The Identical Rivals response to underdetermination
P. D. Magnus
Dept of Philosophy
State University of New York, Albany
Abstract: The underdetermination of theory by data obtains when, inescapably, evidence is insufficient to allow scientists to decide responsibly between rival theories. One response to would-be underdetermination is to deny that the rival theories are distinct theories at all, insisting instead that they are just different formulations of the same underlying theory; we call this the identical rivals response.
An argument adapted from John Norton suggests that the response is presumptively always appropriate, while another from Larry Laudan and Jarrett Leplin suggests that the response is never appropriate.
Arguments from Einstein for the special and general theories of relativity may fruitfully be seen as instances of the identical rivals response; since Einstein's arguments are generally accepted, the response is at least sometimes appropriate. But when is it appropriate? We attempt to steer a middle course between Norton's view and that of Laudan and Leplin: the identical rivals response is appropriate when there is good reason for adopting a parsimonious ontology. Although in simple cases the identical rivals response need not involve any ontological difference between the theories, in actual scientific cases it typically requires treating apparent posits of the various theories as mere verbal ornaments or computational conveniences. Since these would-be posits are not now detectable, there is no reliable way to decide whether we should eliminate them or not. As such, there is no rule for deciding whether the identical rivals response is appropriate or not. Nevertheless, there are considerations that suggest for and against the response; we conclude by suggesting two of them.