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Can good science be logically inconsistent?


Some philosophers have recently argued that contrary to the traditional view, good scientific theories can in fact be logically inconsistent. The literature is now full of case-studies that are taken to support this claim. I will argue however that as of yet no-one has managed to articulate a philosophically interesting view about the role of logically inconsistent theories in science that genuinely goes against tradition, is plausibly true, and is supported by any of the case studies usually given.

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  1. The following taxonomy of examples of inconsistency in science is borrowed from Priest 2002.

  2. This phenomenon is discussed most famously by Cartwright (1983).

  3. It must be acknowledged here that there are ways of thinking about science according to which physical theories are not supposed to provide us with explanations. According to this point of view, a physical theory is just an efficient way of summarizing or modeling empirically observed regularities. This way of thinking about physical science goes back at least to Duhem (1991), and has been developed more recently by Van Fraassen (1980). According to this way of thinking, our epistemic attitude to the basic propositions of physical science need not be that of justified belief. I do not find this conception of science attractive, but will not try to argue against it here. Instead, I will simply take it for granted that good scientific theories ground bona fide explanations. Insofar as they do, I claim that the relationship in which we stand to our theories must be at least in part that we take ourselves to have justified belief in them.

  4. Understanding how explanations function in the presence of idealizations can be complicated for reasons that I have not discussed here. For a more detailed discussion, see Davey (2011).

  5. Even though the solution to the problem of Mercury’s precession did not depend on something like the discovery of new matter in the solar system, one cannot say that the prevailing story about the distribution of matter in the solar system was unchanged by the development of special relativity, given that the very metric of the space-time in which matter resides is radically different in classical mechanics and special relativity.

  6. There are other moments in which Planck (1959) treats heat radiation from a purely classical point of view—I have picked only one of the more salient examples.

  7. Whether there might be some other inconsistency in Planck’s work is a separate question; at any rate, those who have argued for the inconsistency of Planck’s theory have argued that it is inconsistent in so far as it simultaneously invokes a classical and non-classical account of electromagnetic radiation.

  8. Norton’s argument in 1987 essentially vindicates the claim that the quantum mechanical nature of the gas can be ignored in the derivation of Wien’s law.

  9. For a somewhat different point of view, see Vickers (2008).

  10. See especially section 3 of Frisch (2005).


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Davey, K. Can good science be logically inconsistent?. Synthese 191, 3009–3026 (2014).

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  • Inconsistency
  • Scientific theories
  • Philosophy of science
  • Justification