Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

Stanford’s unconceived alternative argument is inductively based on the history of science and tells us that when a scientist is choosing a theory T1 at time t1 over a set of less promising alternatives, she is concurrently failing to conceive valid theoretical alternatives to T1, i.e., theories that will be accepted by a scientific community at later times, thus displacing T1. The aim of the present paper is to argue that the actual strength and reach of Stanford’s argument sensibly vary according to the status of the unconceived alternatives at time t1, i.e, whether they are conceivable (theories that could be conceived by scientists at t1, but in fact are not) or inconceivable (theories which can not be conceived at t1 as they are incompatible with scientists’ background knowledge at t1). As Stanford does not explicitly address this issue, we give reasons to conclude that alternatives considered in the unconceived alternative argument are supposedly conceivable at time t1, and we investigate the consequences of this conclusion for the alleged novel induction the argument draws upon. We then investigate what are the implications for Stanford’s analysis if inconceivability is considered as a possible status of an unconceived alternative at t1, and we argue that, in this case, Stanford’s antirealism has to be severily restricted to specific phases of theory-change, thus making room for tamed forms of realism.

Realist and antirealist stances have been developed into such articulated proposals that defining the key features of both positions risks ending in deadlock. Broadly speaking, scientific realism is taken as a “positive epistemic attitude” (Chakravartty 2017) towards the content of well-established scientific theories and models, whereas antirealism either questions the even approximate truthfulness of currently available scientific paradigms or declares to be agnostic about…


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