Pessimistic Induction

Joseph Priestley

In the philosophy of science, the pessimistic induction is an argument which seeks to rebut scientific realism, the belief that we have good reasons to believe that our presently successful scientific theories are true or approximately true, where approximate truth means a theory is able to make novel predictions.

Pessimistic induction undermines the realist’s warrant for his epistemic optimism via historical counterexample. Using meta-induction, philosopher of science Larry Laudan argues that if past scientific theories which were successful were found to be false, we have no reason to believe the realist’s claim that our currently successful theories are approximately true. The argument was first fully postulated by Laudan in 1981.

Scientific realists see shortcomings in the historic examples Laudan gives as proof of his hypothesis. Theories later refuted, like that of crystalline spheres in astronomy, or the phlogiston theory do not represent the most successful theories at their time. Additionally, scientific progress does indeed approximate the truth. When we develop a new theory, the central ideas of the old one usually become refuted. Parts of the old theory, however, carry over to the new one. In doing so, our theories become more and more well-founded on other principles, they become better in terms of predictive and descriptive power.

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