The Duhem Thesis And The Quine Thesis

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Or should Duhem’s particular focus on physics be ignored and his thesis taken to state that no experiment in any science can “condemn an isolated hypothesis”?

Donald Gillies argues that “Duhem is correct to limit the scope of his thesis, but wrong to identify its scope with that of a particular branch of science—namely, physics.” Gillies is right that physics is not now the proper scope for the Duhem thesis.

In Duhem’s time these were both characteristics which physics held far more strongly than other sciences; they were both strong distinctions.

Since then, physics has become less unique in both of these respects, though it still displays these traits more prominently than does, for example, biology.In mature sciences, however, these experiments have already been conducted.We already know that if we drop an apple it will fall, but we might not know what happens when one cuts a nerve root in an animal.As a result, if a physicist uses a hypothesis to make a prediction about the result of an experiment and the prediction is incorrect, the physicist should not automatically conclude that the hypothesis is incorrect as well; the prediction could also be false if one of the auxiliary theories is false.“What he learns,” wrote Duhem, “is that at least one of the hypotheses constituting this group is unacceptable and ought to be modified; but the experiment does not designate which one should be changed.” One of the many controversies surrounding the Duhem thesis is that of its domain: should it in fact apply only to physics, as Duhem stated?In addition to the cognitive apparatus provided by auxiliary theories, physics experiments typically require physical instruments, which themselves can only be read and understood in the light of theories.The thermometer, for example, depends upon a theory of temperature as well as upon the assertion, perhaps too simple to term a theory, of a relationship between a thermometer’s appearance and the temperature of its environment.These concepts, expressed through the “symbolic representations” of mathematics, are necessary in order to design an experiment with any substantial sophistication.The Duhem thesis thus applies to physics, or at least to its mature subfields.When many philosophers talk about experimental sciences, they think only of sciences still close to their origins, e.g., physiology or certain branches of chemistry where the experimenter reasons directly on the facts by a method which is only common sense brought to greater attentiveness but where mathematical theory has not yet introduced its symbolic representations.Immature sciences can benefit from simple experiments and observations which do not rely on other theories.


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