European Journal for Philosophy of Science

, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 89–110 | Cite as

Inference to the best explanation in the catch-22: how much autonomy for Mill’s method of difference?

  • Raphael SchollEmail author
General Philosophy of Science


In his seminal Inference to the Best Explanation, Peter Lipton adopted a causal view of explanation and a broadly Millian view of how causal knowledge is obtained. This made his account vulnerable to critics who charged that Inference to the Best Explanation is merely a dressed-up version of Mill’s methods, which in the critics’ view do the real inductive work. Lipton advanced two arguments to protect Inference to the Best Explanation against this line of criticism: the problem of multiple differences and the problem of inferred differences. Lipton claimed that these two problems show Mill’s method of difference to be largely unworkable unless it is embedded in an explanationist framework. Here I consider both arguments as well as the best Millian defense against them. Since the existing Millian defense is only partially successful, I will develop a new and improved account. As an integral part of the argument, I show that my solutions to the problems of multiple and inferred differences offer new insight into Lipton’s main case study: Ignaz Semmelweis’s discovery of the cause of childbed fever. I conclude that the method of difference can overcome Lipton’s challenges outside an explanationist framework.


Inference to the best explanation Mill’s methods Causal inference Semmelweis Catch-22 Multiple differences Inferred differences Integrated history and philosophy of science 



I benefited from discussing an early version of this material at the “Evidence and Explanation” workshop organized by the Episteme Group at the University of Geneva in April 2012. I thank Adrian Wüthrich, Tim Räz, Michael Baumgartner, the members of the Lake Geneva Biology Interest Group (LG-BIG) and several anonymous referees for helpful comments on earlier drafts of the paper.


  1. Baumgartner, M. (2008). Regularity theories reassessed. Philosophia, 36(3), 327–354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Baumgartner, M., & Graßhoff, G. (2004). Kausalität und kausales Schliessen: eine Einführung mit interaktiven Übungen. Bern: Bern Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science.Google Scholar
  3. Bird, A. (2010). Eliminative abduction: examples from medicine. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 41, 345–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Gillies, D. (2005). Hempelian and Kuhnian approaches in the philosophy of medicine: the Semmelweis case. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 36(1), 159–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Glennan, S.S. (1996). Mechanisms and the nature of causation. Erkenntnis, 44(1), 49–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Graßhoff, G., & May, M. (2001). Causal regularities. In W. Spohn, M. Ledwig, M. Esfeld (Eds.), Current issues in causation (pp. 85–114). Mentis: Paderborn.Google Scholar
  7. Hempel, C.G. (1966). Philosophy of natural science. Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  8. Herzfelder, H. (1850). Protokoll der allgemeinen Versammlung der k. k. Gesellschaft der Ärzte, vom 15. Mai 1850. Zeitschrift der k. k. Gesellschaft der Aerzte zu Wien, 6 (1), CXXXVI–CXLI.Google Scholar
  9. Hofmann, U., & Baumgartner, M. (2011). Determinism and the method of difference. Theoria, 26(2), 155–176.Google Scholar
  10. Howick, J.H. (2011). The philosophy of evidence-based medicine. Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  11. Lakatos, I. (1970), Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes. In I. Lakatos, A. Musgrave (Eds.), Criticism and the growth of knowledge (pp. 91–196). Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Lipton, P. (1991). Inference to the best explanation. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. Lipton, P. (2004). Inference to the best explanation. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Machamer, P., Darden, L., Craver, C.F. (2000). Thinking about mechanisms. Philosophy of Science, 1–25.Google Scholar
  15. Mackie, J. (1980). The cement of the universe: a study of causation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  16. Mill, J.S. (1843). A system of logic. London: John W. Parker.Google Scholar
  17. Nickelsen, K., & Graßhoff, G. (2011). In pursuit of formaldehyde: Causally explanatory models and falsification. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 42 (3), 297–305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Rappaport, S. (1996). Inference to the best explanation: is it really different from Mill’s methods? Philosophy of Science, 63(1), 65–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Russo, F., & Williamson, J. (2007). Interpreting causality in the health sciences. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 21 (2), 157–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Scheines, R. (2005). The similarity of causal inference in experimental and non-experimental studies. Philosophy of Science, 72(5), 927–940.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Scholl, R. (2013). Causal inference, mechanisms, and the Semmelweis case. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 44(1), 66–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Semmelweis, I.P. (1861). Die Aetiologie, der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettfiebers. C. A. Hartleben, Pest, Wien und Leipzig.Google Scholar
  23. Semmelweis, I.P. (1983). The etiology, concept, and prophylaxis of childbed fever (Carter translation). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  24. Woodward, J. (2003). Making things happen: A theory of causal explanation. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.History and Philosophy of Science, Institute of PhilosophyUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations