Presume It Not: True Causes in the Search for the Basis of Heredity

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (1):axy001 (2017)
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Kyle Stanford has recently given substance to the problem of unconceived alternatives, which challenges the reliability of inference to the best explanation (IBE) in remote domains of nature. Conjoined with the view that IBE is the central inferential tool at our disposal in investigating these domains, the problem of unconceived alternatives leads to scientific anti-realism. We argue that, at least within the biological community, scientists are now and have long been aware of the dangers of IBE. We re-analyze the nineteenth-century study of inheritance and development (Stanford’s case study) and extend it into the twentieth century, focusing in particular on both classical Mendelian genetics and the studies by Avery et al. on the chemical nature of the hereditary substance. Our extended case studies show the preference of the biological community for a different methodological standard: the vera causa ideal, which requires that purported causes be shown on non-explanatory grounds to exist and be competent to produce their effects. On this basis, we defend a prospective realism about the biological sciences.

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