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Resisting the historical objections to realism: Is Doppelt’s a viable solution?

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There are two possible realist defense strategies against the pessimistic meta-induction and Laudan’s meta-modus tollens: the selective strategy, claiming that discarded theories are partially true, and the discontinuity strategy, denying that pessimism about past theories can be extended to current ones. A radical version of discontinuity realism is proposed by Gerald Doppelt: rather than discriminating between true and false components within theories, he holds that superseded theories cannot be shown to be even partially true (except insofar they agree with current ones), while present best theories are demonstrably completely true. I argue that this position, running counter both the cumulativity of science and fallibilism, is untenable; it cannot account for the success of past theories, nor for the failures of current theories, and rather than shutting the door to the pessimistic historical objections it opens it wide. The best strategy, instead, joins the selective idea there was both some truth and some falsity in discarded theories, like in current ones, with the moderate discontinuity idea that the truth rate in present best theories is much greater than in past ones.

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  1. 1.

    For instance, Doppelt calls both of them ‘pessimistic meta-induction’; Saatsi distinguishes them, but curiously he calls the meta-modus tollens (MMT) ‘pessimistic meta-induction’.

  2. 2.

    See Heisenberg (1955, p. 20), and Agazzi (2014, pp. 310–311, 403–407). According to Kuhn (1962, Chap. 9) this approach was “prevailing” in his time.

  3. 3.

    A similar statement is commonly attributed to Lord Kelvin, but it is not clear whether he actually made it: Horgan (1996, p. 19).

  4. 4.

    Although here I discuss papers over a span of 9 years, they appear as developments of a unitary conception, and Doppelt never indicates any change of mind with respect to earlier papers.

  5. 5.

    As we shall see, this wavering reflects another in the exact content of his doctrine.

  6. 6.

    Interpretation (4) was suggested by Referee #2. But I shall suggest that (2) is more probably the right one.

  7. 7.

    Both italics are mine.

  8. 8.

    Although after some wavering, as I will notice.

  9. 9.

    Including novel retrodictions, or novel explanations: i.e., the derivations of previously known phenomena which were not used in building the theory: see Alai (2014a).

  10. 10.

    I owe this comment to Reviewer #3.

  11. 11.

    Instead, if it is not adopted, the theory cannot be considered successful at all, except in merely rephrasing known empirical regularities: Alai (2014b), \({\S }\)6.

  12. 12.

    Stanford (2006, Chap. 6) also charges the retrospective truth claims of circularity.

  13. 13.

    This interpretation was also suggested by Referee #2.

  14. 14.

    My italics.

  15. 15.

    In Sect. 2 we saw that by “best explanation” he basically means one endowed with the standard theoretical virtues; but this is not crucial here.

  16. 16.

    Doppelt (2014, pp. 287–288). See Sect. 6 below.

  17. 17.

    In Sect. 2 we saw that by “best explanation” he basically means one endowed with the standard theoretical virtues; but this is not crucial here.

  18. 18.

    Duhem and Laudan also noticed that different accounts of the same phenomena may be equally “successful” (in some sense of the word) and yet incompatible, hence false (perhaps except one): see Cartwright (1983, p. 90), and Saatsi (2005, p. 1089). I owe this suggestion to Reviewer #2.

  19. 19.

    These considerations have been brought to my attention by Reviewer #3.


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I am grateful to José Diez, Vincenzo Fano, Carl Hoefer, and Giuliano Torrengo for useful comments on earlier versions of this paper, and to two anonymous reviewers for this Journal for helpful suggestions both on the general structure and on particular issues.

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Correspondence to Mario Alai.

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Alai, M. Resisting the historical objections to realism: Is Doppelt’s a viable solution?. Synthese 194, 3267–3290 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-016-1087-z

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  • Gerald Doppelt
  • Best theory realism
  • Selective realisms
  • Pessimistic meta-induction
  • No miracles argument
  • Historical meta-modus tollens