The Antinomies of Serendipity How to Cognitively Frame Serendipity for Scientific Discoveries

Abstract

During the second half of the last century, the importance of serendipitous events in scientific frameworks has been progressively recognized, fueling hard debates about their role, nature, and structure in philosophy and sociology of science. Alas, while discussing the relevance of the topic for the comprehension of the nature of scientific discovery, the philosophical literature has hardly paid attention to the cognitive significance of serendipity, accepting rather than examining some of its most specific features, such as its game-changing effect, the unexpectedness of its occurrence, and its affinity with the concept of “luck”. Thus, in this paper we aim at analyzing these characteristics in the light of their cognitive implications in the recognition, performance, and possible stimulation of serendipitous events in relation to scientific discoveries.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    On the significance of the term “lucky” and the concept of luck in epistemic attainment we will further comment in footnote 2 and in the first section of the article.

  2. 2.

    The topic of epistemic luck is a very controversial one in the epistemological literature. The problems emerge when it is debated if knowledge can be attained by luck (Pritchard 2004; Morris 2012; Ranalli 2013) and, if the thesis that it can happen is defended, whether it is possible to strictly separate lucky-gained knowledge from knowledge of any other kinds (Rohwer 2014). In this article, even if we will discuss the concept of luck in epistemic gain, we will not actually defend the position that knowledge can be obtained by luck because we will explicitly distinguish luck (or even epistemic luck) from serendipity, even if some authors (Pritchard 2004) seem to reduce the latter concept to the former. As we will argue in the first section, luck has a role in serendipity, but the epistemic gain is attained by more than just dumb luck and rather as a conjunction of a lucky occurrence and an active contribution of the agent who recognizes and exploits her own ignorance.

  3. 3.

    By referring to the two situations, Roberts (1989) distinguishes between “pure serendipity”—when the outcome is not looked for—and a “pseudoserendipity”—when the outcome is looked for but the discovery was accidental. We agree with Copeland (2017) in saying that this distinction is fairly useless to understand the role of serendipity in scientific processes. More than often, finding a method to reach a particular outcome is the goal of the research, as well as finding a particular outcome that emerges at the end of a process of testing. Either way, unexpectedness defines the occurrence of a serendipitous factor in the process of discovery.

  4. 4.

    Some authors proposed to increase the occurrence of serendipity in particular frameworks, especially in science, by augmenting the disciplinary specialization of the involved agents (Thagard 1998), by improving and encouraging their social and interactional skills (Copeland 2017), by opening the research to interdisciplinary explorations (Darbellay et al. 2014), or by creating a rich cognitive environment (McCay-Peet and Toms 2015)—while it is widely acknowledged the accidental occurrence of these events and their perception is tied to a lack of control (Rubin et al. 2011).

  5. 5.

    Even if the tag of serendipity in science is mainly used to describe deep perspectival changes, the game-changing condition may appear too strong to some ears for good reasons. Serendipity in the ordinary lexicon stands for both micro and macro findings that were unexpected but welcome to the finders eyes. These serendipitous moments occur often in both scientific and lay environments. Nonetheless, in this article we mean to focus on how serendipity affects the creative processes in science, which means to look for those serendipitous events that not only imply the scientists’ conscious acknowledgement of a lack of knowledge, but those that occur when the research community is firmly wed to an assumption or conclusion that is not true. This form of ignorance is especially troublesome since it implies that what the scientific community “knows” is not true and has set it on the wrong path. The cases of serendipity that lead to adjust the viewpoint of the scientific community are those that we are interested in since they affect or guide the creative reasoning in the scientific progress. With this emphasis we do not mean to describe cases of micro serendipity as not worthy of attention, but we need to highlight that they have little or no role in the development of creative reasoning in science.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Samantha Copeland, Sylvie Catellin, and the other members of the Serendipity Society for constructive criticisms and valuable comments on earlier drafts.

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Correspondence to Selene Arfini.

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Arfini, S., Bertolotti, T. & Magnani, L. The Antinomies of Serendipity How to Cognitively Frame Serendipity for Scientific Discoveries. Topoi 39, 939–948 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-018-9571-3

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Keywords

  • Serendipity
  • Scientific discovery
  • Epistemic luck
  • Ignorance
  • Anticipation
  • Abduction