What’s Scientific Anti-Realism?

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Scientific anti-realism is the view which skeptical of the objectivity of science and the scientific method. According to philosopher William Lane Craig,

“[R]ecently, however, postmodern relativism has invaded science as well, threatening to undermine the objectivity of the scientific enterprise. Old-line historical relativists prized the objectivity of science because it served them well as a foil for exposing what they considered to be the comparative non-objectivity of historical constructions. But during the 1960s proponents of so-called Weltanschauung analyses of scientific theories, such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, radically challenged the old, positivistic view of science” (1).

According to Kuhn and Feyerabend scientific work took place within the context of one’s own all-embracing worldview. They referred to this all-embracing worldview as the Weltanschauung or paradigm. Their argument was that for scientists working within the paradigm of their worldview, the observations they made about the natural world were not neutral but theory-laden. Thus, the very meanings of terms used by scientists were determined by their paradigm, so that scientists working within a different paradigm weren’t even talking about the same things. As such, what counted as a fact was therefore determined by the scientist’s Weltanschauung, meaning that there were no neutral facts available for assessing the adequacy of two rival scientific theories. Craig explains that,

“On this analysis, scientific change from one theory to another becomes fundamentally arational and is to be explained sociologically. On Weltanschauung analyses, scientists find themselves in the same boat with historical relativists, for scientific theories are constructions which are not based on objective facts and cannot claim to describe the world as it actually is” (2).

In this way, the scientific anti-realist (and relativist) might argue that a scientist’s understanding of the present is just as much a theoretical construction as is the historian’s understanding of the past. Both constructions cannot be checked for correspondence with objective facts, since one’s Weltanschauung determines what the facts are. Theologian Tina Beattie explains that,

“Some radical postmodernists would argue that all science is socially constructed: that is, it is a way of relating to the material world which is entirely determined by its cultural and intellectual environment, and which lacks any grounding in objective reality and facts. ” (3).

However, Beattie states that shes thinks “that’s going too far,” and therefore urges one to be aware of his his or her own assumptions,

“As Thomas Kuhn argues, the scientific community operates with a set of ‘received beliefs’ about the way the world is, which conditions its research. Scientists, like religious believers, need to be attentive to the ways in which their received prejudices and unchallenged assumptions can obscure their openness to new ideas” (4).

But, as one may point out, doesn’t the scientist possess direct accessibility to the objects of scientific study? Perhaps to an extent, but not always. Philosopher Craig argues that,

“it is naïve to think that the scientist always has direct access to his objects of study. Not only is the scientist largely dependent on the reports of others’ research for his own work, but furthermore, the objects of the scientist’s research are often only indirectly accessible, especially in the highly theoretical fields like physics. Such theoretical entities as black holes, quarks, and neutrinos are postulated as the best explanations for the observable data, but they themselves cannot be directly observed. It might be thought that this point actually serves to reinforce the relativist’s objection…” (5).

But as Craig and Beattie both observe, this is perhaps going to far. It is by no means the case that because the scientist does not always has direct access to his or her objects of study that it necessarily supports an anti-realist view.

References

1. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (3rd edition). p. 472 (Scribd ebook format)

2. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid.

3. Beattie, Tina. 2008. The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion. p. 90 (Scribd ebook format)

4. Beattie, Tina. 2008. Ibid. p. 91.

5. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 484.

One response to “What’s Scientific Anti-Realism?

  1. Sophistry.

    This article talks philosophically and abstractly about scientists, the scientific method, and the science community, suggesting in the end that science is “anti-realist and non-objective”

    That conclusion is refuted by even a casual look at the scientific and technological progress of the last couple of centuries. Even the existence of the computer you used to compose this article disproves your conclusions.

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