Pessimistic induction

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In the philosophy of science, the pessimistic induction, also known as the pessimistic meta-induction, is an argument which seeks to rebut scientific realism, particularly the scientific realist's notion of epistemic optimism.


  • Some hold that fundamental ideas have changed so often within science—especially within physics—that we should always expect our current views to turn out to be wrong. Sometimes this argument is called the “pessimistic meta-induction.” The prefix “meta” is misleading here, because the argument is not an induction about inductions; it’s more like an induction about explanatory inferences. So let’s call it “the pessimistic induction from the history of science.” The pessimists give long lists of previously posited theoretical entities like phlogiston and caloric that we now think do not exist (Laudan 1981). Optimists reply with long lists of theoretical entities that once were questionable but which we now think definitely do exist—like atoms, germs, and genes.
  • The pessimistic meta-induction seems to have some force in regard to fundamental physics: there, the change is much more rapid, and very little remains of past theories. … Non-fundamental concepts—such as cell or season—can survive significant shifts in fundamental theories, but obviously fundamental concepts like force or particle find it much more difficult to do so. … I think there is a view in the vicinity that is worth taking seriously: that we should be realists about non-fundamental science and at least somewhat skeptical of fundamental science.

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