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Is There a Place for Epistemic Virtues in Theory Choice?

Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI,volume 366)


This paper challenges the appeal to theory virtues in theory choice as well as the appeal to the intellectual and moral virtues of an agent as determining unique choices between empirically equivalent theories. After arguing that theoretical virtues do not determine the choice of one theory at the expense of another theory, I argue that nor does the appeal to intellectual and moral virtues single out one agent, who defends a particular theory, and exclude another agent defending an alternative theory. I analyse Duhem’s concept of good sense and its recent interpretation in terms of virtue epistemology. I argue that the virtue epistemological interpretation does not show how good sense leads to conclusive choices and scientific progress.


  • Quantum Mechanic
  • Theory Choice
  • Good Sense
  • Scientific Progress
  • Moral Quality

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  1. 1.

    Whewell takes consilience to be a criterion of confirmation of a theory because “the evidence in favour of our induction is of a much higher and more forcible character when it enables us to explain and determine cases of a kind different from those which were contemplated in the formation of our hypothesis. The instances in which this have occurred, indeed, impress us with a conviction that the truth of our hypothesis is certain” (Whewell 1989, p. 87–8).

  2. 2.

    It must be stressed that scientific realists often employ inference to the best explanation and argue that in case of underdetermination, we should choose the best available explanation. In light of this argument, they can argue that there is only one theory virtue – explanatory power – thus they are immune to the argument for the inconclusiveness of theory virtues. However, the problem of inconclusiveness appears when one tries to account for which explanation is the best. Since theory virtues, such as simplicity, unity, fertility, are used to justify a particular theory as the best explanation, it is presupposed that they can conclusively do so.

  3. 3.

    Swinburne argues that “the simplest hypothesis proposed as an explanation of phenomena is more likely to be the true one than is any other available hypothesis, that its predictions are more likely to be true than those of any other available hypothesis, and that it is an ultimate a priori epistemic principle that simplicity is evidence for truth”. (Swinburne 1997, 1).

  4. 4.

    For Duhem, novel predictive power is the only test of theory being a ‘natural classification’. Psillos (1999) also takes the novel predictive power of a theory to be indicative of its truth.

  5. 5.

    One unpopular account of novelty is ‘temporal novelty’, which treats any prediction of a phenomenon, which was entailed by the theory prior to the observation of that phenomenon, as novel. Many oppose this definition because it gives too much role to the time in which observations are made and seem to make the fact whether a theory indeed was fertile arbitrary. For example, the phenomenon of perihelion of Mercury was observed before the formulation of the general theory of relativity but why should this historically contingent fact determine whether the prediction was novel? In trying to avoid this objection, accounts of ‘epistemic novelty’ suggest that we determine a novel prediction when the scientist constructing the theory is not aware of the phenomena prior to constructing the theory. Worrall (1994) suggests that knowledge of a phenomena is not indicative of novelty and what we should focus on is whether the phenomenon was considered when the theory was constructed. He argues that the perihelion of Mercury, predicted by general relativity, was known to Einstein, but he did not construct the theory in order to account for this phenomenon. It was simply entailed by the theory. Leplin (1997), however, argues that epistemic novelty relativises the novelty to the intentions of the scientist – whether Einstein really intended to save this phenomenon or it was simply entailed by the theory. He puts forward an account of ‘use novelty’ according to which a phenomena is novel if it was predicted by the theory but was not used in the derivations of the theory. Ladyman and Ross (2007) defend a ‘modal’ account of novelty according to which what should be taken in consideration is whether a theory could have predicted some unknown phenomenon despite the historically contingent facts.

  6. 6.

    The same point can be made by considering several cases of underdetermination from the history of science. For a discussion of the underdetermination between Lorentz’ ether theory and Einstein’s special theory of relativity, see Friedman (2001).

  7. 7.

    Note that this claim is not uncontroversial. Albert (1993) holds that ordinary quantum mechanics has no empirical content, since it is a solution to the measurement problem but what counts as measurement is something quantum mechanics does not answer. Also, Bohmian mechanics is empirically equivalent to the rivals formulations of quantum mechanics only given boundary conditions.

  8. 8.

    This objection applies to the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics. Another understanding of the Everettian formulation of quantum mechanics is given by the ‘many minds’ interpretation, according to which mental states are discontinuous and probabilistic while physical states are deterministic and causal. This interpretation presupposes a strong mind-body dualism (Albert and Loewer 1988).

  9. 9.

    Note here the trade-off between ontology and ideology. Postulating a richer ontology can be preferred for the sake of a simpler theory, predictive accuracy or unification (i.e. postulating an extra planet – Neptune – contributed to Newtonian mechanics’ predictive accuracy).

  10. 10.

    According to Ockham’s razor, theoretical entities should not be employed beyond necessity.

  11. 11.

    Consideration of elegance and simplicity enter also in the derivation of the guiding equation as well. For example, in their derivation, Durr et al. (1993) choose to use only first and not higher order derivatives. Thanks to Bryan Roberts for pointing this example to me.

  12. 12.

    This objection is discussed in detail in Barrett (1999).

  13. 13.

    Ladyman and Ross (2007) argue that it is an open question whether collapse is a genuine physical process and this question is going to be answered by future physics.

  14. 14.

    Both GRW and Bohmian mechanics could be confirmed, in principle, by further evidence. Both dynamical collapse, introduced by GRW, and the additional equation of motion for the particles’ trajectories, introduced by Bohmian mechanics, could eventually produce new empirical consequences which could serve as a confirmation boost. However, this fact by no means resolves the issue of underdetermination, it simply shows that these theories are not strongly underdetermined.

  15. 15.

    For a systematic presentation of the properties of good sense see Ivanova and Paternotte (2013).

  16. 16.

    For Duhem ‘good sense’ is greatly captured by Pascal’s claim that ‘the heart has reasons which reasons does not know’.

  17. 17.

    As noted in Ivanova and Paternotte (2013), experimental science is not the only domain of application of good sense. In his (1991) Duhem argues that good sense also figures in mathematics and history. However, the properties of good sense as well as its role are different depending on the context in which it is employed. Good sense in mathematics is equated with common sense and is the ability to ‘feel’ self-evident mathematical truths and anticipate the results of mathematical deductions. (1991, 6–11) In history, good sense is necessary for the acquisition of truth and its main characteristic is that of impartiality, “detachment from all interests and all passions.” (1991, 42–44)

  18. 18.

    There are plenty of examples in the history of science where an individual scientist or a research group managed to choose the theory, which would eventually become a fruitful research programme and lead to scientific progress. For example, we would like to be able to claim that in the dispute between atomists and energeticists in the beginning of the twentieth century, atomists had good sense while defenders of energetics (amongst which was Duhem himself) lacked it. Moreover, in the debate between Lorentz’ ether theory and the special theory of relativity, we would like to be able to claim that Einstein had good sense to choose the latter, which let to the general theory of relativity. Last, in the debate over the completeness of quantum mechanics between Bohr and Einstein, we would like to claim that Einstein lacked good sense since he promoted the search of a hidden variables theory and claimed that quantum mechanics, which has been a highly successful research programme, was incomplete.

  19. 19.

    The importance of the acceleration property for Duhem’s notion of good sense is first discussed in Ivanova and Paternotte (2013).

  20. 20.

    Note that for Duhem good sense cannot lead to true theories, because a true theory would reveal not only the real relations between appearances, but also the nature of the unobservable reality. His skepticism of science discovering the nature of the unobservable reality results in his defence of structural realism, where knowledge only of the unobservable relations is allowed (Duhem’s structuralism is discussed in Worrall (1989)).

  21. 21.

    I develop the objection that good sense is judged post hoc in Ivanova (2010).

  22. 22.

    Stump appeals in particular to the work of Linda Zagzebski (2003).

  23. 23.

    In my Ivanova (2010) I raise two concerns with Stump’s interpretation of Duhem as virtue epistemologist. First, Duhem has a different epistemic aim from virtue epistemologists. Given his structural realist commitments and the pessimism expressed towards our ever being acquainted with the nature of the unobservable reality, the concept of ‘good sense’ is not employed in the same sense as within the virtue epistemologist account, according to which the virtues of the agents ultimately justify their true beliefs. Duhem does not believe a true theory is possible and good sense can at best lead to theories that are ‘natural classifications’. Second, while virtue epistemology is concerned with the virtues of the agent in order to explain knowledge, Duhem is not concerned with justifying scientific knowledge when employing ‘good sense’. He is simply describing a situation of theoretical underdetermination, where two scientists can disagree which theory should be employed and does not argue that good sense has any role to play in the construction of a scientific theory. (see Ivanova (2010, 2011))

  24. 24.

    This hybrid reading takes elements from both Stump’s and my accounts – that good sense can choose a unique theory (Stump) and that good sense is only judged post hoc and as a consequence cannot give epistemic significance to the theory it has chosen, only the availability of new evidence that confirms it can do so (Ivanova). According to Fairweather, good sense can confer uniqueness in situations of underdetermination but cannot provide epistemic standing, such standing is provided by new supporting evidence. The shortcomings of this reconstruction are discussed in Ivanova and Paternotte (2013).

  25. 25.

    For Duhem “the aim of physical theory is to become a natural classification, to establish among diverse experimental laws a logical coordination serving as a sort of image and reflection of the true order according to which the realities escaping us are organised” (Duhem 1954, 31). This ‘true order’ is not fully epistemically accessible. Duhem believes that we cannot know the nature of the unobservable entities our theories postulate, but our natural classifications capture increasingly better their structure.

  26. 26.

    One can suggest that epistemic success is not necessary for good sense. An internalist reading of good sense would focus on the internal coherence of the agent’s beliefs, their attitude towards new evidence, etc. so that the agent’s beliefs are rendered rational despite of whether the agent achieved epistemic success (in unfavourable conditions agents can be rational but fail to achieve epistemic success). However, I am sceptical that such an internalist reading captures Duhem’s understanding of good sense, since it is evaluated in terms of its performance and thus is an externalist notion.

  27. 27.

    See in particular Hull (1988), Kitcher (1993) and Strevens (2003).

  28. 28.

    As noted in Sect. 4, this support need not necessarily be provided by further confirmation in light of new evidence which is accommodated into one of the theories. We can have a broader notion of confirmational support that evaluates which theory was potentially a successful research project. This is in accordance with Duhem’s notion of ‘natural classification’ which unifies distant set of theories into the same mathematical framework.

  29. 29.

    Note also the problem of the temporal dimension of good sense. As noted in footnote 19, we could say that Einstein had good sense when he defended special relativity but lacked good sense when he defended the incompleteness of quantum mechanics.


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I would like to thank Abrol Fairweather for inviting me to be part of this volume. I am grateful to Matt Farr, James Ladyman, David Stump and Bryan Roberts for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. This work was funded by the British Society for Philosophy of Science and The Royal Institute of Philosophy while the author was at the University of Bristol.

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Ivanova, M. (2014). Is There a Place for Epistemic Virtues in Theory Choice?. In: Fairweather, A. (eds) Virtue Epistemology Naturalized. Synthese Library, vol 366. Springer, Cham.

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