So close no matter how far: counterfactuals in history of science and the inevitability/contingency controversy

Synthese 197 (5):2111-2141 (2020)
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Abstract

This paper has a twofold purpose. First, it aims at highlighting one difference in how counterfactuals work in general history, on the one hand, and in history of the natural sciences, on the other hand. As we show, both in general history and in history of science good counterfactual narratives need to be plausible, where plausibility is construed as appropriate continuity of both the antecedent and the consequent of the counterfactual with what we know about the world. However, in general history it is often possible to imagine a consequent dramatically different from the actual historical development, and yet plausible; in history of science, due to plausibility concerns, imagining a consequent far removed from the results of actual science seems more complicated. The second aim of the paper is to assess whether and to what degree counterfactual histories of science can advance the cause of the so-called “contingency thesis,” namely, the claim that history of science might have followed a path leading to alternative, non-equivalent theories, as successful as the ones that we currently embrace. We distinguish various versions of the contingency thesis and argue that counterfactual histories of science support weak versions of the thesis.

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Luca Tambolo
Università degli Studi di Trieste (PhD)

Citations of this work

Multiple discoveries, inevitability, and scientific realism.Luca Tambolo & Gustavo Cevolani - 2021 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 90 (December 2021):30-38.

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References found in this work

The social construction of what?Ian Hacking - 1999 - Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Is Water H2O? Evidence, Realism and Pluralism.Hasok Chang - 2012 - Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science.
A confutation of convergent realism.Larry Laudan - 1981 - Philosophy of Science 48 (1):19-49.
Scientific perspectivism.Ronald N. Giere - 2006 - Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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