The Pessimistic Induction, the Flight to Reference and the Metaphysical Zoo

International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 17 (2):161 – 178 (2003)
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Scientific realism says of our best scientific theories that (1) most of their important posits exist and (2) most of their central claims are approximately true. Antirealists sometimes offer the pessimistic induction in reply: since (1) and (2) are false about past successful theories, they are probably false about our own best theories too. The contemporary debate about this argument has turned (and become stuck) on the question, Do the central terms of successful scientific theories refer? For example, Larry Laudan offers a list of successful theories that employed central terms that failed to refer, and Philip Kitcher replies with a view about reference in which the central terms of such theories did sometimes refer. This article attempts to break this stalemate by proposing a direct version of the pessimistic induction, one that makes no explicit appeal to a substantive notion or theory of reference. While it is premature to say that this argument succeeds in showing that realism is probably false, the direct pessimistic induction is not subject to any kind of reference-based objection that might cripple a weaker, indirect version of the argument. Any attempt to trounce the direct pessimistic induction with a theory of reference fails.

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Michael Bishop
Florida State University


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