Scientific Realism


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Scientific Realism

  1. 1. Scientific Realism Brian Galvin Kevin Bernhardt Troy Buckner
  2. 2. What is scientific realism? • Positive epistemic attitude towards the content of our best scientific theories and models • Basically, it‟s the idea that science, although not perfect, is doing a decent job of explaining the world
  3. 3. Observable vs. Unobservable • Observable – things that can be perceived by our unaided senses (planets, platypuses) • Unobservable – cannot be perceived by our unaided senses (proteins, protons, etc.) • Scientific realism does not discriminate between the two
  4. 4. Varying Definitions • Most define scientific realism in terms of the truth or approximate truth of scientific theories or certain aspects of theories • Some define it in terms of the successful reference of theoretical terms to things in the world, both observable and unobservable • Others define it not in terms of truth or reference, but in terms of belief in the ontology of scientific theories.
  5. 5. What do they have in common? • A commitment to the idea that our best theories have a certain epistemic status • They yield knowledge of aspects of the world, including unobservable aspects.
  6. 6. What is a scientific realist? • Someone who believes that science aims to produce true descriptions of things in the world
  7. 7. Three Dimensions of Realist Commitment • Metaphysical – idea that the world exists outside of our minds • Semantic – literal interpretation of scientific claims made about the world. Any claims should be stated as fact, whether true or not. • Epistemological – theoretical claims constitute knowledge of the world
  8. 8. What does scientific realism mean? • Our best scientific theories give true or approximately true descriptions of observable and unobservable aspects of a mindindependent world
  9. 9. Qualifications and Variations • What theories should realists be realist about? • Many of our theories are likely false in the strictest sense, but they might be very close to true
  10. 10. Maturity of theories • Theories suitable for realist commitment are called “mature” • Came from a well-established field • Has been around a while • Has survived scrutiny and scientific testing • The more mature, the greater the commitment from realists • Realists believe that as science develops over time, theories converge closer to truth
  11. 11. Three Variations of Realism • Explanationist – reserves greatest commitment to components of a theory that are indispensible to explaining their empirical success • Entity – causal knowledge of an unobservable entity is enough to support realism regarding it • Structural – One should be a realist because of the physical structure of things, not because of descriptions of their nature
  12. 12. Considerations in Favor of Scientific Realism (and Responses) • 1. The Miracle Argument: ▫ Best theories are extremely successful. ▫ Why? ▫ Realist: Because they are true! If not, it must be a miracle that they work so well. • Rebuttal: Why do we need an explanation of success? ▫ Theories = Well-adapted organisms • What makes a particular theory successful (not just in general)? ▫ Identify specific features, explanation of unobservables • Base rate fallacy ▫ If a theory is successful, we cannot claim it as true since we do not know the base rate of true theories (could be a false positive)
  13. 13. Considerations in Favor of Scientific Realism (and Responses) • 2. Corroboration ▫ Unobservables detected through multiple techniques. ▫ Light vs. ▫ electron microscopy • Rebuttal: Intention of reproducing existing output.
  14. 14. Considerations in Favor of Scientific Realism (and Responses) • 3. Selective Optimism/Skepticism ▫ A. Explanationism  Focus on parts of theories worthy of realist commitment  True theoretical components survive and live in current theories  Problem: Realists must provide a objective measure to pick out crucial parts, not post-hoc.
  15. 15. Considerations in Favor of Scientific Realism (and Responses) ▫ B. Entity Realism  The more you can manipulate the unobservable and produce predicted outcomes, the more believable a theory is.  Entity Realist: Belief of entity vs. belief of theory describing it – 2 different things. Disputed claim... ▫ C. Structural Realism  Epistemic view: Describes relationships between unobservables, not their nature.  Ontic view: Knowledge of unobservables‟ structure.  Problem: Can you know structure without relationships?
  16. 16. Considerations Against Scientific Realism (and Responses) Fish caught • Underdetermination of Theory by Data ▫ Hypotheses (i.e. testable predictions) cannot stand alone – they require “auxiliary” assumptions. ▫ Hypothesis = incorrect. Error may not exist in claim, per se ▫ Problem to Realists: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 5 Day 6 7 8 9 10
  17. 17. Considerations Against Scientific Realism (and Responses) ... Underdetermination of Theory by Data • Rebuttal: Realism rely on two explanations: ▫ A “wait and see” mentality ▫ Data is apt to change over time
  18. 18. Considerations Against Scientific Realism (and Responses) • Skepticism about Inference to the Best Explanation ▫ Realist: Although many theories exist, one will have explanatory superiority (i.e. provide the “best” explanation) ▫ But will this thinking yield knowledge? ▫ 2 problems:  A. How to judge theories in relation to being true (criteria and meaning)  B. “Best of a bad lot” argument • Rebuttal: The “best of a bad lot” may still describe unobservables in a way to meet standards of realism....
  19. 19. Considerations Against Scientific Realism (and Responses) • The Pessimistic Induction ▫ If most previous theories are false, so are current ones! • Rebuttal: ▫ Considering only the mature theories. ▫ Base rate fallacy ▫ A few good examples should lead antirealists to reconsider....
  20. 20. Considerations Against Scientific Realism (and Responses) • Skepticism about Approximate Truth ▫ Abstraction and idealization seen in even our best theories..... ▫ Gradually converging on truth – theories are open to improvement ▫ Problem: Defining approximate truth  Formally: Comparing true/false consequences, world‟s approach, type hierarchy approach  Informally: “theories build on „limiting cases‟ from their predeccesors”
  21. 21. Antirealism - Realism vs. the ism’s • Any position apposed to Realism via one or more of the following ▫ Mind is not independent of reality ▫ Theories may not be interpreted literally ▫ Theories may not constitute knowledge of observable and unobservable
  22. 22. Realism vs. the ism’s • Empiricism ▫ Doesn't like the idea that one can gain knowledge of the unobservable ▫ This position believes knowledge can only be acquired through experience.
  23. 23. Realism vs. the ism’s • Constructive Empiricism ▫ ▫ ▫ ▫ (Sometimes referred to as Instrumentalism) Van Fraassens revision of Empiricism A more realistic view – not as picky Can believe theories that include the unobservable only if nothing is concluded about the unobservable Still kind of picky and still antirealism
  24. 24. Realism vs. the ism’s • Historicism ▫ Two concepts can only be understood in correctly historicized manner - from the perspectives of the paradigms in which they occur ▫ Kuhn brought this ism about with “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” ▫ Antirealism due to mind not existing independent of the world
  25. 25. Realism vs. the ism’s • Social Constructivism ▫ States any knowledge generating process is influenced by social factors ▫ SSK - sociology of scientific knowledge – studies the social aspects of how science studies the world ▫ Because all knowledge is influenced by social factors, the mind is not independent of reality
  26. 26. Realism vs. the ism’s • Pragmatism & Quietism ▫ Does anyone really know? ▫ Dialectical Paralysis – too many isim‟s ▫ Quietism states that nothing sensible can be said. Wittgenstein ▫ The competition between isim‟s causes a problem within its self
  27. 27. Realism & the ism’s vs. NOA • NOA – Natural Ontological Attitude ▫ A compromise of the core common realist and antirealist theories ▫ NOA argues neither realism or antirealism is tenable ▫ Are disputes between realism and antirealism resolvable? No because all positions come with their own rules ▫ But this exercise in futility does lead to a great deal of insight of how knowledge comes about