Heretical Scientific Realism

by Neil Rickert

I have disagreed with parts of traditional epistemology in some of my earlier posts.  So it will surely be no surprise that I have disagreements with scientific epistemology.  In this post, I will discuss some of those disagreements in the context of scientific realism.

For a quick review of the traditional view on scientific realism, I suggest the Wikipedia entry and the Stanford Encyclopedia entry.  As the Stanford Encyclopedia says, “Debates about scientific realism are centrally connected to almost everything else in the philosophy of science, for they concern the very nature of scientific knowledge.”  I shall be contrasting my view (which I am describing as heretical) with some of the positions expressed in a more traditional view.

The Wikipedia entry opens with:

Scientific realism is, at the most general level, the view that the world described by science is the real world, as it is, independent of what we might take it to be.

I agree with that.  Of course, the actual descriptions provided by science might be imperfect, as most philosophers of science would agree.  The important point is that, imperfect as they may be, it is the real world that is being described.  The Wikipedia entry continues with:

Within philosophy of science, it is often framed as an answer to the question “how is the success of science to be explained?”

I also agree there, that accounting for the success of science is an important part of philosophy of science.  Beyond that point, I find myself disagreeing with much of the traditional view.

Here are some of the traditional claims (from Wikipedia):

  • The best scientific theories are at least partially true.
  • The approximate truth of a theory is the only explanation of its predictive success.
  • Scientific theories are in a historical process of progress towards a true account of the physical world.

In a similar vein, a blogger expresses the view this way:

I find the realists’ response most compelling largely for giving explanation for the success of science. The success of science is undeniable and this phenomenon is best explained by supposing that science does to a certain extent describe the way the world is. I find the criteria of being a scientific realist is easy to satisfy, since they are very much compatible with our common sense view of the world.

And in the introductory chapter of a book currently in press, we read:

The success of science is undeniable, but the nature of that success remains opaque. To make a start on characterizing the success of science, I will stipulate that science is in the business of producing representations of the physical world. These representations will be accurate just in case some region of the world is a certain way. When approached from this angle, it seems obvious that the success of science should be characterized by saying that our scientific representations are, for the most part, accurate.

By contrast to those quoted positions, I hold the view that ideally, a scientific theory should be neither true nor false.

Obviously, that’s a large disagreement.  The main point of disagreement is this:  the traditional view holds that a scientific theory is descriptive of the world, while I hold that a scientific theory is methodological.  That is, the theory presents and defines a methodology to be used in the science.  My view is roughly similar to that of C.I. Lewis, in his 1923 paper “A Pragmatic Conception of the A Priori.”  Lewis wrote:

the fundamental laws of any science—or those that are treated as fundamental—are a priori because they formulate just such definitive concepts or categorical tests by which alone investigation becomes possible.

If we treat such a methodological statement as if it were a description, it will appear to be true (an a priori truth).  Or, more correctly, it will appear to be true as long as that methodology is in use.  If that methodology is abandoned in favor of a different methodology, the statement may then appear to be false.

Why is science so effective?

The traditional view is that the effectiveness of science is because it descriptions, particularly its theories are true.

It is hard to make sense of this.  Journalists also strive to provide true descriptions, but the effectiveness of their work does not compare to that of science.  Or, if it is only the theory (as description) that counts, consider Newtonian mechanics and Einstein’s relativistic mechanics.  They contradict one another, so they cannot both be true.  Yet the older, presumably false (if seen as a description) Newtonian mechanics is still widely used, and still gives excellent results where it is used.  It is often said that Newtonian mechanics is easier to use than relativistic mechanics, and gives good enough results for most purpose.  “Easier to use” is not something we usually say about descriptions.  Ease of use is a quality of methods, not of descriptions.

My alternative view?  It is that what science mainly does, is invent methodologies that make it possible to describe aspects of the world that previously could not be described.  Science has thereby vastly increased the amount of information that is available to us.  And it is this increase in useful information that makes science so effective.  I suggest that, in some sense, science is solving the intentionality problem.  It is designing ways to talk about aspects of the world that were not previously describable by us.

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