Scientific progress: Four accounts

Philosophy Compass 13 (11):e12525 (2018)
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Scientists are constantly making observations, carrying out experiments, and analyzing empirical data. Meanwhile, scientific theories are routinely being adopted, revised, discarded, and replaced. But when are such changes to the content of science improvements on what came before? This is the question of scientific progress. One answer is that progress occurs when scientific theories ‘get closer to the truth’, i.e. increase their degree of truthlikeness. A second answer is that progress consists in increasing theories’ effectiveness for solving scientific problems. A third answer is that progress occurs when the stock of scientific knowledge accumulates. A fourth and final answer is that scientific progress consists in increasing scientific understanding, i.e. the capacity to correctly explain and reliably predict relevant phenomena. This paper compares and contrasts these four accounts of scientific progress, considers some of the most prominent arguments for and against each account, and briefly explores connections to different forms of scientific realism.
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