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An Absurd Consequence of Stanford’s New Induction Over the History of Science: A Reply to Sterpetti

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A Correction to this article was published on 11 June 2019

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In this paper, I respond to Sterpetti’s (Axiomathes, 2018. attempt to defend Kyle P. Stanford’s Problem of Unconceived Alternatives and his New Induction over the History of Science (NIS) from my reductio argument outlined in Mizrahi (J Gen Philos Sci 47(1):59–68, 2016a). I discuss what I take to be the ways in which Sterpetti has misconstrued my argument against Stanford’s NIS, in particular, that it is a reductio, not a dilemma, as Sterpetti erroneously thinks. I argue that antirealists who endorse Stanford’s NIS still face an absurd consequence of this argument, namely, that they should not believe their own brand of scientific antirealism.

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  • 11 June 2019

    In the Introduction section, 6th point under the paragraph “Given the parallels between Stanford’s PUA and the PUO, and those between Stanford’s NIS and the NIP, I have sketched the following <Emphasis Type="Italic">reductio</Emphasis> against Stanford’s NIS (Mizrahi 2016a, pp. 63–64):….. should read as


  1. Inductive arguments from a sample, such as the NIS, are strong just in case they are based on representative, random samples; otherwise, they are fallacious. See Mizrahi (2015).

  2. As an anonymous reviewer helpfully pointed out, there are some affinities between this reductio and paradoxes of self-reference in philosophy of logic, such as liar sentences and the like. See, e.g., Russell (1906).

  3. Sterpetti (2018, p. 5) refers to (SA) as a claim. Strictly speaking, however, (SA) is not a claim or a thesis. Rather, it is an argument as the indicator word “thus” indicates. That is, (SA) contains two claims, “scientific realism is not true” and “scientific theories are not (approximately) true,” and the conclusion indicator “thus” suggests that the latter is supposed to follow from the former.

  4. See also Mizrahi (2016a, pp. 61–62) and Mizrahi (2016b).

  5. Sterpetti (2018, p. 13) seems to have misinterpreted philosophical antirealism as well, for he writes that philosophical antirealism is the view “according to which philosophical theories are not true, simpliciter.” This is mistaken. Philosophical antirealism is a view parallel to scientific antirealism. Given that scientific antirealism is the view that we should not believe that our present scientific theories are true, philosophical antirealism is the view that we should not believe that our present philosophical theories are true.

  6. According to Sterpetti (2018, p. 16), his reductio “arguments are not self-defeating arguments, they are arguments that merely point out that if one supports realism, then one should be able to face the objection conveyed by those arguments.” If Sterpetti is right about this point, then it should apply to my reductio as well, of course. My reductio against Stanford’s NIS is not self-defeating, as Sterpetti erroneously thinks, for it points out that, if one supports Stanford’s NIS, then one should face the objection conveyed by the PUO.

  7. At one point, Sterpetti (2018, p. 6) gets this right when he writes, “if one accepts Stanford’s argument against scientific realism, one has to accept Mizrahi’s Stanford-like argument for the field of philosophy as well.” Clearly, I do not accept Stanford’s NIS; after all, I argue against it. It is equally clear that Stanford accepts his own NIS; after all, it is his own argument against scientific realism. Now, if Stanford accepts his own NIS, which he clearly does, then he must accept the NIP, for, as Sterpetti himself points out, “if one accepts Stanford’s [NIS], one has to accept [the NIP] as well” (Sterpetti 2018, p. 6).

  8. In fact, I point out in a footnote (Mizrahi 2016a, p. 64, footnote 2) that, “for this reductio to go through, there is no need to assume that Stanford’s [NIS] is an argument for antirealism (in particular, his own brand of antirealism, namely, “epistemic instrumentalism”). All that needs to be assumed is that, at the very least, Stanford's [NIS] is supposed to be an argument against scientific realism” (emphasis in original).

  9. Sterpetti (2018, p. 21) claims that “the great majority of philosophers does not think that philosophical theories are true in the same sense in which scientific theories are true,” but he does not explain these different senses of truth. Nor does he provide any evidence in support of this claim about what most philosophers think.

  10. After he says that “Stanford’s argument can be reconstructed as a reductio against scientific realism” (Sterpetti 2018, p. 8), Sterpetti goes on to give another “formulation of the problem of unconceived alternatives [which] is not inductive in character,” but is not a reductio (Sterpetti 2018, p. 9). It is not clear to me if he sees these two formulations as equivalent, related, or neither.

  11. See also Stanford (2017).

  12. For more on this question, see Mizrahi (2015).

  13. Throughout his paper, Sterpetti (2018) frequently uses terms and phrases like “prove” (p. 10), “certainty” (p. 7), “know with certainty” (p. 9), and the like. This suggests that he might have unreasonably high standards for not only scientific knowledge but also knowledge in general. For once one demands certainty as a requirement for knowledge, many claims to knowledge, not only scientific ones, fall into question.

  14. Like Stanford (2006), Rowbottom (2016), which Sterpetti (2018) cites with approval, also uses the term “serious” when talking about unconceived alternatives. In that respect, it should also be noted that, to Rowbottom’s list of unconceived things, like observations and models, one could easily add objections, as in the PUO (Mizrahi 2014, 2016a).

  15. Sterpetti (2018, p. 20) claims that, “if one regards [Mizrahi’s reductio against Stanford’s NIS] as a cogent argument, one cannot avoid committing oneself to ‘philosophical realism’.” But I do not see how a commitment to philosophical realism is supposed to follow from my reductio against Stanford’s NIS and Sterpetti does not explain how or why he thinks that.

  16. For an overview, see Chakravartty (2017).


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I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers of Axiomathes for their helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Moti Mizrahi.

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Mizrahi, M. An Absurd Consequence of Stanford’s New Induction Over the History of Science: A Reply to Sterpetti. Axiomathes 29, 515–527 (2019).

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