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?