Is the Bad Lot Objection Just Misguided?


In this paper, I argue that van Fraassen’s “bad lot objection” against Inference to the Best Explanation [IBE] severely misses its mark. First, I show that the objection holds no special relevance to IBE; if the bad lot objection poses a serious problem for IBE, then it poses a serious problem for any inference form whatever. Second, I argue that, thankfully, it does not pose a serious threat to any inference form. Rather, the objection misguidedly blames a form of inference for not achieving what it never set out to achieve in the first place.

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  1. 1.

    The following brief survey of responses to the bad lot objection is adapted from Douven (2011).

  2. 2.

    Magnani (2009) likewise focuses on a distinct, ignorance-preserving notion of abduction, and he offers a helpful discussion of how this notion relates to IBE. In short, Magnani maintains that IBE adds to abduction an ignorance-reducing, inductive step: “[IBE] cannot be a case of abduction, because abductive inference is constitutively ignorance preserving. In this perspective the inference to the best explanation also involves— for example—the generalizing and evaluating role of induction” (p. 68).

  3. 3.

    Here, we are ignoring some degenerate forms of inference—e.g., ones that specify the form of a tautology (like “\(p\vee \neg p\)”) in the conclusion.

  4. 4.

    Thus, a case can be made that van Fraassen sometimes has this more modest version of the objection in mind. If this is correct, however, it seems that he flips back and forth between the stronger and weaker formulations of the bad lot objection. For example, in his most in-depth discussion of the issue (1989, chap. 6—see especially sections 4 and 5), van Fraassen considers some responses to the bad lot objection. One of these (the “privilege” response) constitutes an attempted defense of the hypotheses that we humans tend to consider when we infer the best explanation. As such, this response seems to make better sense if one reads the objection as a challenge to the goodness of the material content that we plug into IBE in certain instances. But another response (“retrenchment”) arguably only makes sense if one reads the bad lot objection as posing a problem for IBE qua inferential form. Meanwhile, all of this takes place in a section where van Fraassen is interested in attacking what he variously describes as “the epistemological scheme of IBE”, “this pattern of inference, to the best explanation offered”, and IBE in its putative role as “a rule to form warranted new beliefs on the basis of the evidence”.

  5. 5.

    Thank you to an anonymous reviewer for helping me to see this potential response.

  6. 6.

    It is questionable whether inserting the third premise in question would result in a retrenched version of IBE anyway. To retrench in this context would be to back-pedal and weaken IBE’s form in some way. If a third premise stating that the considered lot contains a true hypothesis is inserted, then it admittedly seems as though we are retrenching by strengthening the premises needed to derive our conclusion. However, this is no retrenchment if the premise was always there, despite being suppressed. And there are potentially good reasons to believe that this might be the case. Put briefly, it seems doubtful that anyone would ever be inclined to infer the best explanation (i.e., to actually come to accept and believe the hypothesis that proffers the best of the available, potential explanations) unless he or she was already convinced that the true explanation was amongst the available options. But if this is the case, then the addition of this premise does not amount to adding a new premise to IBE as much as it amounts to clarifying a suppressed premise that goes assumed in any actual instantiation of IBE.


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Special thanks to David Danks, John Earman, Edouard Machery, and Anya Plutynski for helpful conversation and criticism pertaining to this paper.

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Correspondence to Jonah N. Schupbach.

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Schupbach, J.N. Is the Bad Lot Objection Just Misguided?. Erkenn 79, 55–64 (2014).

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  • Good Explanation
  • Material Content
  • Material Defect
  • Explanatory Hypothesis
  • Inference Form