Epistemic Dependence and Understanding: Reformulating through Symmetry

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 74 (4):941-974 (2023)
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Science frequently gives us multiple, compatible ways of solving the same problem or formulating the same theory. These compatible formulations change our understanding of the world, despite providing the same explanations. According to what I call "conceptualism," reformulations change our understanding by clarifying the epistemic structure of theories. I illustrate conceptualism by analyzing a typical example of symmetry-based reformulation in chemical physics. This case study poses a problem for "explanationism," the rival thesis that differences in understanding require ontic explanatory differences. To defend conceptualism, I consider how prominent accounts of explanation might accommodate this case study. I argue that either they do not succeed, or they generate a skeptical challenge.

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Josh Hunt
Syracuse University


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