Contingency and inevitability in science - Instruments, interfaces and the independent world

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It is argued that the meaning of inevitability and contingency depends on the position someone has in the realism/constructivism debate. Furthermore, it is argued that analyzing what we mean by inevitable versus contingent knowledge adds a new dimension to the realism/constructivism debate. Scientific realist and social constructivist views of science often lead to, respectively, too high expectations and too low confidence in what science can do. This controversy is not always productive for scientific practices that work in the context of practical applications (e.g., the engineering sciences). The aim of this paper is to make a contribution to a more viable view of those scientific practices. The approach taken is to construe two philosophical stances within which the meaning of inevitability and contingency is examined. The first stance is called metaphysical realism. It is construed such that it fits Hacking’s (2000) ideas on the inevitability of scientific knowledge. The second stance is called epistemological constructivism. The two stances agree that there is an independent world which sets limits to our knowledge, but they disagree on whether we must assume the existence of a pre-given, or even, knowable structure in the world. The dissonance between the two stances is reduced such that just one significant epistemological issue remains, namely, which part(s) of science are inevitable? Next, the contingency of science is interpreted in terms of Giere’s (2006) notion of scientific perspectivism. This view emphasizes the role of (different kinds of) instruments in providing epistemic access to the world – which is why we cannot attain mirror-like knowledge of the world. Both stances agree on this view. Yet, when considering the apparent presuppositions of perspectivism an additional epistemological issue arises, namely, whether a clear distinction can be made between the object and representations (i.e., perspectives) of that object. In order to be more faithful to concrete scientific practice, it is proposed to consider (different kinds of) instruments as interfaces rather than perspectives on something. In the epistemological constructivist stance, interfaces transform material or symbolic or electronic or whatever input, which cannot be directly perceived or known by us, to output that can be perceived, experienced and/or conceived (e.g., numbers, tables, graphs). Finally, the materiality of (different kinds of) instruments is crucial for explaining which parts of science are inevitable
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationScience as it could have been: discussing the contingent/inevitable aspects of scientific practices
EditorsL. Soler, E. Trizio, A. Pickering
Place of PublicationPittsburgh
PublisherUniversity of Pittsburgh Press
ISBN (Print)9780822944454
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Publication series

PublisherUniversity of Pittsburgh Press


  • IR-95167
  • METIS-310055

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