Van Fraassen’s Best of a Bad Lot Objection, IBE and Rationality

Logique Et Analyse 255:267-273 (2021)
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Van Fraassen’s (1989) infamous best of a bad lot objection is widely taken to be the most serious problem that afflicts theories of inference to the best explanation (IBE), for it alleges to show that we should not accept the conclusion of any case of such reasoning as it actually proceeds. Moreover, this is supposed to be the case irrespective of the details of the particular criteria used to select best explanations. The best of a bad lot objection is predicated on, and really only requires, the idea that in any real case of IBE where one hypothesis is favored as best over those with which it competes, it is always the case that it is more likely that the true explanation is to be found in the set of unformulated and unconsidered logical alternatives to the set of actually considered hypotheses. On this basis, Van Fraassen believes that accepting the conclusion of IBEs so understood is irrational and this is simply because such inferences are supposedly not probative. In this paper the best of a bad lot objection will be addressed and it will be shown that Van Fraassen’s notorious criticism of IBE depends on a problematic conflation of two notions of rationality and thus that his criticism of IBE involves a damning equivocation. In essence, he conflates ideal standards of rationality with epistemic standards of rationality and, in so doing, makes it appear to be the case that we should not accept the conclusions of IBEs. But, when we disambiguate the concepts of rationality at work in the argument Van Fraassen’s conclusion simply does not follow.

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Michael Shaffer
Gustavus Adolphus College


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