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Durham University

Department of Philosophy

Unconceived Alternatives and Epistemic Humility

1st-2nd July 2013, St John’s College, Durham University

Generously funded by the British Society for the Philosophy of Science, the Mind Association, and the Department of Philosophy, Durham University.

Keynote speakers

Kyle Stanford (UC Irvine), Nancy Cartwright (UCSD and Durham), Patrick Forber (Tufts), Michael Devitt (CUNY), Ian James Kidd (Durham), Darrell Rowbottom (Lingnan, Hong Kong), Juha Saatsi (Leeds).

Aims and scope

This conference is the first dedicated to a critical study of the argument against scientific realism developed by Kyle Stanford, which he calls ‘the problem of unconceived alternatives’.

The historical record of scientific inquiry, Stanford suggests, is characterized by a persistent failure on the part of successive generations of enquirers to conceive of alternatives to their own, alternatives that would have been both well-confirmed by the evidence available at the time and that were sufficiently serious as to be ultimately accepted by later scientific communities. Moreover, Stanford has argued further that this historical pattern strongly suggests that there may be equally empirically adequate and scientifically serious alternatives to our own best theories that remain currently unconceived.

This conference has four aims: (i) to provide a forum for the presentation and discussion of the most up-to-date forms of, and responses to, the problem of unconceived alternatives, (ii) to ask whether it really is the challenge to realism that Stanford supposes, (iii) to bring social epistemology into the debate by asking how the social structures of scientific enquiry affect those enquirers’ abilities to identify and develop alternatives to prevailing theories, (iv) to consider metaphysical and epistemological issues concerning our capacity to exhaust what Stanford calls the ‘space of epistemic possibilities’.