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Methodological realism and modal resourcefulness: out of the web and into the mine


Psillos (1999, 2011), Kitcher (1993), and Leplin (1997) have defended convergent scientific realism against the pessimistic meta-induction by arguing for the divide et impera (DEI) strategy. I argue that DEI faces a problem more serious than the pessimistic meta-induction: the problem of accretion. When empirically successful theories and principles are combined, they may no longer make successful predictions or allow for accurate calculations, or the combination otherwise may be an empirical failure. The shift from classical mechanics to the new quantum theory does not reflect the discarding of “idle wheels.” Instead, scientists had to contend with new principles that made classical calculations difficult or impossible (the Maxwell-Boltzmann equipartition theorem), and new results (the anomalous Zeeman effect) that were inconsistent with classical theorems (the Larmor theorem), and that suggested a new way of conceiving of atomic dynamics. In this shift, reference to atoms and to electrons was preserved, but the underlying causal explanations and descriptions of atoms and electrons changed. I propose that the emphasis on accurate description of causal agents as a virtue of background theory be replaced with Ruetsche’s (2011) advocacy of pragmatic, modal resourcefulness.

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  1. Psillos’s causal descriptivism owes a debt to David Lewis, and seminal work on causal descriptivism about theoretical terms is found in Enç (1976), Kroon (1987, 1989) and Nola (1980). I am grateful to an anonymous referee for suggesting consultation of these works.

  2. Chapter 4 of Psillos (1999) contains further discussion of the relevance of IBE for scientific realism.

  3. Psillos (2012, p. 222).

  4. This formulation is based on Psillos’s work, but is not to be found there.

  5. Barberousse (2012, p. 277). The problem of specific heats is discussed by Gibbs (1960/1902, pp. 162–186), and by Kelvin (1904/1884, pp. 494–504 and 526–527).

  6. Brush et al. (1986, p. xxi), emphasis added.

  7. Renn (2000), Uffink (2006, especially Sect. 2), and Darrigol and Renn (2014) emphasize the importance of Boltzmann’s and Maxwell’s equipartition theorem in the development of the quantum theory, especially in the work of Einstein.

  8. They write, “the crucial point of the early quantum revolution was indeed not a non-classical interpretation of Planck’s law. On the contrary, it was only the integration of the law into classical physics and the revelation of contradictions generated by this integration that altered its meaning and established its revolutionary character” Büttner et al. (2003, p. 45). Planck’s law describes black-body radiation at thermal equilibrium.

  9. It is beyond the scope of this paper to give an exhaustive account of what makes a theory “classical” or “quantum”, and so I follow the usage of these terms in the sources cited.

  10. Feynmann (2010, Sects. 34–37).

  11. Feynmann (2010, Sects. 34–37.

  12. I am describing the move to a novel, empirically successful theory, the new quantum theory. I do not wish to overstate the reasons for the move, nor the extent to which the old quantum theory was discarded – Dirac and others continued to try to find ways to incorporate classical explanations into quantum electrodynamics much later. This does not invalidate my point, which is that the new theory used distinct explanations that are empirically successful but that paint a non-classical picture.

  13. The core model could be revived at some point, if a scientist wished to. But it can’t be employed as it was by Landé and others, in a way that explains the Zeeman effect, with the same background assumptions they used.

  14. Kuhn often cites another counterexample. In one of the first theories of the Leyden jar, the shape of the jar, the fact that it was made of glass, and the relation between the fluid and the jar’s shape were all causally efficacious. Background theory T expressed all these claims. According to the theory, method M, building a Leyden jar, was reliable for generating effect X, that is, the function of the jar as a capacitor. On this old theory, one could follow M and X would obtain—those who endorsed the early theory could construct a Leyden jar, and it would function as a capacitor. But none of the causal claims they endorsed were right, or even nearly right.

  15. The virtue of semantic intelligibility is intended to capture one aspect of Psillos’s and of Leplin’s view, that the success of science requires belief in entities.


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I would like to thank Otávio Bueno, first and foremost, for shepherding this paper through the review process. This paper emerged from an earlier paper I gave at the Ontology and Methodology conference, organized by myself, Deborah Mayo, and Benjamin Jantzen, and I am grateful to Profs. Mayo and Jantzen for their intellectual collaboration, and for comments on drafts of the paper. Janet Folina read a draft with great care and made several invaluable suggestions for revision. Kelly Trogdon and Tristram McPherson made incisive suggestions about the material on theories of reference. Alisa Bokulich, Katherine Brading, Richard Burian, and Michela Massimi have discussed issues relevant to the paper with me and have suggested fruitful paths of inquiry. Reviewers for Synthese have been patient with revision, and have made criticial, incisive, and constructive suggestions that have improved the paper a great deal, and I am grateful. None of the above are responsible for mistakes or errors of judgment that remain.

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Correspondence to Lydia Patton.

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Patton, L. Methodological realism and modal resourcefulness: out of the web and into the mine. Synthese 192, 3443–3462 (2015).

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  • Scientific realism
  • Methodology
  • Causal descriptivism
  • Entity realism
  • Convergent realism
  • Quantum theory