Does the pessimistic meta-induction say that best scientific theories may be untrue, or merely not true about a mind independent reality? Might examples from the history of science of past refuted theories show that there are no quarks, or only that there are no real quarks? Either for Lauden, or as a reasonable extension of the argument (in anti-realist literature).

Anti-realists can say we have no knowledge of unobservables

The term “antirealism” (or “anti-realism”) encompasses any position that is opposed to realism along one or more of the dimensions canvassed in section 1.2: the metaphysical commitment to the existence of a mind-independent reality; the semantic commitment to interpret theories literally or at face value; and the epistemological commitment to regard theories as furnishing knowledge of both observables and unobservables.

But it seems to me like a particularly strong form of anti-realism, to deny we have any knowledge of quarks

  • 1
    What is the difference between no quarks and no real quarks? If the quarks are fictional then beliefs about them are, strictly speaking, untrue, even if they are very useful fictions see Fictionalism. And since this is an argument against scientific realism it has nothing to say about what to believe, that is determined by usefulness. – Conifold Dec 27 '18 at 21:34
  • yeah i think i overstated my point @Conifold – user35983 Dec 28 '18 at 12:08
  • why has been downvoted? i can't think of anything clearer, i've studied philosophy of science, based on the PMI, formally, and it's a novel question. you guys make me sick – user35983 Dec 30 '18 at 21:51

Here is the abstract to Larry Laudan's 1981 A Confutation of Convergent Realism, which according to Wikipedia kicked-off the current notion of the pessimistic meta-induction:

This essay contains a partial exploration of some key concepts associated with the epistemology of realist philosophies of science. It shows that neither reference nor approximate truth will do the explanatory jobs that realists expect of them. Equally, several widely-held realist theses about the nature of inter-theoretic relations and scientific progress are scrutinized and found wanting. Finally, it is argued that the history of science, far from confirming scientific realism, decisively confutes several extant versions of avowedly 'naturalistic' forms of scientific realism.


What is scientific realism? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Scientific realism is a positive epistemic attitude toward the content of our best theories and models, recommending belief in both observable and unobservable aspects of the world described by the sciences.


Specifically, Laudan attacks scientific realism as being unsupported by either reference or approximate truth. I suppose that when realism recommends belief in both observable and unobservable aspects of the world described by the sciences, it is not the observable aspects that Laudan opposes but the unobservable ones.

We will not learn from this whether Laudan is criticizing the truth-value of scientific theories or merely whatever mind-independent reality is contained by scientific theories; instead, we're talking primarily about belief.

Belief in quarks

So, under the pessimistic epistemic attitude, should we believe in quarks? Of course we should believe in quarks! Quarks are observable; it does not matter so much that they are only observable using the right equipment, or that they are only observable indirectly: their known qualities and interactions have been observed and reported to us by various scientists who we have no reason to doubt.

Only a great conspiracy of diverse individuals, unified in resolve, could have presented to the public today's knowledge of quarks without actually making the quark observations. This hypothetical conspiracy fails under any ordinary examination, so belief in quarks is well-warranted.

  • as it doesn't answer the question, maybe you should delete it and edit the details into the question? just an idea – user35983 Dec 27 '18 at 17:19
  • no worries at all! i often get indirect answers, which is frustrating, but not a nuisance at all :) – user35983 Dec 27 '18 at 17:29
  • @confused, I made an edit in which I retract my admission that I'm not answering the question. Instead, I'm explicitly forming this as a "frame challenge", which essentially concludes that we are not forced to choose between the two options given at first; a third option, that of critically choosing "belief" appears. – elliot svensson Dec 27 '18 at 17:31
  • hm. do you have an antecedent for using "belief" like this? i'm not sure i understand suddenly – user35983 Dec 27 '18 at 17:33
  • @confused, see my edit: I had brought the word "belief" over from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as a matter of due caution. – elliot svensson Dec 27 '18 at 17:39

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