Counterfactual Histories of Science and the Contingency Thesis

In Lorenzo Magnani & Claudia Casadio (eds.), Model Based Reasoning in Science and Technology. Logical, Epistemological, and Cognitive Issues. Springer Verlag. pp. 619-637 (2016)
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Abstract

Within the debate on the inevitability versus contingency of science for which Hacking’s writings have provided the basic terminology, the devising of counterfactual histories of science is widely assumed by champions of the contingency thesis to be an effective way to challenge the inevitability thesis. However, relatively little attention has been devoted to the problem of how to defend counterfactual history of science against the criticism that it is too speculative an endeavor to be worth bothering with—the same critique traditionally levelled against the use of counterfactuals in general history. In this paper, we review the defense of counterfactuals put forward by their advocates within general history. According to such defense—which emphasizes the essential role of counterfactuals within explanations—good counterfactual scenarios need to exhibit the right kind of plausibility, characterized as continuity between said scenarios and what historians know about the world. As our discussion shows, the same requirement needs to be satisfied by good counterfactual histories of science. However, as we mention in the concluding part of the paper, there is at least one concern raised by counterfactual history of science as used to support the contingency thesis for which the defense based on the plausibility of the counterfactual scenarios does not seem to offer easy solutions.

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Luca Tambolo
Università degli Studi di Trieste (PhD)

References found in this work

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.Thomas S. Kuhn - 1962 - Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Edited by Ian Hacking.
Models in Science (2nd edition).Roman Frigg & Stephan Hartmann - 2021 - The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The social construction of what?Ian Hacking - 1999 - Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
The death of nature.Carolyn Merchant - forthcoming - Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology.
The function of general laws in history.Carl Gustav Hempel - 1942 - Journal of Philosophy 39 (2):35-48.

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