, Volume 192, Issue 11, pp 3443–3462 | Cite as

Methodological realism and modal resourcefulness: out of the web and into the mine

  • Lydia Patton
S.I.: Ontology and Methodology


Psillos (1999, 2011), Kitcher (1993), and Leplin (1997) have defended convergent scientific realism against the pessimistic meta-induction by arguing for the divide et impera (DEI) strategy. I argue that DEI faces a problem more serious than the pessimistic meta-induction: the problem of accretion. When empirically successful theories and principles are combined, they may no longer make successful predictions or allow for accurate calculations, or the combination otherwise may be an empirical failure. The shift from classical mechanics to the new quantum theory does not reflect the discarding of “idle wheels.” Instead, scientists had to contend with new principles that made classical calculations difficult or impossible (the Maxwell-Boltzmann equipartition theorem), and new results (the anomalous Zeeman effect) that were inconsistent with classical theorems (the Larmor theorem), and that suggested a new way of conceiving of atomic dynamics. In this shift, reference to atoms and to electrons was preserved, but the underlying causal explanations and descriptions of atoms and electrons changed. I propose that the emphasis on accurate description of causal agents as a virtue of background theory be replaced with Ruetsche’s (2011) advocacy of pragmatic, modal resourcefulness.


Scientific realism Methodology Causal descriptivism Entity realism Convergent realism Quantum theory 



I would like to thank Otávio Bueno, first and foremost, for shepherding this paper through the review process. This paper emerged from an earlier paper I gave at the Ontology and Methodology conference, organized by myself, Deborah Mayo, and Benjamin Jantzen, and I am grateful to Profs. Mayo and Jantzen for their intellectual collaboration, and for comments on drafts of the paper. Janet Folina read a draft with great care and made several invaluable suggestions for revision. Kelly Trogdon and Tristram McPherson made incisive suggestions about the material on theories of reference. Alisa Bokulich, Katherine Brading, Richard Burian, and Michela Massimi have discussed issues relevant to the paper with me and have suggested fruitful paths of inquiry. Reviewers for Synthese have been patient with revision, and have made criticial, incisive, and constructive suggestions that have improved the paper a great deal, and I am grateful. None of the above are responsible for mistakes or errors of judgment that remain.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyVirginia TechBlacksburgUnited States

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