Saturday, 14 September 2019

Introduction to the Scientific Realism Debate

This post is a short introduction to two influential arguments in the scientific realism debate (basically this is a transcription of the attached video):


When you think about the world, at some point you have to ask yourself – what to make of science and the supposed body of knowledge it has acquired?

Is science merely a very successful tool for controlling nature, but says nothing about the underlying structure of the world? Or do certain scientific theories at least to some degree capture the actual truth?

The answer to this question determines how you are going to view the mind, think about language and talk about the metaphysics of space and time. Where you’re going to position scientific beliefs in your philosophical system, will have a significant effect on it.

The most commonly held view (at least by people in general) is that yes, scientific theories do tell us the truth, even if it’s just an approximation of what the world is actually like. We call this view scientific realism, which normally consists of the claim that:

  1. “Our best scientific theories about the world are approximately true – an approximation of what the world is actually like."


This view has a strong motivation in the fact that scientific theories are very successful, both in predicting future events and in enabling us to control nature. So, one thing we could ask ourselves is: Why? Why is science so successful at these things? What possible explanation could we find for this?

One answer is: "scientific theories are just true, and that’s the reason why they are that successful." We can even go a step further and ask: "what if they were not true? How would we explain this success?"

Hillary Putnam (1926 - 2016), at least at the point when he formulated this argument, thought that we can either:

  1. Explain the success of science with the fact that its theories are true; or
  2. we can say that scientific theories are not true and they work because of a miracle, these wrong theories just happen to work.

Putnam was not satisfied with the second option. Since resolving to “miracles” does not present a good explanation of scientific success, we ought to accept the first option, scientific theories being true. This is called the “No-miracles argument” and has, at least implicitly, served as a powerful motivation for scientific realism in past decades.

However, there seems to be a problem with this idea. We can see that by looking at the history of science and note that there are scientific theories that were successful in the past, but today we reject them, because they contradict our accepted scientific theories.

Examples of these include:

  1. geocentrism and the crystalline spheres of ancient and medieval astronomy;
  2. the humoral theory of medicine; 
  3. the phlogiston theory of chemistry; 
  4. the caloric theory of heat; 
  5. the vital force theories of physiology; 
  6. the electromagnetic the optical aether; 
  7. the theory of circular inertia; etc.
The point is, theories can both be successful and, arguably, false. So, it would seem that even if our current scientific theories are successful, this does not mean that they are true. This argument is called “Pessimistic meta-induction”.

  1. It’s pessimistic, because it opposes the epistemic optimism of the scientific realist; and
  2. it’s a meta-induction, induction in this case is the inference form past examples to future ones, and it’s “meta”, because it’s an inference about and above our beliefs.
Anyways, the views that are characterised by rejecting scientific beliefs as constituting knowledge, are generally called “Scientific anti-realism”.

Examples of such a view can be found in the logical positivists and their instrumentalism, the view that scientific beliefs are instruments with which we control nature, but lack the justification of true knowledge. Another example would be the constructive empiricism of Bas van Frassen, who says that scientific claims are true when made about the observable world, but lack the proper justification when talking about what we can not observe (such as really small particles, certain physical entities, and so on).

So this was a really short overview of the discussion around science and truth. I find it to be a very interesting discussion, I even made my bachelor’s about the No-miracles argument and Pessimistic induction. Let me know in the comments if you’re interested in these topics, I might return to them in the future. Until then I recommend you the Youtube channel Kane B, he already covered these topics in great detail. Especially, if you’re interested in analytic philosophy, which is the philosophy that usually focuses on logics and science, you really ought to subscribe to him.


Some literature:

Hillary Putnam. (1975). "Mathematis, Matter, Method."
Larry Laudan. (1981). "A Confutation of convergent Realism."
Bas van Fraassen. (1980). "The Scientific Image."

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