Sunday, February 22, 2015

Willard Van Orman Quine and Underdetermination of Theory by Data

"One man's observation is another man's closed book or flight of fancy."

Willard Van Orman Quine (1908 – 2000) was an American philosopher and Logical Positivist whose work marks a transitional stage between Logical Positivism and Constructivism. He studied Mathematics and Philosophy as a student before accepting a position at Harvard, where he remained for most of his life.

Throughout his life ...
he was committed to Naturalism - the principle that scientific discovery (understood in a very broad sense, i.e. to include history economics sociology etc.) is the sole legitimate means of exploring reality. However, he denied that this claim had or could have any justification external to science. It was, in other words, axiomatic.

In “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951) he argued that the Positivist distinction between logically and experimentally-defined truths was in practice impossible to make, because the truth of any statement is dependent on the truth of unspoken, secondary statements, and that the truth of these statements is similarly dependent on the truth of others. No single statement, therefor, can be meaningful of itself, but only interdependent sets of statements, or Webs of Meaning – a position called Meaning Holism.

Several important things follow from this. The Duhem-Quine thesis holds that no experiment can be performed independent of a set of assumptions about the things being tested, what Thomas Kuhn would later call a Paradigm. It is closely related to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. (Pierre Duhem was a French scientist and historian of science who made similar points in an earlier generation – hence the hyphenation.) For this reason, Theories are always Underdetermined by the Evidence – no amount of observational data can ever compel the acceptance or rejection of a theory because observation is always embeedded within a Web of Meaning, which can always, in principle, be rearranged in order to accommodate new observational data. Because there are always a multiplicity of theories which might potentially explain the data, the quesiton is which principles should govern the choice between different kinds of readjustment.

Quine proposed simplicity (simpler components are to be preferred to more complex ones) and conservatism (minor adjustments are to be preferred to major ones.) Quine was influenced by the Vienna Circle, but argued for positions which both undermined their Logical Positivism and seemed to point toward Constructivism. Very likely his philosophy influenced Thomas Kuhn’s account of scientific activity. He also made important contributions to set theory in mathematics.…/scientific-underdetermination/

Part of a series on Science, Technology, and Society (VII of XX)

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