Scientific realism debate

There is currently a raging debate among philosophers of science about “scientific realism” – this is the idea that current scientific theories more or less accurately describe the world. Some philosophers say they do; some say they don’t. The date goes like this. Scientific realists say that it would be a miracle if current scientific theories matched experiment if they were not approximately true. Other philosophers point out that some things in previously successful theories have been ditched, like the ether in electromagnetism. Some say that all that will be taken over from one theory to another is some maths.

In the real world, some ideas in current theories may turn out to be true, some may turn out to be false. There is no way to know which is which and all we can do is critically discuss our ideas, subject to them to experimental tests and so on and try to sort out what’s real. New theories will produce new kinds of arguments and there is no way to anticipate what arguments will come along in the future.

I pointed all this out to a philosopher and he asked how we can stop ourselves from making mistakes about what’s real. He wanted some kind of magic formula that will tell him which bits of current theories will survive: a sort of minimal set of things he could endorse to avoid making mistakes. There is no such formula. There is no short cut. The idea that there should be a short cut, that there should be some way of telling what’s real and avoiding mistakes about it by letting in only a charmed circle of ideas is wrong headed and justificationist. Why would we need to avoid making mistakes? What’s the big deal? Admittedly, if we made a mistake and then clung to it in the face of criticism that would be bad, but why get excited about making them in the first place if we can get rid of them?

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6 Responses to Scientific realism debate

  1. Lee Kelly says:

    The majority of philosophising is a crusade against the psychological uneasiness caused by doubt. Even those who acknowledge their own fallibility, and declare all intellectual matters open to critique and revision, merely substitute the quest for certitude for degrees thereof. Although philosophers of science berate the religious for dogmatism, they can see no purpose for scientific investigation but to increase, by increments, the certitude of their own beliefs. The objection is not against dogmatism per se, but against a certitude not justified by the “proper method.”

    The perennial concern of philosophers is to avoid error at any cost. Popper’s injunction to propose bold and imaginative conjectures is an anathema. The goal of thier investigations is to arrive at some proposition or method which is incapable of producing mistakes. The purity of the source may then be transmitted to all that follows, and the philosopher can finally banish the debilitating burden of doubt.

    The notion that doubt may be an asset–a check on hubris, a invaluable motivation–is rarely considered, or merely given lip service when confronted with opposing views. The danger of a man who has eliminated all uncertainty, both to himself and to others, is too rarely understood or appreciated. The belief that a true and pure method of understanding has been achieved, conquering the need for doubt and opening up grand new possibilities, is often the pretext for some of the worst offences against liberty and reason.

  2. Lee Kelly says:

    The insurmountable task for critical rationalists is to confront 2000 years of intellectual tradition, where the elimination of doubt, by means of discovering a true and pure method of understanding, is the proper goal of philosophical investigation. The problems associated with this goal are assumed to be “out there,” not products of subjective valuation, and non-optional for any rational being. Tradition has fused the concept of rationality with the pursuit of justified belief, whether whole or partial, and to reject that tradition is to embrace irrationality. The notion that we might propose a conjecture without any ultimate reason, but merely to run with it and see where it leads, is merely irresponsible, opening the floodgates to all manner of dangerous and crazy beliefs. The irony is that the inherent quandaries of justificationism do more to swell the ranks of irrationalism than anything alternative by critical rationalists.

  3. Elliot says:

    > There is currently a raging debate among philosophers of science about “scientific realism”


  4. Rafe says:

    Lee’s comment about the crusade to overcome doubt was beautifully stated by Bertrand Russell: “I wanted certainty in the kind of way in which people want religious faith”.

    There is a similar statement by Ayer in the course of a crit of Popper where he wrote words to the effect “we seek justification and that is why we do all this stuff and if we did not think that we could get it we would do something else”. Actually that is an over-free translation from memory but that was the spirit of it.

  5. Andrew says:

    Isn’t the concept of falsifiability based around doubt? The belief that only negatives can be proven? The idea that positive claims can’t be proven, they are simply theories held until they are falsified and a new theory is needed to replace the old by encompassing that which falsified the previous theory.

    That is basically Popper’s position as I see it, what’s wrong with that?

  6. Elliot says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Actually the Popperian position is that *nothing can be proven*.

    The negative/positive thing is about the role of evidence in science: evidence can contradict but not confirm universal theories.

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