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Res Philosophica

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published on March 29, 2017

Sherri Roush
DOI: 10.11612/resphil.1537

Closure Failure and Scientific Inquiry

Deduction is important to scientific inquiry because it can extend knowledge efficiently, bypassing the need to investigate everything directly. The existence of closure failure—where one knows the premises and that the premises imply the conclusion but nevertheless does not know the conclusion—is a problem because it threatens this usage. It means that we cannot trust deduction for gaining new knowledge unless we can identify such cases ahead of time so as to avoid them. For philosophically engineered examples we have “inner alarm bells” to detect closure failure, but in scientific investigation we would want to use deduction for extension of our knowledge to matters we don’t already know that we couldn’t know. Through a quantitative treatment of how fast probabilistic sensitivity is lost over steps of deduction, I identify a condition that guarantees that the growth of potential error will be gradual; thus, dramatic closure failure is avoided. Whether the condition is fulfilled is often obvious, but sometimes it requires substantive investigation. I illustrate that not only safe deduction but the discovery of dramatic closure failures can lead to scientific advances.

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