Dissertation, Central European University (2020
In this dissertation, I present a novel account of the components that have a peculiar epistemic role in our scientific inquiries, since they contribute to establishing a form of coordination. The issue of coordination is a classic epistemic problem concerning how we justify our use of abstract conceptual tools to represent concrete phenomena. For instance, how could we get to represent universal gravitation as a mathematical formula or temperature by means of a numerical scale? This problem is particularly pressing when justification for using these abstract tools comes, in part or entirely, from knowledge which is not independent from them, thus leading to threats of circularity. Achieving coordination between some abstract conceptual tools and the concrete phenomena that they are supposed to represent is usually a complex process, which involves several epistemic components. Some of these components eventually provide stable conditions for applying those abstract representations to concrete phenomena. It is in this sense of providing certain conditions of applicability that different philosophical traditions, as well as some contemporary reappraisals, view these components as constitutive or a priori.
In this work, I present a new gradualist, contextualist, and relational approach to understand these constitutive components of scientific inquiry. It is gradualist inasmuch as the degree to which some component is constitutive depends on three quantifiable features: quasi-axiomaticity, generative potential, and empirical shielding. Since the quantification of these three features impinges on the history and practice of using these components in a scientific context, my approach is a contextualist one. Finally, my approach is relational in a double sense: first, it identifies ordinal relationships among epistemic components with respect to their constitutive character; second, these relationships are relative to a scientific framework of inquiry.
After introducing my account and a classic example of constitutively a priori principles, i.e., Friedman’s (2001) analysis of Newtonian mechanics, I turn to my own case studies to demonstrate the advantages of my approach. Firstly, I discuss Okasha’s (2018) view of endogenization as a pervasive theoretical strategy in evolutionary biology and suggest that the constitutive character of the core Darwinian principles progressively increases with endogenization. Secondly, I apply a conceptual distinction between two varieties or scopes of coordination – general coordination and coordination in measurement – to Ohm’s work on electrical conductivity. This distinction allows me to pinpoint to what extent components along different dimensions (e.g., instrumentation, measurement, theorising, etc.) were constitutive of the forms of coordination which Ohm relied on. Thirdly, I discuss the epistemic function of the Hardy-Weinberg principle in the history and practice of population genetics. I assess this principle in terms of my account and identify approximation and stability as two components that are highly constitutive, in that they contribute to justifying its use in population genetics.
Finally, applying my account to these case studies enables me to identify at least three qualitatively different types of constitutive components: domain-specific theoretical principles, material components, and domain-independent assumptions underlying reasoning abilities. In the light of my results, I draw some general conclusions on epistemic justification and scientific knowledge.