The Quine-Duhem Thesis
This paper is an in-depth study of the Quine-Duhem thesis which denies that the disconfirmation of a theory can be forced upon a practitioner by the evidence itself.
This paper examines the Quine-Duhem thesis, exploring what it tells us about the nature of knowledge. The author gives the reader background on Quine and Duhem’s own thinking in order to lay the foundation for their joint work. The author looks at different theories presented in physics by Newton and then discusses Popper’s theory on falsification. The author then looks at issues concerning ontology and the related issues of logic. At each of these stages the author uses examples from the Quine-Duhem thesis to show differences and in some cases to refute the theory being discussed. According to the author, the Quine-Duhem thesis tells us that what we know about the philosophy of science, is dependent on what we are willing to acknowledge that we do not know, and the great question for science thus shifts from one that is entirely ontological to one that is at the heart of our humanity.
“Whether the false prediction resulted from the falsity of the tested hypothesis or the falsity of some other one or more of the auxiliary assumptions is not known. However, according to the Quine-Duhem thesis, it is in fact possible by suitable modification or buttressing of the proper auxiliary hypotheses to save any theory from potential refutation. Furthermore, it is often claimed that historical research shows that scientists do frequently do precisely this. (This need not be, it is probably obvious but may be worth pointing out, the kind of behavior that we consider to be fraud or scientific dishonesty, but rather may lie well within the margin of error of interpretation and observation. Hence it would seem that, to deny to Popper everything that he has ever seemingly believed in, theories cannot be definitively refuted any more than they can be confirmed (Carnap, 1956, p. 71).”