Limits of Conceivability in the Study of the Future. Part 5. Put Up or Shut Up

Continues from previous posts.

Both cases discussed in previous posts are related to the so-called inevitability vs. contingentism debate but, in this post, we discuss a set of considerations that have been at the heart of the debate. The debate concerns the possibility of equally successful but fundamentally different science (Hacking 2000; Soler et. al 2015; however, see Kidd 2016 with a different approach). Contingentism claims that there could have been an equally successful but fundamentally different science, thus our science is contingent. Inevitabilism denies this. According to inevitabilism, our current science would develop whenever (i) there exist a genuine science that (ii) asks the same questions as the current one and (iii) is equally successful (Soler 2015). In the literature, many specifications have been made concerning the positions (Kinzel 2015). The degree of contingentism might depend on, for example, the level of science or the field of science. The details do not matter much here as we are not focusing on philosophical nuances. Rather, we will focus on one particular argument in the debate and the insights it has produced.

The so-called put-up-or-shut-up argument (or simply: put-up argument) says that “The only convincing way to make contingentism plausible would be to exhibit an actual (i.e., not just fictitious, but really existing) alternative science verifying the three conditions of genuine science, similar questions, and equal-value. [–] Until now, contingentists have been unable to provide any such alternative. [–] Until further notice, contingentism has no plausibility” (Soler 2015; see also Hacking 2000).

It is important to notice that the put-up argument requires that an actual alternative is developed. Why this is so reveals many important considerations concerning the conceivability of alternative developments. Contingentism is a claim about what could be the case. It seems that, prima facie, a counterfactual scenario that shows how an alternative science could have developed should be enough to defend contingentism. Why do counterfactual scenarios fail to convince us about the contingency of science?

Soler (2015) discusses two historiographical studies that have attempted to build plausible counterfactual scenarios leading to different science. The first one is Pickering’s work (1984) on the historical episode of the so-called discovery of weak neutral currents in the mid-1970s. Soler points out that “The same experimental data from neutrino experiments (for example the same visible tracks on films from bubble chambers) have been, in the actual history of science, actually interpreted in two contradictory ways” (2015, 58). There were two scientific symbioses (i.e., a robust fit between multiple ingredients of scientific practice) that had been proven fruitful. However, this does not convince inevitabilists. One of the symbioses is still assumed to hold today. Inevitabilists can argue that this symbiosis was better from the beginning. As the surrounding theoretical configuration and experimental means developed, only one of the symbioses was able to survive. Despite the first appearance, it was not plausible that the abandoned symbiosis could have developed to be the dominant theory of today. It seems rather impossible to establish that some historical alternative to currently accepted science would have been viable in the long run (Soler 2015, 63—65).

The second case that Soler discusses is Cushing’s study (1994) on the history of quantum theories. According to Cushing, the adoption of the standard quantum mechanics (SQM) instead of David Bohm’s theory (BQM) was contingent. The difference between Cushing’s and Pickering’s cases is that “there is a sense in which we can say that SQM and BQM are two living coexistent contemporary theories” (Soler 2015, 68). Moreover, “there is a clear and highly convincing sense in which the two physical wholes (or robust fits) under discussion are equally good. BQM is as good as SQM, in the clear sense that the two theories make exactly the same predictions”. (Soler 2015, 69). Still, there are multiple ways of denying that this case speaks for contingentism. First, there are multiple ways in which inevitabilists can deny that BQM is an interesting/non-benign alternative to SQM (Soler 2015, 71-75). Secondly, and more importantly, inevitabilists can claim that “the current coexistence of the currently equally-good SQM and BQM [will] be resolved in the future” (Soler 2015, 77). Soler concludes that “it must be stressed that the only-transiently-as-good inevitabilist reply is an in-all-circumstances-usable strategy. Whatever candidate contingentists put up as an actual, equally good, incompatible scientific alternative, inevitabilists will always have the possibility of dismissing this candidate as an alternative that is not genuine, by appealing to the temporary character of the situation.” (2015, 78.)

Again, it turns out that counterfactual scenarios might not be all that helpful in creating alternatives to the current state of affairs. Even if we could conceive a state of affairs, it can always be argued that it is not a genuine possibility. However, we should notice that the put-up argument ultimately rests on historical considerations, not on the logic of counterfactuals. As Soler points out “according to inevitabilists, the actual history of physics does not provide any grounds for contingency. [–] When looking to the actual history of our physics, the striking fact is this uniqueness, and not the proliferation of alternatives that have looked equally good to practitioners” (2015, 82). However, the is a way to resist the conclusion that inevitabilists attempt to draw from the historical pattern. If we can find the reason for the historical pattern, we are in a better position to understand why the limits of genuine possibility appear so limited.

Soler (2015, 85; see also Trizio 2008) argues that

“As it so happens, our actual way of conceiving and practicing science is monist. It is monist in the sense that the development of a multiplicity of alternatives is not valued and not socially encouraged and supported—in any of the senses of “supported,” in particular financially and materially. Our physics, and more generally our epistemic activities, are governed by a monist ideal and a uniqueness commitment that seem deeply entrenched.”

Given this, the put-up-or-shut-up argument can perhaps never be answered due to the structural features of science. We saw that counterfactual scenarios do not satisfy the inevitabilists and now we know why they cannot be fought in the actual world. However, this does not mean that there are no genuine alternatives that could have been the case (or could be the case in the future), had the resources been distributed differently. Again, our inability to tell and justify how history could have developed otherwise might not tell us much about the history (or future) itself. Everything comes down to the question of whether inevitabilism is the default position that should be accepted as long as contingentism cannot be supported (Soler 2015, 94-95). It is not obvious that it should be. However, it is difficult to tell how to assess which one, inevitabilism or contingentism, should be the default position. People with different intuitions and views on the range of genuine possibilities in human affairs probably have different answers. Inevitabilism limits the range of possible futures while contingentism opens it up. People who think that it is a good strategy to assume that the future is open will probably see methodological merit in contingentism, while people with a different intuitions and views might adopt inevitabilism. This means that we cannot use contingentism or inevitabilism as arguments for or against the possibility of alternative futures because our take on the contingentism vs. inevitabilism issue depends on our views on how many alternatives are possible in the first place. Again, as in the previous post, we see that even the most detailed historical and historiographical analysis cannot do much to help us to exceed the limits of conceivability.


Cushing, James T. (1994). Quantum Mechanics: Historical Contingency and the Copenhagen Hegemony. University of Chicago Press.

Hacking, Ian (2000). “How inevitable are the results of successful science?”. Philosophy of Science 67 (3). 58–71.

Kidd, Ian James (2016). “Inevitability, contingency, and epistemic humility”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 55:12-19.

Kinzel, Katherina (2015). “State of the field: Are the results of science contingent or inevitable?”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 52.

Pickering, Andrew (1984). Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics. University of Chicago Press.

Soler, Léna & Trizio, Emiliano & Pickering, Andrew (2015). Science As It Could Have Been. Discussing the Contingency/Inevitability Problem. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Soler, Léna (2015). “Why Contingentists Should Not Care about the Inevitabilist Demand to “Put-Up-or-Shut-Up”: A Dialogic Reconstruction of the Argumentative Network”. In Léna Soler, Emiliano Trizio and Andrew Pickering (eds.). Science As It Could Have Been. Discussing the Contingency/Inevitability Problem. University of Pittsburgh Press. 45-98.

Trizio, Emiliano (2008). “How Many Sciences for One World? Contingency and the Success of Science”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 39: 253–58.

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