Modal inferences in science: A tale of two epistemologies

Ilmari Hirvonen, Rami Koskinen (Corresponding author), Ilkka Pättiniemi

Publications: Contribution to journalArticlePeer Reviewed


Recent epistemology of modality has seen a growing trend towards metaphysics-first approaches. Contrastingly, this paper offers a more philosophically modest account of justifying modal claims, focusing on the practices of scientific modal inferences. Two ways of making such inferences are identified and analyzed: actualist-manipulationist modality (AM) and relative modality (RM). In AM, what is observed to be or not to be the case in actuality or under manipulations, allows us to make modal inferences. AM-based inferences are fallible, but the same holds for practically all empirical inquiry. In RM, modal inferences are evaluated relative to what is kept fixed in a system, like a theory or a model. RM-based inferences are more certain but framework-dependent. While elements from both AM and RM can be found in some existing accounts of modality, it is worth highlighting them in their own right and isolating their features for closer scrutiny. This helps to establish their relevant epistemologies that are free from some strong philosophical assumptions often attached to them in the literature. We close by showing how combining these two routes amounts to a view that accounts for a rich variety of modal inferences in science.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13823-13843
Number of pages21
JournalSynthese: an international journal for epistemology, methodology and philosophy of science
Issue number5-6
Early online date27 Sep 2021
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021

Austrian Fields of Science 2012

  • 603102 Epistemology
  • 603124 Theory of science


  • epistemology of modality
  • possibility
  • necessity
  • scientific inference
  • relative modality
  • manipulation
  • Necessity
  • Relative modality
  • Possibility
  • Epistemology of modality
  • Scientific inference
  • Manipulation

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