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A priori conjectural knowledge in physics

Maxwell, N; (2011) A priori conjectural knowledge in physics. In: Shaffer, M and Veber, M, (eds.) What place for the a priori? (211 - 240). Open Court: Chicago, US.

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The history of western philosophy is split to its core by a long-standing, fundamental dispute. On the one hand there are the so-called empiricists, like Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Mill, Russell, the logical positivists, A. J. Ayer, Karl Popper and most scientists, who hold empirical considerations alone can be appealed to in justifying, or providing a rationale for, claims to factual knowledge, there being no such thing as a priori knowledge – items of factual knowledge that are accepted on grounds other than the empirical. And on the other hand there are the so-called rationalists, like Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Bradley, McTaggart, who hold that a priori knowledge does exist, and even plays a crucial role in science. This long-standing dispute is resolved by the line of thought developed in this essay. The empiricists were right to deny the existence of a priori knowledge where this means factual knowledge of apodictic certainty justified independently of any appeal to experience. They were wrong, however, to deny the existence of a priori knowledge where this means conjectural items of factual knowledge whose acceptance is justified independently of any appeal to experience. Science requires there to be a priori knowledge in this latter sense, and two items of such knowledge will be exhibited. In addition to resolving this empiricist/rationalist dispute, the essay also develops a new conception of science – aim-oriented empiricism – and solves the long-standing problem of what it means to say of a theory that it is unified or explanatory. Furthermore, aim-oriented empiricism does not just change our conception of science; it requires that science itself needs to change. Science needs to become much more like the 17th century conception of natural philosophy, intermingling consideration of testable theories with consideration of untestable metaphysical, epistemological and methodological ideas. The whole relationship between science and the philosophy of science is transformed. The philosophy of science, construed as the exploration and critical assessment of rival ideas about what the aims and methods of science ought to be, ceases to be a meta-discipline, and becomes an integral part of science – or natural philosophy – itself.

Type: Book chapter
Title: A priori conjectural knowledge in physics
ISBN-13: 9780812696608
Publisher version: http://www.opencourtbooks.com/
Language: English
Keywords: Theoretical physics, theoretical unity, a priori knowledge, scientific method, metaphysics, empiricism, natural philosophy.
UCL classification: UCL > School of BEAMS
UCL > School of BEAMS > Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1329623
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