The web of belief approach: The case with Newton’s physics and relativity

This will not involve many science facts as the discussion is wholly philosophical in nature. This is an epistemological, not scientific essay, it just happens to use some facts of science.

I want to show the value of thinking of things as inconsistent sets of propositions (or whatever truth carrier you like, but I like propositions) or at least implausible sets of propositions (when at least one inference is inductive (or non-deductive, if you like that term better)).

Consider this set of propositions:

  1. Newton’s physics is correct.
  2. Things are in a such and such way at time t1.
  3. That Newton’s physics is correct and things are in a such and such way at time t1, implies that things will happen in such and such way at time t2.
  4. A study found that such and such did not happen at time t2.
  5. The study is correct.
  6. That the study is correct implies that such and such did not happen at time t2.

This set is plainly inconsistent; it cannot be true. At least one proposition in this set is false. Suppose we are around the time when Einstein introduced his relativity theories. At that time physicists had pretty good reason to believe (1) (among others: good explanatory power, lots of empiric confirmation), and I’m sure some people called physicists who did not stop believing in Newton’s physics even when some studies found results that are contrary to the predictions of Newton’s physics given some antecedent state of affairs dogmatic. I’m fairly sure such a claim of dogmatism is often thrown around in similar cases.

My point is that it is unwise to claim someone is being dogmatic quickly. For there are many things other than some widely accepted theory that could be wrong (in this case (1)). We could be wrong about the antecedent states of affairs (in this case (2)), or wrong about what the theory predicts (in this case (3)) given that state of affairs; perhaps the scientist that make the prediction from the theory made a calculation error. Something similar applies the the study that ‘challenges’ the accepted theory (in this case (5)). So there are many things that could be wrong without the accepted theory being false. It is wise to consider that before calling people that are being epistemically conservative for dogmatic.

The method of putting the relevant propositions in an inconsistent set forces us to be made aware of some perhaps not normally discussed propositions without which the set would be consistent (or not-implausible). Usually in a moderately complex case such as the one with Newton’s physics, a set of propositions that form as inconsistent set (or implausible) will contain 5-10 propositions. In more complex cases, the sets can be much longer (such as very complex cases involving the impossibility of an infinite past which involves temporal and modal logic). In general, the more propositions we can find that together forms an inconsistent set (or implausible), the better overview, and the easier to is to make a justified decision about which proposition(s) to stop believing in in the case that one actually believes all of them. If we are to avoid inconsistent beliefs (=inconsistent objects of beliefs), then we should think of the many potentially epistemically justified ways there are to deal with a such inconsistent set.

In the above case, rejecting (4) would probably not be a wise decision, neither would it be to reject (6). If there is only one study and it is not exceptionally well done, then rejecting (5) is probably not a bad decision to begin with. If more studies (by competent scientists) confirm the first study, then sooner or later we should begin wondering if not our beliefs would have better coherence were we to reject the theory (1). But before we do that we should consider other alternatives such as (2) and (3). It would not be good if we rejected some theory and later found it that we had no grounds to do that because we were wrong about what the antecedent state of affair was (2).

This way of solving problems (which usually involve an inconsistency of we add together the relevant propositions to a set), is applicable to every topic that I have thought of. It is especially useful to very complex situations where it is hard to get an overview and it seems hard to settle on a specific solution (that is, hard to find out which proposition is the epistemically most justified to deny).

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