Getting Real: Underdetermination and the Hypothesis of Organic Fossil Origins
Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science
University of California, Irvine
Abstract: In this talk I will examine the historical fortunes of a particular scientific hypothesis to begin exploring just when the historical record of recurrent, transient underdetermination should and should not lead us to take what I have called the problem of unconceived alternatives as a serious threat to realism about our best scientific theories. I will argue that although the hypothesis that fossil objects are the remains of once-living creatures has been vulnerable to the problem for most of its scientific career, it does not remain so at present, and that this is because the hypothesis now rests most centrally on a kind of straightforward inductive projection rather than on evidence that is fundamentally abductive in character. I will conclude by trying to draw some more general lessons from this case, perhaps most importantly that we should expect to be better able to resist the challenge from unconceived alternatives and recurrent, transient underdetermination in so-called "historical" sciences like geology and evolutionary biology, where we should most frequently expect to be able to accumulate evidence of this projective variety.