The Duhem–Quine thesis

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The Duhem–Quine thesis

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The Duhem–Quine thesis essentially says that we can never know something with absolute certainty, and we will always be relying on some kind of unprovable assumption, even in the hard sciences.

For example, let’s say someone says “If you don’t pasteurize your milk, it will have living bacteria in it, and that might make you sick.” To prove it, they put some milk on a microscope slide and have you look through the eye piece, where you see some shapes appearing to swim around. Have they ***absolutely proven*** that the milk contains bacteria? Well, no. They are assuming that the microscope isn’t a disguised media player that was preloaded with a video of bacteria. They are assuming that the lens doesn’t have scratches or deformations that make slight changes in light source intensity appear like something else. They are assuming that the objects are swimming, rather than being carried by fluid currents or Brownian motion of fluid particles.

Those assumptions are ***reasonable***. They are fair, and you should be willing to spend more money on pasteurized milk to protect your health because of that. But they are still assumptions. We can never ultimately prove anything beyond ***all*** doubt, just beyond all reasonable doubt. The goal of the hard sciences should be to develop techniques that make the assumptions as minimal and reasonable as possible, so that there’s less question about what the truth is likely to be.