In science, if I want to falsify someone's theory, then before embarking on a venture to do such, I need to be able to correctly interpret what the theory states. From what I have read about Quine's indeterminacy of translation thesis [(1), (2), (3)], I'm under the impression that the language used to express a scientific theory is indeterminate.

I'll give an example:

Mixing aqueous sodium hydroxide [NaOH (aq)] and aqueous hydrochloric acid [HCl (aq)] will give an aqueous solution of salt [NaCl (aq)].

On the surface, it might seem obvious to anyone who has taken first-year chemistry what this scientific theory is communicating as an idea. However, from what I've read about Quine's indeterminacy of translation thesis, anyone hoping to make sense of the statement needs to recognize that there is indeterminacy to be had in making sense of the statement. Such indeterminacy prevents the actual meaning of the statement (if any meaning actually exists) from being correctly interpreted.

First, there is the analysis of what each term in the statement is referring to: There is doubt to be had as to the meaning of any term, which is signified in Quine's inscrutability of reference argument (if I grasp correctly).

Secondly, there is the meaning of the statement as a whole, which relates to the holophrastic indeterminacy argument by Quine.

Let's say I were to test the person's theory in an effort to falsify it. First, I mix an aqueous solution of sodium hydroxide and an aqueous solution of hydrogen chloride as I interpret was being asserted to be the correct solutions. I argue that I've acquired a solution of NaCl along with water and varying concentrations of hydrogen, hydroxide, sodium, and chloride ions. From my observations, I argue that the person's scientific theory has been falsified: There was more than NaCl (aq) as a result.

The person could rebuttal that I have incorrectly interpreted ("translated") the meaning of his or her stated scientific theory and that his or her stated theory is still not falsified.

It appears that there is no criterion to use with which to resolve this matter and that people are left to theorizing what some scientific theory is postulating. For instance, if I were to argue with the person who stated the scientific theory, I could only theorize about whatever I consider to be a behavioral assent or dissent to my interpretation of his or her language to be a correct interpretation: There is always room for doubt as to the actual meaning of some word or statement that cannot be reasonably dismissed because I am not in absolute control of the truth of the matter.

Relative to Quine's indeterminacy of translation thesis, was it ever resolved for a person to deduce what a scientific theory states?

It seems to me that the resolve is intersubjectivity. Not that intersubjectivity necessarily resolves the matter, but intersubjectivity opens the door for people to either agree or disagree as to whether or not you've falsified the theory (as they have interpreted the meaning of the theory--and its part--to be defined as). The caveat to this presumed resolve, however, is the irony that any language (such as an assent or dissent) from others as to whether or not the theory has been falsified is, too, linguistically indeterminate. As such, it may not indeed be a resolve.

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    I don't see a direct connection between the underdetermination of theories by data and the indeterminacy of translation. In the first, Quine holds that rival theories might be equally compatible with empirical observations, so there is no definite reason to say that only one of them is true. In the second, Quine holds that translation of terms is indeterminate at the level of words and sentences, and we can only satisfactorily speak of successful translations when considering communication and behaviour as a whole, and even then only pragmatically.
    – Bumble
    Jul 10 at 3:24
  • @Bumble I wasn't arguing that there was a connection between those things, I think. I'll clarify my question. Jul 11 at 18:48
  • @Bumble Alright, I've edited it. Jul 11 at 19:07
  • Indeterminacy of translation does not "prevent the actual meaning ... from being correctly interpreted". It just means that sentences do not have meanings that can be translated on a sentence by sentence basis. Quine is aware that we can and do understand each other, even when using different languages, but we do so on the basis of the coherence of a great mass of communication, and our success in doing so is judged pragmatically.
    – Bumble
    Jul 12 at 6:17
  • @Bumble "The indeterminacy of translation is the thesis that translation, meaning, and reference are all indeterminate: there are always alternative translations of a sentence and a term, and nothing objective in the world can decide which translation is the right one." IEP on indeterminacy of translation. Now, we can squabble about what that quoted material means, but I think most people would disagree with your most recent comment, Bumble, based on the IEP information. Jul 13 at 11:28

1 Answer 1


Bumble has motioned towards an idea in the comments, so I'll expand.

Indetermination of translation and underdetermination of theory are two distinct phenomena because they relate semantic grounding in different ways. Indetermination of translation says in effect that moving from one set of symbols to another set of symbols is problematic. Underdetermination of theory says that given a set of symbols, mapping them onto the state of affairs in the external world is inherently problematic. Both are similar in both make claims that either act is fallibilistic (IEP), and they are related in that underdetermination is a type of indeterminacy, but not of translation. From WP:

Three aspects of indeterminacy arise, of which two relate to indeterminacy of translation... The three indeterminacies are (i) inscrutability of reference, and (ii) holophrastic indeterminacy, and (iii) the underdetermination of scientific theory. The last of these, not discussed here, refers to Quine's assessment that evidence alone does not dictate the choice of a scientific theory, as different theories – observationally equivalent – may be able to explain the same facts. The first refers to indeterminacy in interpreting individual words or sub-sentences. The second refers to indeterminacy in entire sentences or more extensive portions of discourse.

With that in mind, let's address your question:

Relative to Quine's indeterminacy of translation thesis, was it ever resolved for a person to deduce what a scientific theory states?

It was never a problem in the philosophy of science, as far as I'm aware, that a scientist can comprehend the meaning of a theory. The real problem in the philosophy of science that arose after the heyday of logical positivists was the notion that observations are objective and free of being laden with theory. From WP:

Theory-ladenness poses a problem for the confirmation of scientific theories since the observational evidence may already implicitly presuppose the thesis it is supposed to justify. This effect can present a challenge for reaching scientific consensus if the disagreeing parties make different observations due to their different theoretical backgrounds.

Why is this? Quine like Wittgenstein recognized that one aspect of meaning arises from pragmatics, which Wittgenstein held to be an intuitive approach to meaning rooted in Sprachspiele. Thus, scientists active in research on a topic are all members of the same language community, which is a sociolinguistic term that puts people with the same interests in the same bucket. In fact, peer review serves the direct purpose of exploring differences in the theoretical presuppositions of the theoreticians through exchanges of written arguments. Thus, a scientist (as opposed to a pseudoscientist) who studies global warming will come armed not only with a fair competency in English, but one of a technical vocabulary enriched with operational definitions and mathematical terminology, and a set of methods resolved to disambiguate in communications. The result is a very vivid conceptual debate that effaces statements and focuses on propositions, and therefore abstracts away from the vagaries of natural language and focuses on 'units of thought' such as propositions are. This, of course, is the emphasis of semantic ascent, that is, moving from words to objects.

In fact, communities of scientists are so good at communication, relative to standard exchanges in natural languages, that many English-language papers are written by non-native English language speakers. Some linguists, like cognitive semanticists but others too, claim that is because there is a core of conceptual primitives, whether they labeled conceptual metaphors or natural semantic primes. This of course, is not to say that scientific consensus doesn't sometimes struggle to come about, but rather the issue is conceptual rather than linguistic where concepts are taken to be an aspect of thought where as language is an aspect of communication.

So, while there may be quibbling over what a word, term, or sentence means, by and large, translation is seldom a problem in a language community, because most members invest a lot of time and effort to understand the theory, other theories that might holistically confirm it, and the epistemological concerns that go towards making choices about underdetermination. Ultimately, what arises then are what might be considered metaphysical disputes, that is, disputes of first principles, be they ontological or epistemological, rather than arguments over meaning proper. Thus, the real conflict is that words are interpreted in the light of other, different presumptions and theories, rather determining what a word or sentence literally means. This, after all, is the crux of the problem that philosophy of reason itself investigates, understanding and agreeing on the nature of logical consequence.

  • That's not how I read the information on IEP on the Indeterminacy of translation. If IEP is false, I'm left to reading Word and Object by Quine, which I'm very against reading philosopher's babble on rather than discretely state their theses. Jul 13 at 11:30
  • "Thus, a scientist (as opposed to a pseudoscientist) who studies global warming will come armed not only with a fair competency in English, but one of a technical vocabulary enriched with operational definitions and mathematical terminology, and a set of methods resolved to disambiguate in communications." I disagree. The indeterminacy of translation appears to argue otherwise. Jul 13 at 11:47
  • @DennisFrancisBlewett I'll read the IEP, and edit accordingly.
    – J D
    Jul 13 at 14:03
  • @DennisFrancisBlewett I was shooting from the cuff. I'll read the IEP, and edit accordingly.
    – J D
    Jul 13 at 14:27
  • I've added an additional comment to Bumble. If you're interested in any edits, I'll be awaiting. Aug 23 at 21:41

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