p. 42).[4] A mismatch between what the web as a whole leads us to expect and the sensory experiences we actually receive will occasion some revision in our beliefs, but which revision we should make to bring the web as a whole back into conformity with our experiences is radically underdetermined by those experiences themselves. If we find our belief that there are brick houses on Elm Street to be in conflict with our immediate sense experience, we might revise our beliefs about the houses on Elm Street, but we might equally well modify instead our beliefs about the appearance of brick, or about our present location, or innumerable other beliefs constituting the interconnected web—in a pinch we might even decide that our present sensory experiences are simply hallucinations! Quine's point was not that any of these are particularly likely responses to recalcitrant experiences (indeed, an important part of his account is the explanation of why they are not), but instead that they would serve equally well to bring the web of belief as a whole in line with our experience. And if the belief that there are brick houses on Elm Street were sufficiently important to us, Quine insisted, it would be possible for us to preserve it “come what may” (in the way of empirical evidence), by making sufficiently radical adjustments elsewhere in the web of belief. It is in principle open to us, Quine argued, to revise even beliefs about logic, mathematics, or the meanings of our terms in response to recalcitrant experience; it might seem a tempting solution to certain persistent difficulties in quantum mechanics, for example, to reject classical logic's law of the excluded middle (allowing physical particles to both have and not have some determinate classical physical property like position or momentum at a given time). The only test of a belief, Quine argued, is whether it fits into a web of connected beliefs that accords well with our experience on the whole. And because this leaves any and all beliefs in that web at least potentially subject to revision on the basis of our ongoing sense experience or empirical evidence, he insisted, there simply are no beliefs that are analytic in the originally supposed sense of immune to revision in light of experience or true no matter what the world is like.

Quine recognized, of course, that many of the logically possible ways of revising our beliefs in response to recalcitrant experiences that remain open to us strike us as ad hoc, perfectly ridiculous, or worse. He argues (1955) that our actual revisions of the web of belief seek to maximize the theoretical “virtues” of simplicity, familiarity, scope, and fecundity, along with conformity to experience, and elsewhere suggests that we typically seek to resolve conflicts between the web of our beliefs and our sensory experiences in accordance with a principle of “conservatism”, that is, by making the smallest possible number of changes to the least central beliefs we can that will suffice to reconcile the web with experience. That is, Quine recognized that when we encounter recalcitrant experience we are not usually at a loss to decide which of our beliefs to revise in response to it, but he claimed that this is simply because we are strongly disposed as a matter of fundamental psychology to prefer whatever revision requires the most minimal mutilation of the existing web of beliefs and/or maximizes virtues that he explicitly characterizes as pragmatic. [My note: Every single adjustment is thus BIASED toward what we mentally deem expedient to the solution] Indeed, it would seem that on Quine's view the very notion of a belief being more central or peripheral or in lesser or greater “proximity” to sense experience should be cashed out simply as a measure of our willingness to revise it in response to recalcitrant experience. That is, it would seem that what it means for one belief to be located “closer” to the sensory periphery of the web than another is simply that we are more likely to revise the first than the second if doing so would enable us to bring the web as a whole into conformity with otherwise recalcitrant sense experience. Thus, Quine saw the traditional distinction between analytic and synthetic beliefs as simply registering the endpoints of a psychological continuum ordering our beliefs according to the ease and likelihood with which we are prepared to revise them in order to reconcile the web as a whole with our sense experience.