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Theory Choice, Good Sense and Social Consensus


There has been a significant interest in the recent literature in developing a solution to the problem of theory choice which is both normative and descriptive, but agent-based rather than rule-based, originating from Pierre Duhem’s notion of ‘good sense’. In this paper we present the properties Duhem attributes to good sense in different contexts, before examining its current reconstructions advanced in the literature and their limitations. We propose an alternative account of good sense, seen as promoting social consensus in science, and show that it is superior to its rivals in two respects: it is more faithful to Duhemian good sense, and it cashes out the effect that virtues have on scientific progress. We then defend the social consensus account against objections that highlight the positive role of diversity and division of labour in science.

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  1. Here, effects on scientific progress should not be understood in terms of truth acquisition, but of speed of convergence, for reasons that will become clear later.

  2. Which can range from one given observation to the total set of present evidence, or even to the set of all possible evidence. The wider the set, the stronger the underdetermination. Duhem refers to underdetermination with respect to present evidence.

  3. That is, we could decide that simplicity always matters most, that equally simple theories should then be assessed according to their scope, and so on.

  4. For instance, both the Ptolemaic and the Copernican theory can be considered as simpler than the other, depending on how simplicity is defined (Kuhn 1977).

  5. Note that underdetermination is a normative problem, as it implies the absence of a rational, principled way of choosing between empirically equivalent theories. But in the context of good sense, it is also a descriptive problem: we have to understand how scientists often manage to make this choice nonetheless. This in turn leads to a normative assessment again: we may thus be in a position to suggest how scientists could make better choices. This is what Duhem does when he recommends that one be faithful and impartial (1954, 218). In principle, understanding good sense would allow one both to accurately describe and to guide scientific activity.

  6. For an introduction to Duhem's philosophy of science see Martin (1991). For his motivations in developing the concept of good sense and its place in Duhem's overall philosophy of science, see Stump (2007) and Ivanova (2010).

  7. Although this paper does not aim to provide a full-fledged analysis of Duhem’s various uses of good sense, our discussion must be detailed enough to establish an exhaustive list of properties.

  8. It is important to note that Duhem believed that scientific theories are tested holistically—they are sets of hypotheses and auxiliary assumptions—and as a consequence we can always cultivate empirically equivalent rival theories by modifying the auxiliary assumptions. In the modern literature the problem of underdetermination is treated separately from holism; modification of auxiliary assumptions does not necessarily entail empirical equivalence.

  9. Duhem discusses the example of Biot, who abandoned the emission hypothesis after Foucault's experiments showed that light travels faster in air than in water. That was not an example of a crucial experiment which supported wave optics, however, Duhem argues, it would have been lack of good sense if Biot continued to resist wave optics.

  10. The role of intellectual and moral virtues in scientific judgement is discussed further in his (1991).

  11. The majority of citations in this paper are from the English translations of Duhem's work as we have not found substantial limitations in comparison to the French originals.

  12. Duhem is referring to Pascal’s famous claim that “We know truths not only by reason, but also by the heart”.

  13. Good sense could in principle conflict with common sense. In particular, Duhem argues that unlike common sense, good sense is acquired with scientific practice, can be developed by experience, and scientists should aim to sharpen it in order to fasten scientific progress.

  14. Only in his (1991) though. It is interesting to note that in his (1954), he distinguishes between the ‘focused', ‘narrow' and ‘deep' French mind, and the ‘ample', ‘broad' and ‘shallow' English mind. Here, the French seem to exemplify the deductive method and the English the intuitive one.

  15. In mathematical science, good sense also allows theorists to choose true axioms. Although this use will not concern us here, for the sake of exhaustivity note that it has other properties in this context. It is equivalent to common sense; it is an ability to ‘see’ self evident truths; it is possessed by all agents; and it is not cultivated or sharpened by experience.

  16. Here, once more, he is influenced by Pascal: “Historical work essentially requires the intuitive mind for its accomplishment”. It is appropriate that one can say of such research that its “principles are found in common use and are open to the scrutiny of everybody. One has only to look, and no effort is necessary; it is only a question of good eyesight” (ibid, 44). Duhem often equates good sense with the intuitive mind (Duhem 1991, 24).

  17. This is echoed by the fact that Duhem only provides examples of theories being eliminated by good sense (Duhem 1954, 218)—either of scientists clinging for too long in the face of disconfirming evidence, or embracing a new theory too swiftly. This emphasis on negative examples makes clear that fully understanding how good sense operates is at the very least difficult, at worst impossible. One solution could be that even if good sense amounts to a formula based on super-empirical criteria, this formula may change as the context varies. Again, this is consistent with Kuhn's remark that the relative weights attributed to super-empirical criteria evolve over time, which Duhem also anticipated.

  18. Personal interests and passions may correspond to psychological factors (when one tends to prefer her own theory), and to sociological ones (when one prefers a theory because it is widely favoured, or rejected, by the scientific community). More generally, they include preferences for theories stemming from the identity of their authors and supporters.

  19. Let us mention that in the context of experimental science, good sense is not only used to evaluate hypotheses but also to formulate them. (Duhem 1991, 24) However, here good sense is not attributed additional properties.

  20. Having a list of criteria is necessary but not sufficient to having an algorithm.

  21. One interesting question which arises from considering all the properties of good sense is whether any of them should be regarded as more important or bear any priority over other properties. Duhem does not seem to address this issue. In Sect. 6 we discuss the relationship between different properties and show certain tensions that appeal if one tries to accommodate them into the same account.

  22. As we discussed in Sect. 2, the properties and role of good sense vary dependent on the subject to which it is applied.

  23. Mongin’s interpretation is made briefly, as it is not crucial to his paper, which does not concern good sense directly. By mentioning and later discussing it, we merely intend to illustrate a way in which good sense can be minimally interpreted; this does not impinge on the general purpose of Mongin’s paper.

  24. To accommodate it fully, it would have to suggest the abandonment of a theory as quickly as possible, ideally after a unique experiment.

  25. Kidd (2011) has also supported Stump's reading by claiming that good sense is a responsibilist virtue epistemological notion. Some concerns with this defence are given in Ivanova (2011). Fairweather (2011) argues that good sense is compatible with both reliabilist and responsibilist virtue epistemology. In any case, a responsibilist account fits a strictly smaller number of properties of good sense than a reliabilist one (as it focuses primarily on moral virtues), which is why we do not consider it here.

  26. Ivanova argues that Duhem and virtue epistemologists differ in their epistemic aims and, most importantly, that Duhem had very different motivations to virtue epistemologists in developing the concept of good sense and making relevant the role of moral and intellectual virtues.

  27. She has also argued (Ivanova, forthcoming) that good sense cannot solve theory choice because it is not possible to provide unique ordering of ‘good sense’ and conclude uniquely who exemplifies it.

  28. We have left out some properties of good sense that we presented in Sect. 3 because they are accommodated by all accounts.

  29. One may still argue that Duhemian good sense can be satisfactorily defined by a subset of the properties we highlighted, for instance by providing reasons why Duhem considered some of them as more or less important than others—although we have found no such reasons. One of the existing reconstructions may also well end up providing a better account of the general role of intuition in science; but this topic goes beyond the scope of this paper.

  30. Theoretical virtues do not resolve the problem of underdetermination because they are inconclusive. Lorentz’ theory exemplifies the virtue of conceptual continuity, since it does not revise the concepts of space and time, while Einstein’s exemplifies the virtue of ontological simplicity, since it eliminates the ether.

  31. The social consensus account may seem to escape this dependence on conditions. Some convergence or washing out results in Bayesian confirmation theory establish that any sequence of evidence, regardless of which theory every piece of evidence confirms most, tends to bring individual degrees of belief closer than they were in the outset (De Finetti, 1974). However, these degrees do not have to be 0 or 1; in cases of conflicting evidence, scientists may agree that they cannot decide. So in unfavourable conditions, good sense will be stuck under the social interpretation as well.

  32. See Table 1, last row.

  33. For introduction to such results, see Gillies (2000), Joyce (2009). The first technical theorems are due to De Finetti and Doob.

  34. Such results of course depend on technical assumptions, which do not matter to our discussion.

  35. Stump (2007) notices that good sense cannot be reduced to reliability of the choice process, or else being biased towards the best theory would count as an example of good sense.

  36. For instance, Kuhn noted that accuracy slowly became a relevant criterion as science took the contemporary we are familiar with; but it was not regarded as highly centuries earlier.

  37. Recall that it might be unable to accommodate the no-algorithm property; however, the account would have to be fleshed out significantly in order to support this claim.

  38. Note that although the social consensus account fits the properties of Duhemian good sense, the the fact that good sense functions at a collective level was never explicit in Duhem’s understanding of good sense.

  39. The social consensus account may appear to escape this dependence on conditions. However, even if individual degrees of beliefs converge to a given limit, this limit does not have to correspond to a degree 0 or 1—that is, to certainty that a hypothesis is true or false. Indeed, in cases of conflicting evidence, scientists may agree that they cannot decide. So even under the social interpretation, good sense may be stuck if conditions are unfavourable.

  40. That is, the set of the other scientists’ beliefs and a description of the social decision process.

  41. Duhem did hold that different societies (such as the English, the French or the German) exemplified different kinds of intuition or reasoning. This shows that he acknowledged that social factors can be detrimental to the use of good sense. Still, it does not mean that he considered good sense itself, or some properties thereof, as stemming from, or constituted by, effects at the social level.

  42. Merton (1973) was the first to understand recognition as the main motivational source for scientists.

  43. As Godfrey-Smith suggests “Hull argues that there is no need for individual scientists to take a cautious and sceptical attitude toward their own work; others will do this for them” (2003, 165).

  44. This is not to say that scientists’ beliefs are not also similar to each other to a great extent, especially in natural science. For instance, scientists typically agree on the importance of empirical accuracy. But they agree mostly on how scientific theories or hypotheses should be assessed in principle. The diversity of beliefs emphasized here concerns beliefs as to what hypothesis or theory is true rather than how to assess this truth in general.

  45. Understood as the conjunction of properties mentioned in Sect. 3.


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We thank Samir Okasha, David Stump and participants to the 2012 BSPS conference and to the Bristol Work in Progress Philosophy Seminar for their useful comments. Milena Ivanova would like to acknowledge the financial support of The Royal Institute of Philosophy.

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Correspondence to Cedric Paternotte.

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Ivanova, M., Paternotte, C. Theory Choice, Good Sense and Social Consensus. Erkenn 78, 1109–1132 (2013).

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  • Theory Choice
  • Good Sense
  • Scientific Progress
  • Moral Virtue
  • Social Consensus