Unconceived Alternatives and Scientific Realism

July 1, 2013 - July 2, 2013
St John’s College, Durham University

United Kingdom

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  • British Society for the Philosophy of Science
  • Mind Association
  • Department of Philosophy, Durham University


Nancy Cartwright
Durham University
Michael Devitt
City University of New York
Tufts University
Ian James Kidd
Durham University
Darrell Rowbottom
Lingnan University
Juha Saatsi
University of Leeds
Kyle Stanford
University of California, Irvine

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Aims and scope

This conference is the first dedicated to a critical study of the argument against scientific realism developed by Kyle Stanford, which he calls ‘the problem of unconceived alternatives’.

The historical record of scientific inquiry, Stanford suggests, is characterized by a persistent failure on the part of successive generations of enquirers to conceive of alternatives to their own, alternatives that would have been both well-confirmed by the evidence available at the time and sufficiently serious as to be ultimately accepted by later scientific communities. Moreover, Stanford has argued further that this historical pattern strongly suggests that there may be equally empirically adequate and scientifically serious alternatives to our own best theories that remain currently unconceived.

This conference has four aims: (i) to provide a forum for the presentation and discussion of the most up-to-date forms of, and responses to, the problem of unconceived alternatives, (ii) to ask whether it really is the original challenge to realism that Stanford supposes, (iii) to bring social epistemology into the debate by asking how the social structures of scientific enquiry affect those enquirers’ abilities to identify and develop alternatives to prevailing theories, (iv) to consider metaphysical and epistemological issues concerning our capacity to exhaust what Stanford calls the ‘space of epistemic possibilities’.


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