In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Theoretical Virtues in Science

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Inference to the Best Explanation
  • Theoretical Virtues in the Scientific Realism Debate
  • Virtues in Philosophical Theorizing about Science
  • Virtues and Laws of Nature
  • Theoretical Virtues in Psychological Research

Philosophy Theoretical Virtues in Science
Samuel Schindler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0409


A theoretical virtue in science is a property of a scientific theory that is considered desirable. Standard theoretical virtues include testability, empirical accuracy, simplicity, unification, consistency, coherence, and fertility. First highlighted by Thomas S. Kuhn in a seminal paper in 1977, theoretical virtues have come to play an important role in a number of philosophical debates. A central bone of contention in many of these debates is whether theoretical virtues are epistemic, i.e., whether they are indicative of a theory’s correctness, or whether they are just pragmatic, concerning only the convenient use of a theory. Particularly contested virtues are simplicity and unifying power. In the scientific realism debate, in which philosophers argue about whether or not scientific theories allow us to uncover the reality behind the phenomena, scientific realists have argued that virtuous theories are more likely to be correct than a less virtuous ones, even when they accommodate the same data. In the closely related debate about the so-called Inference to the Best Explanation, realists have argued that not only can we determine the best explanation on the basis of its virtues, but we can also determine which explanation is the true one. In discussions about “theory choice” or “theory appraisal,” philosophers discuss which virtues might be most decisive in scientists’ deliberations about which theory they should adopt. Here a theory’s successful novel predictions, or novel successes for short, have been a particular focus. Philosophers have also discussed possible trade-offs between various virtues and the difficulties which these may pose for theory choice. Samir Okasha has argued recently that there cannot be any rational algorithm for theory choice. Theoretical virtues also play a role in philosophical accounts of the laws of nature. One extremely prominent account, namely David Lewis’ Best System Analysis, appeals to simplicity and unifying power to determine what generalizations qualify as genuine laws of nature (rather than just accidentally true generalizations). Even in philosophical theorizing about science, theoretical virtues have been appealed to: Rudolf Carnap believed that simplicity and fruitfulness were important desiderata guiding the explication of scientific concepts. Finally, psychologists have started to investigate the role of theoretical virtues in picking explanations. There is work that appears to show that children and adults have preferences for simple and broad theories.

General Overviews

Kuhn 1977 is the locus classicus for theoretical virtues in theory choice and has shaped subsequent discussions. Kuhn famously argues that the virtues are vague and often in conflict and therefore cannot determine theory choice. McMullin 1982, Laudan 1986, and Douglas 2014 develop Kuhn’s account and criticize it. Lipton 2004 is the standard work on Inference to the Best Explanation. Theoretical virtues in Lipton’s work figure as properties of “lovely” explanations that make explanations also more likely. The author of McAllister 1999 considers theoretical virtues to be really just aesthetic tastes that form on the basis of theories’ empirical success and that can change. His book contains a discussion of simplicity and other virtues and their (alleged lack of) relation to truth. Sober 2015 provides an authoritative treatment of simplicity, also providing an overview of its author’s own many important contributions to the topic. Baker 2016 is a good encyclopedic entry on simplicity. Schindler 2018 offers an up-to-date book-length discussion of all the standard theoretical virtues and the question of their epistemicity. Lombrozo 2016 reviews the psychological research on theoretical virtues in explanations.

  • Baker, Alan. “Simplicity.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2016.

    Standard reference on simplicity.

  • Douglas, Heather. “The Value of Cognitive Values.” Philosophy of Science 80.5 (2014): 796–806.

    Offers a more fine-grained account of virtues than Kuhn, one which she claims reduces the vagueness of each virtue and the tension between the virtues. Article available for download online.

  • Kuhn, Thomas S. “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice.” In The Essential Tension. By Thomas S. Kuhn, 320–333. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

    Classic paper on theoretical virtues and theory choice.

  • Laudan, Larry. Science and Values: The Aims of Science and Their Role in Scientific Debate. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

    Develops a “reticulated model” of scientific change, which incorporates theoretical virtues as one among three factors.

  • Lipton, Peter. Inference to the Best Explanation. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2004.

    Standard work on the Inference to the Best Explanation.

  • Lombrozo, Tania. “Explanatory Preferences Shape Learning and Inference.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 20.10 (2016): 748–759.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.08.001

    Review article summarizing the psychological research on theoretical virtues in explanation.

  • McAllister, James W. Beauty and Revolution in Science. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

    Argues that theoretical virtues are the result of aesthetic judgments that depend on a theory’s empirical success.

  • McMullin, Ernan. “Values in Science.” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association. Vol. 2, Symposia and Invited Papers. Edited by Peter D. Asquith and Thomas Nickles, 3–28. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

    Provides an overview of theoretical virtues.

  • Schindler, Samuel. Theoretical Virtues in Science: Uncovering Reality through Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    Provides a systematic overview and discussion of theoretical virtues, in particular with regard to the realism debate.

  • Sober, Elliott. Ockham’s Razors. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    Authoritative book on simplicity.

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