Scientific Realism & Why I am a Scientific Realist.

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Image Credit: YouTube, Carneades.org, 2015

Over the last few decades there has been much debate within the philosophy of science over which interpretation is the most adequate for interpreting scientific theories that refer to the natural world (1). On one hand, the proponent of scientific realism is of the view that science seeks the truth and sometimes finds it (2). Though most philosophers are realists, a good number have questioned this view, for example, some have come up with a number of anti-realist views of science with one extreme being that all science is false.

Much of the debate comes down to the  differences between realists and instrumentalists concerning the unobservable entities postulated in science. A realist believes that science and scientific theories provide knowledge about unobservable entities, and forces (theoretical entities such as black holes, quarks, and neutrinos that are postulated as the best explanations for observable data, but they themselves cannot be directly observed) whereas proponents of instrumentalism deny that it is reasonable to interpret hypotheses as referring to real unobservable entities beyond experience (3). Instead, the proponent of instrumentalism argues that scientific theories should be understood as an instrument of calculation, permitting the scientist to make predictions about one set of observable variables on the basis of knowledge of the current state of another set of observable variables, which leaves little room for those things that are not directly observed (4). An instrumentalist is either agnostic over these unobservable entities or he entirely rejects their existence.

A key argument for scientific realism emphasizes the notion that scientific knowledge is progressive in nature, and that it is able to predict phenomena successfully (5). This is what is known as the “miracle argument” (6). The realist argues that our best theories are successful in that they facilitate empirical predictions and explain matters under scientific investigation, and that this is often accompanied with remarkable accuracy. But, the realist further propounds, if theories were far from the truth, the fact that they are so successful would be miraculous. Though this argument is intuitively powerful, it has been questioned on a number of grounds by philosophers (7). Arguably the most succinct and representative notion for scientific realism was put forth by Putnam and Boyd in the 1970s in which they identified the following as typical of the scientific realist (8):

• Science aims to give a literally true account of the world.
• To accept a theory is to believe it is (approximately) true.
• There is a determinate mind-independent and language-independent world.
• Theories are literally true (when they are) partly because their concepts “latch on to” or correspond to real properties (natural kinds, and the like) that causally underpin successful usage of the concepts.
• The progress of science asymptotically converges on a true account.

Now, taking these views together, if one were to pick up a contemporary chemistry textbook he would have a number of good reasons for believing the (approximate) truth of the claims it contains about the existence and properties of atoms, molecules, sub-atomic particles, and so on. Alternatively, however, critics of realism argue from pessimistic induction, an idea first fully postulated by Laudan in 1981. The proponent of this view argues that the history of science contains many theories that were once regarded as empirically successful but which are now unanimously believed to be false. The argument then is that if past scientific theories once viewed as successful were found to be false, then we have no reason to believe the scientific realist’s claim that our currently successful theories are approximately true (9).

More recently, post-modern relativism has also posed a threat to the objectivity of the scientific enterprise (10). Proponents might refer to the influential philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, who argued that scientific work takes place within the context of one’s own all-embracing worldview of which he called a paradigm. As Khun argued in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, paradigms go through phases. And when there is a revolution there comes about an abrupt transforming of entire scientific fields, a term now referred to as a “paradigm shift” in the philosophy of science (11). As the relativist argues, that for scientists working within the paradigm of their worldview, their observations are not neutral as opposed to theory-laden. Thus the meaning of terms used by them are determined by the theory, so that scientists working within a different paradigm aren’t even talking about the same things. What counts as a fact is therefore determined by a scientist’s paradigm, so that there are no neutral facts available for assessing the competence of two rival theories. Philosopher William Lane 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” (12).

Feminist theologian Tina Beattie largely agrees with Craig’s encapsulation of the relativist’s view saying 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” (13). In this way, the relativist may argue, that the 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 its correspondence with objective facts, since one’s paradigm determines what the facts are. I agree with Beattie that those promoting such a view are “going too far.”

I am a scientific realist because I believe that scientific realism is the rational position to adopt. And most professional philosophers would agree on that point; only 11.6% of philosophers hold to scientific anti-realism whereas a majority 75.1% hold to realism (14). So, as a realist myself, I believe we’re rational take a positive epistemic attitude of our best scientific theories and models. This is even the case if we just contend that our best models are approximately true as opposed to being immune to error (which isn’t the way scientists see theories, even the most persuasive ones, in any case).

Moreover, I must agree with Beattie in that we ought to be aware of our own assumptions and biases, “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” (15). But even if we grant the anti-realist relativist his point that scientists do, and can, lack neutrality, I just don’t think it follows that they can’t approach their scientific work objectively, or at least attempt to be objective.

In fact, as I pointed out in my other essay on the philosophical assumptions of science, this goes to show the importance of peer review in the scientific community (16). This is because scientists themselves know that they, as well as other scientists, do interpret their findings through a filter that includes their cultures, and personal beliefs. Peer review isn’t infallible, it isn’t without flaws, but it does get other experts, in effort to be as objective as possible, in the field to read the findings of another and either accept, reject, or revise them before the findings are published. Thus, like with the professional historian, the scientist has no barrier that somehow makes it impossible for him or her to examine evidence and make sense of it. Part of the scientist’s job is to try and be as objective as possible when dealing with science, and yes, scientists can make mistakes by perhaps becoming too familiar with their biases, and so on, but that doesn’t mean that we should throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. We shouldn’t do that for history and nor should we do it for science. Rather, as philosopher Daniel Little highlights, “There are plentiful examples of scientists and historians whose conclusions are guided by their interrogation of the evidence rather than their ideological presuppositions. Objectivity in pursuit of truth is itself a value, and one that can be followed” (17).

And where pessimistic induction is concerned, I think that even it fails to present a warranted negation of approximate truth of scientific theories. Our scientific theories mostly become more and more well-founded in terms of being better in predictive and descriptive power. He or she can point to things like vehicles, airplanes, computers, and even DNA sequencing that prove the operational effectiveness of the theories. Hence, the realist believes that our best scientific theories are approximately true and at least have some epistemic value. If we can admit at least that much, then we should embrace scientific realism.

References.

1. Little, D. What is scientific realism? Available; Leplin, J. 1984. Scientific Realism. p. 1.

2. Musgrave, A. The ‘Miracle Argument’ For Scientific Realism. Available.

3. Stanford, K. 2006. “Instrumentalism”. In The Philosophy of Science: An Encyclopedia.

4. Little, D. Ibid.

5. Cappelen, H., Gendler, T., & Hawthorne, J. 2016. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Methodology. p. 401-402.

6. Chakravartty, A. 2011. Scientific Realism. Available.

7. Chakravartty, A. 2011. Ibid.

8. Liston, M. Scientific Realism and Antirealism. Available.

9. Putnam, H. 1978. Meaning and the Moral Sciences. p. 22-25.

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

11. Bird, A. 2004. Thomas Kuhn. Available.

12. Craig, W. 2008. Ibid. p. 472 (Scribd ebook format)

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

14. Bourget, D., & Chalmers, D. 2013. What Do Philosophers Believe? Available.

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

16. Gannon, F. 2001. “The essential role of peer review,” in EMBO Reports, 2(9): 743.

17. Little, D. 2016. Philosophy of History. Available.

 

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