Underdetermination and the arationality in the process of theory choice is often brought up by anti-realists on science as a proof of the problems with the scientific process in tracking truth.

What are the most common/famous/successful approaches to responding to the problem of underdetermination. The SEP article on the subject seems to contain very little in the way of criticisms of the underdetermination argument.

Any solutions count, including revised understanding of scientific realism (structural or entity realism for example).

Any links to papers/books/works of philosophers would be appreciated.


1 Answer 1


Here's a line of critical thought launched by Samir Okasha. It suggests that the underdetermination thesis derives some of its support from a false assumption that the concepts of empirical equivalence and underdetermination are interchangeable :

It is obviously true that at any given stage of a scientific enquiry the avail- able data will in principle be compatible with many different, mutually incompatible mpatible theories. This is because theories always outstrip the data on which they are based, if only by universal generalization - the inference from data to theory is always deductively invalid. This point is sometimes expressed by saying that scientific theories are inductively underdetermined by the data.

Inductive underdetermination is not what most philosophers of science have in mind when they discuss the underdetermination of theory by data. In recent discussions, 'underdetermination' usually refers to the idea that there may be theories between which no possible evidence can decide, not merely no actual evidence. If two theories are underdetermined in this stronger sense, then however much empirical data we collect in the future, we shall never be able to decide between them on empirical grounds. I use the term 'strong underdetermination' to refer to situations of this sort. Where I use the term 'underdetermination' without qualification, it refers to strong underdetermination, not inductive underdetermination.

Why should it be thought that scientific theories are typically, or indeed ever, strongly underdetermined by data? Many philosophers believe this because they think that for any scientific theory there always exists an alter- native empirically equivalent rival theory. Empirically equivalent theories are those whose empirical or testable implications are identical. Some authors treat the concepts of empirical equivalence and underdetermination as interchangeable, but I do not follow their lead. If two theories T1 and T2 are incompatible but empirically equivalent, I see that as a possible reason for thinking them strongly underdetermined; but the former state of affairs is not identical with the latter. The rationale for driving a wedge between 'T1 and T2 are empirically equivalent' and 'No possible evidence can decide between T1 and T2' will become apparent. (Samir Okasha, 'Underdetermination, Holism and the Theory/Data Distinction', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 52, No. 208 (Jul., 2002), pp. 303-319 : 303-4.)

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