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By Barwick S.G., Butler D.K.

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Here I will simply proceed with the reasonable assumption that significant discontinuity is a fact of much of scientific history, and the realist should have something to say about it. The most promising suggestion for realism here comes from a familiar adage. As in life generally, so too in science: do not believe everything you are told. Not all aspects of scientific theories are to be believed. Theories can be interpreted as making many claims about the nature of reality, but at best one has good grounds, or epistemic warrant, for believing some of these claims.

Many responses to Larry Laudan’s (1981) version of PI, for example, take issue with the list of theories he cites as evidence, arguing that if one factors in the further qualifications assumed by realists – the notion of maturity, the exclusion of ad hoc theories, the importance of novel predictions, and so on – the data for pessimism are greatly reduced. No doubt, if it is the case that radical discontinuities in scientific theorizing are relatively rare, the realist is in better shape than PI suggests.

One issue at the level of meta-stances is particularly important to the present discussion: the question of which of innumerable possible stances one should adopt. Van Fraassen advocates a view according to which it is rationally permissible to hold any stance and believe any set of facts that meet certain minimal constraints; for example, but not exclusively, those that harbour no logical inconsistency or probabilistic incoherence. This account of rationality, which he calls ‘voluntarism’, is opposed to the idea that any one stance (and associated set of beliefs) is rationally compelled.

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