How to Think About Indirect Confirmation

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Suppose a theory T entails hypotheses H and H′, neither of which entails the other. A number of authors have argued that a piece of evidence E “indirectly confirms” H when E confirms either T or H′. But there has been a protracted and unsettled debate about whether indirect confirmation is a sound inference procedure. Skeptics argue that the procedure employs conditions of confirmation that jointly lead to absurdity. Proponents argue that this criticism is unfounded or that its import is exaggerated. I will argue that no side has the story quite right, and some have the story quite wrong. Indirect confirmation, as characterized above, is unsound, and a good chunk of this paper will be concerned with showing why most extant defenses of the procedure err. On the other hand, when certain probabilistic (in)dependence relations hold between T, H, and H′, indirect confirmation can work, for reasons that trace back to Reichenbach’s principle of the common cause. I illustrate these matters with some contemporary and historical examples, with a particular focus on Kepler’s use of data about mars’s elliptical orbit to justify a claim about earth’s.


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