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Provisional knowledge

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Physics, and science generally, rarely function according to the mechanist tradition of founding all scientific knowledge on ‘shaped matter in motion’ of the parts of a system. Rather we employ a vast range of explanatory strategies a great many of which work in terms of ‘stripping detail’ when detail is not relevant to the problem at hand. Most of these strategies involve some level of idealisation, inaccuracy, or distortion, which raises the worry: When accounts in science involve distortion, how can they count as knowledge? This problem motivates reconstruing knowledge, and in particular its requirement of (exact) truth in its content component, in terms of the kinds of standards that require something less than perfect precision and accuracy, much as the context and interest dependent standards that we apply for representational accuracy of things such as maps and pictures. Since, logically, no evaluation by comparison with an unrepresented reality is possible, evaluation of any representational scheme can take place only on the basis of some other (in general) relatively precise and accurate scheme; and the scheme that functions as our platform for the moment can only be evaluated pragmatically.

This talk is part of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science series.

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