Nicolas Fillion
Simon Fraser University
What are the pillars on which the success of modern science rest? Although philosophers have much discussed what is behind science’s success, this paper argues that much of the discussion is misdirected. The extant literature rightly regards the semantic and inferential tools of formal logic and probability theory as pillars of scientific rationality, in the sense that they reveal the justificatory structure of important aspects of scientific practice. As key elements of our rational reconstruction toolbox, they make a fundamental contribution to our understanding of the success of science.At the same time, any science, however exact, is dominated by approximation, error, and uncertainty, a fact that makes one wonder how science can be so successful. This paper articulates and illustrates general themes—e.g., that truth-preserving arguments often fail to preserve approximate truth—that highlight the need for additional semantic resources. Thus, our proposal is that persistent failures to unravel the reasons behind the success of science in the face of pervasive error and uncertainty should be attributed to an insufficiently rich way of rationally reconstructing scientific and mathematical knowledge. What is missing? This paper claims that there is a third formal method of reasoning that constitutes a distinct pillar on which rests the success of science, namely, perturbation theory. The paper outlines how the representational and inferential tools of perturbation theory differ from those of logic and probability theory, and how they enable us to understand the apparently elusive aspects of the success of science.However, compared to its peers, perturbative reasoning has not received the attention it deserves. As the paper explains, this partly results from the circumstances in which perturbation theory is taught, and partly from the fact that perturbation theory first appears to be a vaguely related collection of methods offering no systematic semantic insight. In an attempt to show that this first impression is wrong, this paper presents its contribution to the semantic dimension of scientific representation and inference in terms of what I call “semantic layering.”
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DOI 10.1007/s13194-021-00394-1
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