Underdetermination, methodological practices, and the case of John Snow
Dept of Philosophy
University of Missouri , Kansas City
Abstract: My talk will be guided by the idea that there are some familiar scientific practices that are epistemically significant. I will argue that we can test for the success of these practices empirically by examining cases in the history of science. Specifically, I will reconstruct one particular episode in the history of medicine – John Snow's reasoning concerning the infectiousness of cholera – and offer this case as a concrete example of the sort of empirical research that needs to be done in order to discover what kinds of methodological practices and rules are actually of epistemic interest. Analysing this case, I will explain how it (and other cases like it) can help us resolve specific cases of underdetermination. After exploring some possible anti-realist responses to this argument, I will conclude that, while the anti-realist is (more or less legitimately) able to construct underdetermination scenarios on a case-by-case basis, he will likely have to abandon the strategy of using algorithms to do so, thus losing the much needed guarantee that there will always be rival cases of the required kind.