The Underdetermination of Theory by Data

  • William Newton-Smith
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series in Philosophy book series (PSSP, volume 21)


Can there be theories which are underdetermined by all actual and possible observations? That is, can there be logically incompatible but empirically equivalent theories? In this paper which falls into three sections it will be argued that a suitably refined version of this question ought to be answered in the affirmative. In the first section of the paper attention will be drawn to an insufficiently appreciated reason for being interested in this question. For most recent discussion related to this question has focused not on the question itself but on Quine’s notorious claim that as all theories are underdetermined, translation is indeterminate. If we consider the current fashion in the philosophy of science for realism we will be able to discern other reasons for being interested in the question. For as I shall argue giving an affirmative answer to the question is not compatible with realism as it is standardly understood. In section 2 I will consider the arguments that have been or might be advanced for thinking that theories cannot be underdetermined. Having rejected these arguments I will seek to establish that underdetermination can arise by constructing examples. In the final section I developed two different modifications the realist might make in his position in the face of what will be called the realist’s dilemma. While the reasons will be given for favoring one of these responses, it will not be possible to definitely adjudicate between them within the confines of the present paper.


Closed Time Newtonian Mechanic Theoretical Proposition Rival Theory Aristotelian Society 
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Copyright information

© The Aristotelian Society 1978

Authors and Affiliations

  • William Newton-Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Balliol CollegeOxfordEngland

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