Coincidence and reproducibility in the EHT black hole experiment

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This paper discusses some philosophical aspects related to the recent publication of the experimental results of the 2017 black hole experiment, namely the first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of galaxy M87. In this paper I present a philosophical analysis of the 2017 Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) black hole experiment. I first present Hacking's philosophy of experimentation. Hacking gives his taxonomy of elements of laboratory science and distinguishes a list of elements. I show that the EHT experiment conforms to major elements from Hacking's list. I then describe with the help of Galison's Philosophy of the Shadow how the EHT Collaboration created the famous black hole image. Galison outlines three stages for the reconstruction of the black hole image: Socio-Epistemology, Mechanical Objectivity, after which there is an additional Socio-Epistemology stage. I subsequently present my own interpretation of the reconstruction of the black hole image and I discuss model fitting to data. I suggest that the main method used by the EHT Collaboration to assure trust in the results of the EHT experiment is what philosophers call the Argument from Coincidence. I show that using this method for the above purpose is problematic. I present two versions of the Argument from Coincidence: Hacking's Coincidence and Cartwright's Reproducibility by which I analyse the EHT experiment. The same estimation of the mass of the black hole is reproduced in four different procedures. The EHT Collaboration concludes: the value we have converged upon is robust. I analyse the mass measurements of the black hole with the help of Cartwright's notion of robustness. I show that the EHT Collaboration construe Coincidence/Reproducibility as Technological Agnosticism and I contrast this interpretation with van Fraassen's scientific agnosticism.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-78
Number of pages16
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science
StatePublished - Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
I want to acknowledge the funding for this study provided by ERC advanced grant number 834735 . I would like to thank Gil Kalai for helping with this research project. I thank the anonymous referee for their useful suggestions and I thank James Ladyman for his insightful comments. This paper is based on my essay “Observation and Simulation: The First Black Hole Image” which earned me a honourable mention in the “2019 Philosophy of Cosmology Essay Competition”, organized by the project “New Directions in Philosophy of Cosmology”, funded by the John Templeton Foundation . I would like to thank Chris Smeenk and James Weatherall for granting me this award and Deborah Fox for her administrative help.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Ltd


  • Black hole
  • Computer simulation
  • Event horizon telescope
  • General relativity
  • Philosophy of experimentation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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