Exceeding Our Grasp
Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives
Oxford University Press 2006
Should we really believe what our best scientific theories tell us about the world, especially about parts of the world that we can’t see?
This question informs a long history of debates over scientific realism and the extent to which we trust what contemporary and future scientific theories tell us about unobservable phenomena. Using the history of science as an evidentiary archive, Kyle Stanford explores this set of problems in Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives (Oxford University Press, 2006; paperback, 2010). He suggests that we reframe the problem as one of “unconceived alternatives.” Put briefly, if we look at the history of scientific inquiry we’ll see that scientists have repeatedly occupied an epistemic position from which they could conceive of only a fraction of the theories that would have been amply supported by existing evidence. Stanford develops this idea and demonstrates its significance via a series of case studies from the early history of theorizing about generation and inheritance, moving from Darwin’s “mad dream” to Galton’s rabbit transfusion experiments and Weismann’s theory of germ-plasm. Over the course of our conversation we talked, among other things, about the ways that a project like this can contribute to efforts to create a broader trans-disciplinary dialogue across the vast terrain of STS. Enjoy!