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Underdetermination, Realism and Empirical Equivalence

PhilSci Pittsburgh

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Title Underdetermination, Realism and Empirical Equivalence
Creator Worrall, John
Subject Confirmation/Induction
Theory Change
History of Science Case Studies
Description Are theories ‘underdetermined by the evidence’ in any way that should worry the scientific realist? I argue that no convincing reason has been given for thinking so. A crucial distinction is drawn between data equivalence and empirical equivalence. Duhem showed that it is always possible to produce a data equivalent rival to any accepted scientific theory. But there is no reason to regard such a rival as equally well empirically supported and hence no threat to realism. Two theories are empirically equivalent if they share all consequences expressed in purely observational vocabulary. This is a much stronger requirement than has hitherto been recognised – two such ‘rival’ theories must in fact agree on many claims that are clearly theoretical in nature. Given this, it is unclear how much of an impact on realism a demonstration that there is always an empirically equivalent ‘rival’ to any accepted theory would have – even if such a demonstration could be produced. Certainly in the case of the version of realism that I defend – structural realism – such a demonstration would have precisely no impact: two empirically equivalent theories are, according to structural realism, cognitively indistinguishable.
Date 2009-01-01
Type Conference Paper
Format pdf