Scientific realism

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Scientific realism is the view that the universe described by science is real regardless of how it may be interpreted.

Reality is the sum or aggregate of all that is real or existent, as opposed to that which is merely imaginary. The term is also used to refer to the ontological status of things, indicating their existence. In physical terms, reality is the totality of the universe, known and unknown. Philosophical questions about the nature of reality or existence or being are considered under the rubric of ontology, which is a major branch of metaphysics in the Western philosophical tradition. Ontological questions also feature in diverse branches of philosophy, including the philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophical logic. These include questions about whether only physical objects are real, whether reality is fundamentally immaterial, whether hypothetical unobservable entities posited by scientific theories exist, whether God exists, whether numbers and other abstract objects exist, and whether possible worlds exist.

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Within philosophy of science, this view is often an answer to the question "how is the success of science to be explained?" The discussion on the success of science in this context centers primarily on the status of unobservable entities apparently talked about by scientific theories. Generally, those who are scientific realists assert that one can make valid claims about unobservables (viz., that they have the same ontological status) as observables, as opposed to instrumentalism.

Philosophy of science is a sub-field of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. This discipline overlaps with metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, for example, when it explores the relationship between science and truth.

An unobservable is an entity whose existence, nature, properties, qualities or relations are not directly observable by humans. In philosophy of science, typical examples of "unobservables" are the force of gravity, causation and beliefs or desires.However, some philosophers also characterize all objects—trees, tables, other minds, microorganisms, every thing to which humans ascribe as the thing causing their perception—as unobservable.

A theory is a contemplative and rational type of abstract or generalizing thinking, or the results of such thinking. Depending on the context, the results might, for example, include generalized explanations of how nature works. The word has its roots in ancient Greek, but in modern use it has taken on several related meanings.

Main features

Scientific realism involves the two basic positions. First, it is a set of claims about the features of an ideal scientific theory; an ideal theory is the sort of theory science aims to produce. Second, it is the commitment that science will eventually produce theories very much like an ideal theory and that science has done pretty well thus far in some domains. It is important to note that one might be a scientific realist regarding some sciences while not being a realist regarding others.[ citation needed ]

According to scientific realism, an ideal scientific theory has the following features:

Metaphysics Branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between possibility and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among [the study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Combining the first and the second claim entails that an ideal scientific theory says definite things about genuinely existing entities. The third claim says that we have reasons to believe that many scientific claims about these entities are true, but not all.

Logical consequence is a fundamental concept in logic, which describes the relationship between statements that hold true when one statement logically follows from one or more statements. A valid logical argument is one in which the conclusion is entailed by the premises, because the conclusion is the consequence of the premises. The philosophical analysis of logical consequence involves the questions: In what sense does a conclusion follow from its premises? and What does it mean for a conclusion to be a consequence of premises? All of philosophical logic is meant to provide accounts of the nature of logical consequence and the nature of logical truth.

Scientific realism usually holds that science makes progress, i.e. scientific theories usually get successively better, or, rather, answer more and more questions. For this reason, many people[ who? ], scientific realists or otherwise, hold that realism should make sense of the progress of science in terms of theories being successively more like the ideal theory that scientific realists describe[ who said this? ].

Characteristic claims

The following claims are typical of those held by scientific realists. Due to the wide disagreements over the nature of science's success and the role of realism in its success, a scientific realist would agree with some but not all of the following positions. [1]

History

Scientific realism is related to much older philosophical positions including rationalism and metaphysical realism. However, it is a thesis about science developed in the twentieth century. Portraying scientific realism in terms of its ancient, medieval, and early modern cousins is at best misleading.

Scientific realism is developed largely as a reaction to logical positivism. Logical positivism was the first philosophy of science in the twentieth century and the forerunner of scientific realism, holding that a sharp distinction can be drawn between observational terms and theoretical terms, the latter capable of semantic analysis in observational and logical terms.

Logical positivism encountered difficulties with:

These difficulties for logical positivism suggest, but do not entail, scientific realism, and led to the development of realism as a philosophy of science.

Realism became the dominant philosophy of science after positivism.[ citation needed ] Bas van Fraassen in his book The Scientific Image (1980) developed constructive empiricism as an alternative to realism. Responses to van Fraassen have sharpened realist positions and lead to some revisions of scientific realism.

Arguments for and against scientific realism

No miracles argument

One of the main arguments for scientific realism centers on the notion that scientific knowledge is progressive in nature, and that it is able to predict phenomena successfully. [2] Many scientific realists (e.g., Ernan McMullin, Richard Boyd) think the operational success of a theory lends credence to the idea that its more unobservable aspects exist, because they were how the theory reasoned its predictions. For example, a scientific realist would argue that science must derive some ontological support for atoms from the outstanding phenomenological success of all the theories using them.

Arguments for scientific realism often appeal to abductive reasoning or "inference to the best explanation" (Lipton, 2004). For instance, one argument commonly used—the "miracle argument" or "no miracles argument"—starts out by observing that scientific theories are highly successful in predicting and explaining a variety of phenomena, often with great accuracy. Thus, it is argued that the best explanation—the only explanation that renders the success of science to not be what Hilary Putnam calls "a miracle"—is the view that our scientific theories (or at least the best ones) provide true descriptions of the world, or approximately so. [3]

Bas van Fraassen replies with an evolutionary analogy: "I claim that the success of current scientific theories is no miracle. It is not even surprising to the scientific (Darwinist) mind. For any scientific theory is born into a life of fierce competition, a jungle red in tooth and claw. Only the successful theories survive—the ones which in fact latched on to actual regularities in nature." (The Scientific Image, 1980)

No miracles argument has been considered wrong, because it commits the base rate fallacy. [4]

Pessimistic induction

Pessimistic induction, one of the main arguments against realism, argues that the history of science contains many theories once regarded as empirically successful but which are now believed to be false. Additionally, the history of science contains many empirically successful theories whose unobservable terms are not believed to genuinely refer. For example, the effluvium theory of static electricity (a theory of the 16th Century physicist William Gilbert) is an empirically successful theory whose central unobservable terms have been replaced by later theories.

Realists reply that replacement of particular realist theories with better ones is to be expected due to the progressive nature of scientific knowledge, and when such replacements occur only superfluous unobservables are dropped. For example, Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity showed that the concept of the luminiferous ether could be dropped because it had contributed nothing to the success of the theories of mechanics and electromagnetism. On the other hand, when theory replacement occurs, a well-supported concept, such as the concept of atoms, is not dropped but is incorporated into the new theory in some form. These replies can lead scientific realists to structural realism.

Constructivist epistemology

Social constructivists might argue that scientific realism is unable to account for the rapid change that occurs in scientific knowledge during periods of revolution. Constructivists may also argue that the success of theories is only a part of the construction. However, these arguments ignore the fact that many scientists are not realists. In fact, during what is perhaps the most notable example of revolution in science—the development of quantum mechanics in the 1920s—the dominant philosophy of science was logical positivism. The alternative realist Bohm interpretation and many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics do not make such a revolutionary break with the concepts of classical physics.

Underdetermination problem

Another argument against scientific realism, deriving from the underdetermination problem, is not so historically motivated as these others. It claims that observational data can in principle be explained by multiple theories that are mutually incompatible. Realists might counter by saying that there have been few actual cases of underdetermination in the history of science. Usually the requirement of explaining the data is so exacting that scientists are lucky to find even one theory that fulfills it. Furthermore, if we take the underdetermination argument seriously, it implies that we can know about only what we have directly observed. For example, we could not theorize that dinosaurs once lived based on the fossil evidence because other theories (e.g., that the fossils are clever hoaxes) can account for the same data.

See also

Footnotes

  1. Jarrett Leplin (1984), Scientific Realism, University of California Press, p. 1, ISBN   0-520-05155-6
  2. Cappelen, H., Gendler, T. S., & Hawthorne, J., eds., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Methodology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 401–402.
  3. Chakravartty, Anjan (10 July 2018). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  4. Collin Howson, Hume's Problem: Induction and the Justification of Belief (2000), Chap. 3 : Realism and the No Miracles Argument

Further reading

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