Understanding and scientific progress: lessons from epistemology

Nicholas Emmerson

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    Contemporary debate surrounding the nature of scientific progress has focused upon the precise role played by justification, with two realist accounts having dominated proceedings. Recently, however, a third realist account has been put forward, one which offers no role for justification at all. According to Finnur Dellsén’s (Stud Hist Philos Sci Part A 56:72–83, 2016) noetic account, science progresses when understanding increases, that is, when scientists grasp how to correctly explain or predict more aspects of the world that they could before. In this paper, we argue that the noetic account is severely undermotivated. Dellsén provides three examples intended to show that understanding can increase absent the justification required for true belief to constitute knowledge. However, we demonstrate that a lack of clarity in each case allows for two contrasting interpretations, neither of which serves its intended purpose. On the first, the agent involved lacks both knowledge and understanding; and, on the second, the agent involved successfully gains both knowledge and understanding. While neither interpretation supports Dellsén’s claim that understanding can be prised apart from knowledge, we argue that, in general, agents in such cases ought to be attributed neither knowledge nor understanding. Given that the separability of knowledge and understanding is a necessary component of the noetic account, we conclude that there is little support for the idea that science progresses through increasing understanding rather than the accumulation of knowledge.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages18
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 17 Feb 2022


    • Justification
    • Knowledge
    • Scientifica progress
    • Understanding


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