7/04/2005

First real post: abduction from limited evidence

I am currently teaching a summer session class called "How Science Works." The aim of the class (according to the course description) is to "introduce science and scientific ways of thinking to students who have not had much contact with science." One of the big-picture themes I am trying to develop in the course is that, in many cases, scientific reasoning is just extra-careful common-sense reasoning made precise. Thus, for some of their homework assignments, I ask students for an example from their lives where they (or someone they know) have used whatever scientific strategy we are studying that day.

On their last homework assignment, I asked them to give an everyday example of an abductive inference that is supported by independent sources of evidence, a very common kind of inference in good scientific practice. There were some very clever answers; the most common one was the cheating significant other: I never see the significant other with someone else, but I do observe her staying out late, hanging up the phone immediately when I stop by unexpectedly, and various other secretive behaviors.

But, unsurprisingly, some students did not quite understand the requirement for evidence from multiple independent sources, and gave an example of an abduction from just one. (These examples often involved some sort of roommate malfeasance: "My favorite CD is no longer in its case, so my roommate must have taken it without asking.")

But this mistake raised one version of a question I've been wondering about off and on for a while now. This version of the question is:
What is the epistemological status of abductive inferences (also known as 'inferences to the best explanation') that have only one (independent) source of evidence?
To make this a slightly more well-posed question (or at least a question more amenable to philosophers of science), we can pose the question more naturalistically: how does science regard and treat such inferences?

My gut-feeling answer is that such inferences are regarded as 'merely hypothetical' or otherwise second-class citizens -- like atomic theory in the 19th C, for example (for an account of this historical episode very congenial to my point, see Penelope Maddy's "A Problem in the Foundations of Set Theory, Journal of Philosophy Nov. 1990, pp. 623-625). Often such abductions from limited evidence are pronounced ad hoc. And, in biology, this also seems to be the reason many people call certain adaptionist accounts of certain biological traits "just-so-stories": if the only evidence we have for that adaptationist account is the way the animal looks or acts now, then we just don't have strong reason to accept that account. If we found enough sources of independent evidence for our conjecture, even the strong anti-adaptationists might come around.

I think this question (of the status of abductive inferences based on only one evidential source) is an interesting one in its own right. But it seems it also has implications for philosophy proper: many philosophical positions purport to explain only one thing, and lack the kind of consilience that good abductive inferences in the sciences enjoy. To take just one example, scientific realism aims to explain the success of science -- and as far as I can tell, that's it. (At least some other realisms will definitely fall in the same boat.) Certain critics of scientific realism (van Fraassen, for one) criticize all instances of "inference to the best explanation" (IBE), and use that criticism as an argument against scientific realism (which is supposedly the result of an instance of IBE). However, we may not need to throw out all instances of IBE in order to have a good argument against the realist -- we need only act like the scientists (as I portrayed them in the previous paragraph): accept only those instances of IBE for which we have more than one independent source of evidence.

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