Modal inferences in science: a tale of two epistemologies

Synthese 199 (5-6):13823-13843 (2021)
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Recent epistemology of modality has seen a growing trend towards metaphysics-first approaches. Contrastingly, this paper offers a more philosophically modest account of justifying modal claims, focusing on the practices of scientific modal inferences. Two ways of making such inferences are identified and analyzed: actualist-manipulationist modality and relative modality. In AM, what is observed to be or not to be the case in actuality or under manipulations, allows us to make modal inferences. AM-based inferences are fallible, but the same holds for practically all empirical inquiry. In RM, modal inferences are evaluated relative to what is kept fixed in a system, like a theory or a model. RM-based inferences are more certain but framework-dependent. While elements from both AM and RM can be found in some existing accounts of modality, it is worth highlighting them in their own right and isolating their features for closer scrutiny. This helps to establish their relevant epistemologies that are free from some strong philosophical assumptions often attached to them in the literature. We close by showing how combining these two routes amounts to a view that accounts for a rich variety of modal inferences in science.

Author Profiles

Rami Koskinen
University of Vienna
Ilmari Hirvonen
University of Helsinki


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