Biology & Philosophy

, 33:38 | Cite as

Rethinking the role of theory in exploratory experimentation

  • David Colaço


To explain their role in discovery and contrast them with theory-driven research, philosophers of science have characterized exploratory experiments in terms of what they lack: namely, that they lack direction from what have been called “local theories” of the target system or object under investigation. I argue that this is incorrect: it’s not whether or not there is direction from a local theory that matters, but instead how such a theory is used to direct an experiment that matters. Appealing to contemporary exploratory experiments that involve the use of experimental techniques—specifically, examples where scientists explore the interaction of neural activity and human behavior by magnetically stimulating brains—I argue that local theories of a target system can inform auxiliary hypotheses in exploratory experiments, which direct these experiments. These examples illustrate how local theories can direct the exploration of target systems where researchers do not aim to evaluate these theories.


Exploratory experimentation Experimental techniques Theory Auxiliary hypotheses 



Thanks to Matthew Brown, Mazviita Chirimuuta, Uljana Feest, Philipp Haueis, Aaron Novick, Dana Mattheissen, Edouard Machery, and two anonymous reviewers for comments on previous versions of this paper. Some segments of this paper were presented at the 2017 meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association. Thanks to those who provided me feedback at this session, and to Vadim Keyser for his commentary.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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