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Scientific Realism

It is easier to define scientific realism than it is to identify its role as a distinctly philosophical doctrine. Scientific realists hold that the characteristic product of successful scientific research is knowledge of largely theory-independent phenomena and that such knowledge is possible (indeed actual) even in those cases in which the relevant phenomena are not, in any non-question-begging sense, observable. According to scientific realists, for example, if you obtain a good contemporary chemistry textbook you will have good reason to believe (because the scientists whose work the book reports had good scientific evidence for) the (approximate) truth of the claims it contains about the existence and properties of atoms, molecules, sub-atomic particles, energy levels, reaction mechanisms, etc. Moreover, you have good reason to think that such phenomena have the properties attributed to them in the textbook independently of our theoretical conceptions in chemistry. Scientific realism is thus the common sense (or common science) conception that, subject to a recognition that scientific methods are fallible and that most scientific knowledge is approximate, we are justified in accepting the most secure findings of scientists "at face value."

1. Introduction

2. the empiricist challenge: knowledge empiricism and the underdetermination argument, 3. realist responses to the empiricist challenge: the senses extended and explanations rehabilitated, 4. the neo-kantian challenge: first version, 5. the neo-kantian challenge: second version, 6. the "post-modern" challenge, bibliography, other internet resources, related entries.

We defined scientific realism above as the common sense (or common science) conception that, subject to a recognition that scientific methods are fallible and that most scientific knowledge is approximate, we are justified in accepting the most secure findings of scientists "at face value." What requires explanation is why this is a philosophical position rather than just a common sense one. Consider, for example, tropical fish realism -- the doctrine that there really are tropical fish; that the little books you buy about them at pet stores tend to get it approximately right about their appearance, behavior, food and temperature requirements, etc.; and that the fish have these properties largely independently of our theories about them. That's a pretty clear doctrine, but it's so commonsensical that it doesn't seem to have any particular philosophical import. Why is the analogous doctrine about science a philosophical doctrine?

The answer is that -- setting aside skepticism about the external world -- there are no philosophical arguments against tropical fish realism, whereas important philosophical challenges have been raised against scientific realism. The dimensions of scientific realism, understood as a philosophical position, have been largely determined by the responses scientific realists have offered to these challenges. It will be conceptually useful (and approximately historically correct) to see the development of scientific realism as a response to four consecutive challenges, as follows.

  • The Empiricist Challenge: This is the challenge regarding knowledge of unobservable "theoretical" entities raised by logical empiricists and their allies and underwritten by arguments from the underdetermination of theory choice by observational data.
  • The Neo-Kantian Challenge, First Version: This is the challenge raised by Hanson (1958) and Kuhn (1970) who argue from the theory dependence of methods (and, especially, of observation) to the conclusion that a realist conception of the growth of approximate scientific knowledge cannot be sustained, given the semantic and methodological incommensurability (Kuhn's term) occasioned by revolutionary changes in science.
  • The Neo-Kantian Challenge, Second Version: This is the (somehow) related, but (somehow) less relativist conception represented by Putnam's ("internal realist") and Fine's ("natural ontological attitude") critiques of "metaphysical" versions of scientific realism.
  • The "Post-modern" Challenge: This is a challenge (to both realism and empiricism) arising from recent literary, sociological and historical studies in the emerging "science studies" tradition. It is grounded in the conception that such phenomena as science, knowledge, evidence and truth are social constructions , in some sense or other which implies that one should reject the idea that scientific practices achieve an approximate representational fit, of some sort or other, between the content of scientific theories and the world or reality .

We will discuss these challenges in the sections below.

It is easy to characterize the basic empiricist underdetermination argument against scientific realism. Call two theories empirically equivalent just in case exactly the same conclusions about observable phenomena can be deduced from each. Let T be any theory which posits unobservable phenomena. There will always be infinitely many theories which are empirically equivalent to T but which are such that each differs from T , and from all the rest, in what it says about unobservable phenomena (for formalized theories, this is an elementary theorem of mathematical logic). Evidence in favor of T 's conception of unobservable phenomena ("theoretical entities") would have to rule out the conceptions represented by each of those other theories. But, since T is empirically equivalent to each of them, they all make exactly the same predictions about the results of observations or experiments. So, no evidence could favor one of them over the others. Thus, at best, we could have evidence in favor of what all these theories have in common--their consequences about "observables"--we could confirm that they are all empirically adequate --but we could not have any evidence favoring T 's conception of unobservable theoretical entities. Since T was any theory about unobservables, knowledge of unobservable phenomena is impossible; choice between competing but empirically equivalent conceptions of theoretical entities is underdetermined by all possible observational evidence. [For an important alternative formulation of the notions of empirical adequacy and empirical equivalence, see van Fraassen 1980; see also Demopoulos 1982.]

Several points about this simple and powerful argument are important.

1. It needs fixing up . As it stands, the basic underdetermination argument is fatally flawed. Suppose that T is some ordinary middle-sized scientific theory, like, e.g., the laws of Newtonian mechanics. According to the argument as it stands if T * is some other middle-sized theory empirically equivalent to T , then no evidence could favor T over T * , or vice versa . For ordinary scientific theories this is wrong. Scientists routinely supplement theories with well established auxiliary hypotheses in order to obtain observational predictions from them. [In fact, no observational predictions can be deduced from Newton's laws unless they have been so supplemented, and this is true for lots of fundamental scientific theories; see Kitcher 1982 for a nice discussion.] So, even if T and T * are empirically equivalent, it could still happen that they yield different observational predictions when supplemented by appropriate auxiliary hypotheses, in which case there could be observational evidence favoring one over the other.

So, it is probably best to think of the underdetermination argument as applying, not to "small" theories, but to "total sciences," large-scale conceptions of the world that might represent the total scientific conception of the world at a time. Such a conception would already contain all of the auxiliary hypotheses which were legitimate by its lights, so the problem just mentioned does not arise. In this revised form the underdetermination argument says that--whatever our best scientific conception of the world may be at any given time--we will ever have any evidence that it embodies knowledge of unobservables.

2. It rests on (a particular interpretation of) an extremely plausible doctrine about factual knowledge . Traditional empiricism attributed to experience or sensation two different roles: experience was the source of all of our ideas--of the raw material for thinking--and experience was the only basis we have for justifying beliefs abut matters of fact. The first of these doctrines of empiricism has fallen on hard times, but the second doctrine (called knowledge empiricism by Bennett 1964) enjoys widespread support. In particular, it is an epistemological doctrine to which almost all scientific realists subscribe. The logical empiricist challenge to scientific realism arises from a quite plausible interpretation of knowledge empiricism according to which what it says is that there can be no evidence which rationally distinguishes between two empirically equivalent total sciences (call this doctrine the evidential indistinguishability thesis , or the EIT ).

3. It is part of a selectively skeptical program of anti-metaphysical "rational reconstruction." The basic aim of the logical empiricists' project was to solve the demarcation problem , the problem of distinguishing science ( good ) from "metaphysics" ( bad ), by appealing to arguments like the underdetermination argument. The result was supposed to be that scientific claims are meaningful and knowable (early on, logical empiricists identified these two properties) whereas "metaphysical" claims, because they are about unobservables, are (at least) unknowable and (according to early versions of logical empiricism) meaningless.

Now almost all actual science is conducted largely in a vocabulary consisting mainly of "theoretical terms": terms apparently referring to unobservables. It was definitely not the logical empiricists' project to reject such science. They intended to be selectively skeptical: to be skeptics about "metaphysics" but not about science. So, they embarked on a project of providing "rational reconstructions" of actual scientific theories and methods which were designed to eliminate any apparent commitments to knowledge of unobservables while still portraying actual scientific practices as sources of knowledge (see, e.g., Carnap 1932, 1959).

In the case of scientific theories, the basic logical empiricist approaches were variations on the idea of instrumentalism , the view that scientific theories were predictive instruments and that the knowledge they represent is limited to what they predict about the observable properties of observables. In the case of scientific methods, strategies for rational reconstruction have not been so easy to formulate. Here's the problem. Almost all of the methods scientists actually use in conducting experimental or observational studies are theory dependent : they depend for their justification on knowledge reflected in previously established theories. Kuhn's (1970) discussion of "normal science" makes this point especially clearly, but all of the logical empiricists were acutely aware of it. Moreover, in sciences like physics, chemistry, molecular biology and astronomy, almost all of those methods seem prima facie to rest on knowledge of unobservable phenomena (just think about the presuppositions of the design of any experiment in chemistry). What the project of rational reconstruction must show is that (almost) all of these methods can be reconstructed in such a way that their application, as guides to the identification of empirically adequate theories, does not require positing knowledge of unobservables.

4. The task of rationally reconstructing actual scientific methods has been the most significant challenge facing logical empiricism and related anti-realist approaches . Instrumentalism and its variants provide a simple reconstruction of the content of scientific theories that pretty exactly fits the requirements of the project of rational reconstruction. The depth of the theory dependence of scientific methods, and the extent to which they seem to depend on knowledge of unobservables, has posed a deeper challenge for logical empiricists and their allies. The fate of operationalism illustrates this challenge. Operationalism was a proposal for rationally reconstructing the use of "theoretical terms" (terms that apparently refer to unobservables) in science by treating those terms as being completely defined in terms of particular operational procedures, thereby eliminating the apparent references to unobservables.

Here's what operationalism says. For any theoretical term (say, for example, "electron density") we can "rationally reconstruct" the use of that term by treating it as having an analytic operational definition in terms of laboratory procedures and instrumentation. So, for example, the operational definition of "electron density" might be given by a sentence of the form

(*) The electron density in a region, R , is given by the value, x , if and only if E applied to R yields the value x ,

where E is an instrument such that -- prior to rational reconstruction (but not after) -- scientists would have thought of it as a procedure for measuring electron density.

The analyticity of operational definitions like (*) is essential to the project of rational reconstruction. Operationalism is not , for example, the idea that electron density is defined as whatever magnitude instruments of sort E reliably measure. On that conception (*) would represent an empirical discovery about how to measure electron density, but -- since electrons are "unobservables" -- that's a realist conception not an empiricist one. What the project of rational reconstruction requires is that (*) be true purely as a matter of linguistic stipulation about how the term "electron density" is to be used.

Since (*) is supposed to be analytic, it's supposed to be unrevisable. There is supposed to be no such thing as discovering, about E, , that some other instrument provides a more accurate value for electron density, or provides values for electron density under conditions where E doesn't function. Here again, thinking that there could be an improvement on E with respect to electron density requires thinking of electron density as a real feature of the world which E (perhaps only approximately) measures. But, that's the realist conception which operationalism is designed to rationally reconstruct away.

In actual, and apparently reliable, scientific practice, changes in the instrumentation associated with theoretical terms is utterly routine, and apparently crucial to the progress of science. Scientists routinely replace one instrument with another in order to achieve (as they would say) more accurate measurements of some unobservable magnitude -- often in the light of new theoretical developments -- or to permit measurement of it under conditions for which previous instrumentation was inadequate. According to an operationalist conception, these sorts of modifications would not be methodologically acceptable. Most logical empiricists were not willing to accept this conclusion. After all, they intended to rationally reconstruct the best of actual scientific practice. So most logical empiricists felt compelled to reject operationalism.

Examples such as these made it clear that -- in apparently reliable scientific practice -- scientists behave as though (1) they obtain knowledge of unobservable (as well as observable) phenomena by deploying instruments which (perhaps indirectly) detect them, and (2) their theory dependent methodology in these and other matters is informed by knowledge of unobservables as well as of observables. In particular, they appear to improve, or extend the range of, procedures for measuring or detecting unobservable phenomena in the light of theoretical knowledge of those phenomena.

These features of scientific practice stimulated the articulation (largely by philosophers in the empiricist tradition) of two different but related arguments for scientific realism, to which we now turn our attention.

3.1 Extending the Senses

The fact that scientists, apparently justifiably, treat certain instruments and procedures as ways of detecting and measuring unobservable (as well as observable) phenomena led several philosophers (see especially Feigl 1956, Maxwell 1962) to adopt what amounts to a non-empiricist (or, perhaps, more flexibly empiricist) understanding of knowledge empiricism according to which (1) the special epistemic role of the senses derives from the fact that they are the only detectors we have built in to our bodies, but (2) the range of phenomena we can detect and measure can be broadened by extending the range of our senses through the use of instruments and procedures whose justification is theory dependent. Thus knowledge of phenomena "unobservable" by traditional empiricists standards is possible. This sort of focus on laboratory detection and manipulation in defense of realism finds perhaps its most energetic expression in the writings of Hacking (see, for example, Hacking 1982).

3.2 Explanation Rehabilitated

The conception that instruments, designed with the help of theoretical understanding, can extend the range of the senses so as to provide information about unobservable phenomena surely has to be a component of any even remotely plausible defense of scientific realism. Still, by itself the idea that instruments can extend the senses is inadequate as a rebuttal to the basic underdetermination argument. Here's why. The basic idea behind the extending-the-senses approach to defending scientific realism is that -- as scientists' knowledge of unobservable phenomena improves and as instrumental design becomes more sophisticated -- measurement and detection would become possible for phenomena hitherto beyond the reach of reliable detection and measurement; think of going from light microscopes, to electron microscopes, to x-ray crystallography devices (which can produce images of atomic structures within crystals).

That has to be the realist's conception, but consider the effect of underdetermination arguments. Suppose that, at some stage in the process of the improvement of theories and instruments, certain phenomena, D , posited by existing theories are detectable by the extended senses, but others are not. Let T be the total science of the time, and let T * be a theory empirically equivalent to T with respect, not to their observational consequences, but with respect to their consequence regarding the phenomena in D . The basic underdetermination argument can be repeated with respect to T and T * , leading to the conclusion that T does not reflect any knowledge of phenomena outside D . Thus there is no evidential basis for any extension of measurement and detection beyond D . Since this argument is applicable at any stage of any supposed extension of the senses, it challenges -- in the name of knowledge empiricism -- any extension of the senses.

3.3 Explanation as Evidential

Considerations such as these seem to have focused the attentions of realists on what we might call extra-experimental standards for theory assessment. To see what these are, let's examine the EIT mentioned earlier. Why would a knowledge empiricist defend the EIT ? An obvious answer is that she might think that the only consideration which ever justifies accepting one theory, T , over a rival, T * , is that some prediction about observables obtained from T has proven to be true, whereas a prediction from T * about the same experiment or observation has proven to be false.

But is anything like this right? Pretty obviously -- and pretty obviously by empiricist standards -- no. Here's why. Consider any case in which observations in some set, O , provide us with good scientific evidence to accept some theory, T , such that T applies to an range of observable cases not represented in O (that is, consider any case of scientifically justified induction). In any such case there will always be infinitely many pair-wise empirically in equivalent theories such that (a) each of them is empirically inequivalent to T and (b) each of them is compatible with all the observational data ever collected. This is just the Humean point that induction is not deductively valid. If we have sufficient scientific evidence to justify our accepting T , that evidence must justify our rejection of each of these other theories. [Note that this conclusion must be accepted whether one is an empiricist or a scientific realist regarding the interpretation of T and its rivals, since the theories in question are pair-wise empirically inequivalent and are empirically inequivalent to T .]

Let T * be one of these rivals to T . T * is empirically inequivalent to T , so it would be possible in principle to run a crucial experiment to discriminate between T and T * . But, rational standards for the assessment of scientific evidence dictate that we are justified in rejecting T * even though no such experiment has been run! So, there must be rational standards for the assessment of scientific evidence in addition to the standards which say that evidence for or against a theory can be provided by the success or failure of observational predictions derived from the theory . Let's call these standards extra experimental . They solve the equation (!):

(!) T’ s observational predictions have been thus far confirmed + Y = There is good scientific evidence favoring the empirical adequacy of T , AND, both realists and empiricists agree, they are capable of adjudicating between competing substantive conceptions of the world (because they can adjudicate between empirically inequivalent theories).

So, realists and empiricists agree that it isn't true that rational standards for the assessment of scientific evidence dictate that choice between competing theories must always be based on the results of crucial experiments. Where does that leave the underdetermination argument against knowledge of unobservables?

Almost all scientific realist responses to empiricist anti-realism in the last three decades can be understood as variations on the idea that the solution to (!) -- which empiricists must agree exists on pain of abandoning selective skepticism for skepticism about induction -- also solves (!!):

(!!) T's observational predictions have been thus far confirmed + Y = There is good scientific evidence favoring the (approximate) truth of T , even of its claims about unobservables.

Defenses of realism along these lines (see, e.g, Boyd 1983; Byerly and Lazara 1973; Lipton 1993; Miller 1987; McMullin 1984; Psillos 1999; Putnam 1972, 1975a, 1975b) deploy somewhat different resources, but one thing they have in common is that they reflect, and participate in, what might be called the rehabilitation of explanation in recent philosophy of science. An obvious reply to the EIT is that it ignores the role of explanation as an evidential standard: perhaps one, among a family of empirically equivalent theories, is to be preferred because it explains observable phenomena better than the others, even though it makes the same observational predictions. The standard logical empiricist treatment of explanation, the deductive-nomological account (see Hempel 1942, 1965; Hempel and Oppenheim 1948), responds by identifying the explanatory power of a theory with its predictive power.

Over the last several decades a great many philosophers have been critical of some aspects or other of this reduction of explanation to prediction (see, e.g., Boyd 1985; Kitcher 1981; Lipton 1991; Kitcher and Salmon 1989; McMullin 1984, 1987; Miller 1987; Salmon 1984, 1989). In the context created by this critical work, the notion of explanation, as an independent component of rational scientific methodology, has been to some extent rehabilitated.

A closely related development is also important. Goodman 1954 drew the attention of philosophers of science to the important point that only some hypotheses, the projectible ones, are in the running for confirmation by observations, and that projectibility judgments are in some way or other a posteriori judgments informed by previously established theories and practices. What has become pretty clear is that, however they are to be philosophically analyzed, projectibility judgments are in fact judgments of plausibility in the light of previously established theories (Boyd 1999; Lipton 1991, 1993), and that plausibility of the relevant sort is a matter of the sort of unification with those theories which has explanatory import. So, explanation, in its own right, and as an aspect of projectibility judgments, appears to play a crucial role in the assessment of observational evidence for scientific theories.

To a good first approximation, the following characterize the conditions under which observations, O , substantially confirm a theory T :

  • T is projectible (that is, theoretically plausible in the light of the best established science).
  • The observations in O either confirm predictions obtained from T , or validate explanations based on T or both.
  • For each of the projectible alternatives, A , to T which address the same questions, the observations in O provide evidence against the predictions and/or explanations underwritten by A .
  • The observations in O were obtained under conditions which embody controls for each of the experimental artifacts or errors of sampling which are suggested by projectible conceptions of the relevant observational or experimental conditions.

The basic strategy of defenses of realism which argue that the solution to (!) -- which empiricists accept -- also solves (!!) involves arguing that the considerations of explanatory power of the sort indicated in characterizations like 1.-4. successfully adjudicate between empirically equivalent theories, so that knowledge of unobservables is sometimes obtained.

3.4 Two Explanationist Strategies for Defending Realism

There is a (very) rough division between two versions of the strategy in question. One strategy, let's call it local explanationism , (perhaps reflected in McMullin 1980, 1987; Miller 1987; and Lipton 1993) involves arguing that the relevant explanation-involving, extra-experimental criteria do, in some cases, successfully adjudicate between empirically equivalent theories, so that some scientific knowledge of unobservable phenomena is actual. An alternative approach, the abductive strategy , (see, e.g., Boyd 1983, Psillos 1999) treats scientific realism itself as a scientific hypothesis which is supported by the fact that it provides the only viable explanation for the such success as methodological principles like 1.-4., above, have as guides to the identification of empirically adequate theories. The justification of inductive methods in science is, therefore, provided by scientific realism, understood as itself an a posteriori scientific hypothesis.

There are interesting differences between these approaches, and between the various different versions of each, but certain empiricist challenges can be raised against all or most of them. Fine (1984, 1986a) has offered two very significant, and closely related, criticisms of the abductive strategy. First, Fine argues, the strategy begs the question against anti-realist positions by treating scientific explanatory power as carrying evidential weight in philosophy. After all, the dispute between empiricist anti-realists and realists is, in the first instance, a dispute about whether a theory's explanatory power can count in favor of the claims it makes about unobservables. [van Fraassen 1980 makes similar criticisms; he and Laudan 1981 each also challenges the claim that scientific realism provides the best explanation for the reliability of scientific methods in identifying empirically adequate theories.]

Fine's second criticisms is more abstractly epistemological. He points out that, according to the realist who adopts the abductive strategy, the methods of science are to be philosophically justified by appeal to a posteriori scientific findings, i.e., by appeal to the scientific realist's scientific explanation for their reliability. This approach, he argues, violates the philosophical requirement that the justification for the methods in a domain of inquiry should be grounded in methods more secure than the methods being justified.

Plainly these criticisms represent serious challenges to the abductive strategy. Importantly, they also challenge any version of the local explanationist strategy unless it incorporates an a priori (as opposed to an empirical scientific) defense of the evidential relevance of the explanatory power of theoretical claims about unobservables. There are two reasons to doubt that such an a priori defense is available.

In the first place, philosophical defenses of epistemological positions almost always rest, at least in part, on appeals to philosophical "intuitions" regarding particular cases. Although many philosophers regard the deliverances of philosophical intuitions as justified a priori , in fact epistemic intuitions about particular cases deliver to us the results of our trained (or, in some cases, untrained) judgments regarding the domain of inquiry in question. They are reliable guides to matters epistemological just in case -- and to the extent that -- the training in question has itself been relevantly reliable (Boyd 1999).

For philosophers of science, the relevant training centrally includes training in the methods and findings of the relevant sciences. Since, "pre-analytically" at least, those methods countenance inductive inferences to explanations involving unobservables, and since the most celebrated findings often incorporate the results of such inductions, a very significant burden of proof would rest on someone who maintained that her philosophical arguments in favor of accepting inductive inferences to explanatory theories about unobservables did not, at least tacitly, rest on intuitions which beg the question against empiricist anti-realism.

Moreover, there are independent reasons to doubt that there could be an a priori defense of accepting the results of inductive inferences to the best explanation, whether or not that explanation posits unobservables . To a good first approximation, typical scientific explanations offer accounts of the causal mechanisms or processes by which some phenomena are brought about, and scientists evaluate the explanatory power of a theory by trying to assess the likelihood that mechanisms or processes posited by the theory operate to produce the relevant effects. Their judgments in these matters are, almost always, informed by experiments and observations but they are nevertheless highly theory dependent, ordinarily relying heavily on previously established "background" theories concerning the relevant sorts of causal mechanisms and processes (for accounts with this flavor see, e.g., Lipton 1993, Psillos 1999, Boyd 1985). Such judgments are reliable only to the extent that those background theories are relevantly approximately accurate.

In consequence, any defense of the practice of counting the explanatory power of a particular theory as providing evidence in its favor would appear to require a defense of the proposition that the findings of the relevant background sciences are relevantly approximately accurate. While, in some cases, this may be a justified conclusion, its justification could hardly be a priori (for an account somewhat more sympathetic to a prioricity for certain cases, see Miller 1987). Exactly similar arguments regarding theory dependent judgments of projectibility provide additional prima facie support for the same anti- a prioristic conclusion (Boyd 1999).

In the light of these challenges, there is a strong case to be made that any defense of scientific realism must rest on a conception according to which both scientific methods and methods in the philosophy of science, must lack a priori justifications. Such a conception of science, and of the relevant parts of philosophy, would thus be non-foundational and, presumably, naturalistic (see Psillos 1999). [For a somewhat different naturalistic conception, see Kitcher 1993. For an excellent discussion of competing metaphilosophical conceptions in the philosophy of science and their relation to debates about realism see Wylie 1986.]

3.5 Realism and Approximate Truth

Whether or not the defense of scientific realism requires the adoption of a non-foundationalist conception of knowledge, it almost certainly requires the articulation of a conception of approximate truth. It is central to any plausible realist conception that, at least sometimes, the historical development of scientific theories reflect progress by successive approximation to the truth -- about unobservables as well as about observables, and it is central to arguments for realism that involve the rehabilitation of explanation as an epistemic notion that relevant improvements in approximate knowledge are typically reflected in improvements of method. So, realist philosophy of science relies heavily on the notion of approximate truth.

Laudan 1981 raises against scientific realism (and especially against abductive arguments for realism) the "pessimistic meta-induction." He points out that there are lots of real historical cases in which scientific theories which have been predictively successful and have contributed positively to scientific methodology have not been true, so that the truth of scientific theories need not be posited in order to explain the successes of scientific practice.

The obvious realist reply is that what must be posited is the approximate truth the relevant theories (see Hardin and Rosenberg 1982 and Laudan 1984). Articulation of this reply raises important issues, since any consistent theory can be represented as approximately true in certain respects, Moreover, as Laudan points out, many of the historically important and methodologically significant theories are, by our current lights, deeply false in some important respects. Efforts to develop an appropriate account of approximate truth in science include Niiniluoto 1987, Oldie 1986, Weston 1992, Boyd 1990.

One novel approach to the problem of approximation is provided by Worrall's structural realism (Worrall 1994; for a critique see Psillos 1995, 1999). The basic idea here is that the most serious departures from the truth in scientific theories tend to be errors about the natures of the basic phenomena rather than about their structural relations . In the light of this generalization, the structural realist proposes accepting the claims about causal structures (even unobservable ones) posited by well confirmed theories while withholding acceptance from what those theories say about the natures of the phenomena so related. To a good first approximation, one might think of structural realism as the view that, for any well established scientific theory, T , one should accept the Ramsey sentence obtained from T by replacing each theoretical term in T by a new variable, and then prefixing, to the resulting open sentence, existential quantifiers over those variables, where the quantification is understood to range over causal structures in nature.

Aside from its importance as a contribution to the literature on approximate truth, structural realism is significant in two other ways. In the first place, it reflects a general tendency in the literature on scientific realism to worry about the extent to which scientific realists must portray scientific knowledge as potentially resolving genuinely metaphysical questions. Putnam's internal realism and Fine's natural ontological attitude (discussed below) may be seen as important ontologically deflationary approaches to this question.

The other significance of structural realism lies in the fact that the distinction upon which it relies -- that between causal structures and natures -- may have been, in a certain sense, challenged by philosophers like Shoemaker (1980) who hold that properties, magnitudes, states and the like are defined by their contributions to the causal powers of things. It is an interesting question whether approaches to metaphysics like Shoemaker's are compatible with the approaches to approximation informed by structural realism.

Hanson (1958) and, especially, Kuhn (1970 -- first published 1962; see Scheffler 1967, Shapere 1964 for early discussions) raised significant challenges to scientific realism, arguing from the theory dependence of methods (and, especially, of observation) to the conclusion that a realist conception of the growth of approximate scientific knowledge cannot be sustained The intellectual impact of their work in the philosophy of science has been very different from the impact it has had in the rest of the humanities and in many of the social sciences. In the later disciplines the impact of Kuhn, especially, has been to underwrite the sort of anti-realist "postmodernism" discussed later in this essay. In the philosophy of science, by contrast, the impact of Hanson and Kuhn has been mainly to stimulate the articulation of naturalistic or causal conceptions of reference and essentialist conceptions of the definitions of scientific kinds and properties. [I am here presenting what might be thought of as the "standard" conception of Kuhn's position and of responses to it. There has been a recent revival of interest in Kuhn among analytic philosophers and others, and alternative readings of Kuhn are possible (see, e.g., Hoyningen-Huene 1993 and the papers collected in Hoyningen-Huene and Sankey 2001). Whatever the merits of less standard interpretations of Kuhn, it was the standard conception of his arguments that occasioned the realist responses discussed here.]

That arguments proceeding from the theory dependence of scientific methods and of measurement should have been deployed against realism is initially surprising. After all, most of the significant arguments for scientific realism emphasize theory dependence. Moreover, Kuhn's discussion of what he calls normal science seem to have exactly anticipated the abductive argument for realism discussed above. He insists that the success of research in normal science is explained, in significant part, because scientific practitioners have, as a result of their understanding of the paradigmatic theory, a quasi-metaphysical knowledge of the basic (and often unobservable) causal factors involved in the phenomena they study.

Where Kuhn's account departs from a realist conception of the growth of approximate knowledge is in his treatment of what he calls scientific revolutions . Although most empiricist philosophers of science had recognized the theory dependence of scientific methods even before the work of Hanson and Kuhn, it was Hanson's and Kuhn's work which made it clear that accepting the theory dependence of scientific methods raise the possibility of incommensurability between competing scientific theories (or paradigms ): the possibility that in science there might be disagreements between theoretical perspectives such that there do not exist methods for their resolutions which are both rational and fair (to the competing positions).

What each author claimed was that this situation had actually obtained in important historical cases where, according to a realist perspective, one might think that the rational application of scientific methodology had resulted in the replacement of one theory by a more nearly accurate one. What was especially striking -- and challenging to a realist conception -- was Kuhn's claim that among the "scientific revolutions" where this had occurred was the transition from Newtonian mechanics to special relativity at the beginning of the 20th century.

What is important in understanding the realist response to Kuhn's claim about this particular historical case is that there are lots of experimental results (like, e.g., those which are ordinarily understood to reflect the increase of mass of particles in a cyclotron) such that they certainly look like cases in which a methodology -- including measurement procedures -- which is acceptable by both Newtonian and relativistic standards adjudicates in favor of the relativistic conception. Lots and lots of relativistic effects are such that they can be, apparently, detected and measured using instruments whose design begs no questions against either of the competing "paradigms." The transition from Newtonian mechanics to special relativity certainly looks like a textbook case of rational progression from, one theory to an even more accurate one.

Against this picture Kuhn argues that no such successive approximation occurred because Newtonian mechanics and relativity theory do not share a common subject matter regarding which the latter is a better approximation than the former. For example -- he argues -- the term "mass" as it occurs in Newtonian mechanics does not refer to the same magnitude as does the term "mass" in relativistic mechanics because "Newtonian mass is conserved; Einsteinian is convertible with energy. Only at low relative velocities may the two be measured in the same way, and even then they must not be conceived to be the same (102)."

In giving this remarkable argument Kuhn was tacitly relying on a conception of the referential semantics of scientific terms probably derived from the work of Carnap (see Carnap 1950; there are important controversies about the proper interpretation of Carnap -- see, e.g., Friedman 1987, 1991 -- but they are irrelevant to our story). The conception in question is a version of the standard empiricist "descriptivist" conception that the referent of a term is picked out by a description which constitutes the analytic definition of the term in question. According to the version Kuhn relies on, the analytic definition of a scientific term is provided by the most basic laws containing the term. Thus, as the example of "mass" illustrates, any change in the fundamental laws involving a scientific term must involve a change in referent (or reference failure , a possibility Kuhn 1970 does not discuss).

4.1 "Causal" and Naturalistic Theories of Reference

What was important for the development of realist philosophy of science was the fact that most philosophers of science were, at least tacitly, themselves inclined to some version of analytic descriptivism. The anti-realist consequences which Kuhn (and Hanson) derived from descriptivist conceptions let to the articulation by realists of alternative theories of reference. Characteristically, these theories followed the lead of Kripke (1971, 1972), whose work was mainly concerned with the semantics of modality, and Putnam (1972, 1975a, 1975b), whose work was mainly concerned with issues in the semantics of scientific terms. Each of them advocated a "causal" theory of reference according to which the reference relation between a term and its referent was a matter of there being the right sort of (chain of) causal relation(s) between uses of the term and (instances of) its referent. Numerous variations on this naturalistic theme -- some assigning importance to descriptive elements as well as causal relations in the establishment of reference -- have been proposed (see, e.g., Boyd 1999, Dretske 1981, Enç 1976, Field 1973, Kitcher 1992, Miller 1987, Papineau 1987, 1993, Psillos 1999). It is by now pretty well accepted that some departure from analytic descriptivism, involving some causal elements, is a crucial component of a realist approach to scientific knowledge.

4.2 Realism and the Revival of Essentialism

Kuhn's analytic descriptivism assigns to the analytic definition of a scientific term the role of fixing its referent. Once that role is assigned to other ("causal," "naturalistic") features of term use, it becomes possible to explore the issue of non-analytic a posteriori definitions of the kinds, magnitudes, etc. to which scientific terms refer. The work of Kripke and Putnam just cited gave rise to a class of theories according to which scientific kinds, etc. have real rather than nominal definitions ("real essences" rather than "nominal essences" in the sense of Locke 1689). The paradigm example is that the real definition, or essence, of water is described by the formula "H 2 O". It is by now a standard feature of realist conceptions of science that they incorporate some version or other of the idea that scientific kinds, categories, etc. ( natural kinds ) possess such real definitions (for interesting discussions of the development of this realist conception with special reference to biological kinds see Wilson 1999a, 1999b).

The idea that natural kinds possess such definitions has been consistently linked, in the realist literature, to discussions of the projectibility of predicates and hypotheses (Goodman 1954, Quine 1969). Only by reference to kinds (etc.) with real rather than nominal definitions -- only by, in some sense or other , "cutting the world at its ( a posteriori defined) joints" -- are we able to fit our language use to the world in such a way as to make reliable induction and explanation possible (Boyd 1999; Psillos 1999; Putnam 1972, 1975a, 1975b; Sismondo 1996; Wilson 1999b).

One further point about real essences is important. The stock example of a real definition (H 2 O for water) might suggest that real definitions of scientific kinds (etc.) must, like logical empiricists' ideal nominal definitions, specify necessary and sufficient conditions for kind membership. In fact, examination of cases in those sciences which study complex phenomena indicate that some natural definitions may consist of families of imperfectly "clustered" properties, with the result that the kinds they define do not have precisely determinate boundaries (Boyd 1999, Wilson 1999b; but see also Hacking 1991a, 1991b). Realism may imply that there is, in that sense, vagueness in nature (contrast Putnam 1983).

4.3 The Metaphysics of Social Construction

Kuhn tacitly adopts a semantic conception according to which the most basic laws in a paradigm are exactly true by linguistic convention. He also claims that such laws provide quasi-metaphysical knowledge of basic causal factors. His claim that these laws are exactly true is what leads him to conclusions about the (semantic) history of recent physics which are prima facie implausible, and it is this feature of his semantic conception against which causal or naturalistic theories of reference are mainly directed.

The example of the semantics of the names of fictional characters indicates that the linguistic conventions operating in fiction make it possible to establish it by convention that certain claims about a character are approximately true without thereby establishing their exact truth. Versions of Kuhn's social constructivist position could, therefore, be formulated according to which the establishment of a paradigm imposes by convention , on the phenomena scientists study, a quasi-metaphysical structure which makes the central laws of the paradigm approximately (but not necessarily exactly) true.

Although Kuhn never considered this version of constructivism, it fits well with the tradition of anthropological relativism to which Kuhn's position is often assimilated. It is not refuted by arguments for causal or naturalistic theories of reference, nor does it entail wildly implausible claims about incommensurability in recent science. It is, however, pretty clearly an anti-realist position -- one which has resonances with the sorts of "postmodern" anti-realism discussed later in this essay. A realist rebuttal to it is available if one makes explicit, and defends, a piece of common, and philosophical, sense about the metaphysics of conventionality: the no non-causal contribution thesis (2 N 2 C ). According to 2 N 2 C , human social practices make no non-causal contribution to the causal structure of the world, and are in that way metaphysically innocent (see Boyd 1999).

Structural realism represents one attempt to defend scientific realism while being modest about its metaphysical implications. Putnam's "internal realism" and Fine's closely related "natural ontological attitude" ( NOA ) represent other attempts to follow scientific realists in taking the findings of science at "face value" while avoiding realism's excessively metaphysical understanding of those results (Putnam 1978, 1981, 1983a; Fine 1984, 1986a, 1986b, 1991; for a nice exposition see the Introduction to Papineau 1996; for critiques see Glymour 1982; Millikan 1986; Newton-Smith 1989a, 1989b; McMullin 1991; Papineau 1987).

"Internal realism" and NOA are not easy to explicate and are, almost certainly, not the same position. Nevertheless they share some important elements in common.

  • " Thin " Truth : Both Putnam and Fine assert that one can (and should) accept the well established theories of science (even about unobservable) as (probably) true , but that this should not be understood as accepting the "metaphysical realist" (Putnam's term) view that the statements which constitute those theories correspond to reality . They advocate a "thin" conception of truth rather than a correspondence conception. In Putnam's early papers defending internal realism he adopts a pragmatic conception of truth according to which truth of sentences is a matter of being epistemically acceptable in the limit of ideal inquiry. In the case of Fine, it's less clear exactly which thin conception of truth is at work.
  • De-Natured Naturalism : Naturalistic conceptions of reference have it that reference of scientific terms is a matter of certain causal patterns which relate the use of terms to instances of their referents. Relations of measurement and detection are supposed to be centrally involved in the establishment of reference, at least in paradigm cases. It is explicit in Putnam, and surely implied by Fine's position, that if the causal theory of reference, and related causal theories of detection and measurement, are understood as scientific theories (in linguistics, say, and -- for theories of measurement and detection -- theories in the relevant sciences) then they might, for all the internal realist or NOA er says, be well confirmed. What is to be denied is that such conceptions underwrite a correspondence conception of truth. They are bits of science, but not (also) bits of realist naturalist philosophy.

5.1 An Analogy with Phenomenalism

An analogy with issues regarding knowledge of the external world may be helpful here. One classical early logical empiricist response to questions about our knowledge of (observable) external objects was the phenomenalist strategy of representing external objects as "logical constructions" analytically defined in sense-datum terms (see, e.g., Carnap 1928). That certain experience patterns constituted experiences of, e.g., chairs was supposed to reflect, not a discovery about some epistemically important metaphysical relation between chairs and those patterns, but, instead, the implication of the analytic definition of "chair" in the sense-datum language.

Nevertheless, nothing in the phenomenalist project was supposed to preclude the possibility that psychologists studying perception might discover that those very experience patterns are caused by light reflected off chairs and stimulating the retina is particular ways. This would be unobjectionable as a bit of empirical science, but it was not to be understood as positing an epistemically relevant relation of detection and representation between the experiential pattern and chairs , understood as experience-independent features of the world. It could not be understood as a component in philosophical justification of the claim that we know about, and "chair" refers to, experience-independent chairs.

By contrast, non-foundationalist "causal" or "reliabilist" conceptions of perceptual knowledge in the tradition initiated by Goldman (1967, 1976) would treat the relevant discovery both as an empirical scientific discovery and as a component of a (naturalistic) philosophical (and epistemically relevant ) explanation of why our chair beliefs sometimes represent knowledge about (experience independent) chairs. Similarly, if the psychological findings in question were incorporated into a suitable empirical theory of language use they could, on a causal or naturalistic conception of reference, underwrite the philosophical conception that "chair" refers to (experience independent) chairs.

5.2 Non-Foundationalist Epistemology Again

What this suggests is that a defense of realism against internal realism or NOA must follow the lead of non-foundational causal theories of knowledge, and of perception in particular, in insisting that scientific findings about, e.g., the measurement and detection of theoretical entities, and about the reference of scientific terms have philosophical as well as scientific relevance (see, e.g., Boyd 1999, Byerly and Lazara 1973, Hacking 1982, Psillos 1999).

5.3 Challenges Regarding the Epistemology and Metaphysics of Reference and Kinds

The arguments Putnam offers in defense of internal realism are complex, and (as the critiques cited indicate) both controversial and sometimes hard to explicate. Nevertheless, it seems pretty clear that Putnam attributes to "metaphysical realism" something like the following commitments:

  • Reference is a relation between linguistic entities and entirely extra-linguistic (and in that sense independently existing ) natural kinds. Natural kinds (magnitudes, etc.) are, somehow or other, out in the world, and available for discovery and naming. There is a single set of such natural entities somehow given by the structure of the world itself, independently of human practice.
  • The reference relation between natural kind (magnitude, etc.) terms and their referents is a purely causal matter, where the purity in question is a matter of the reference relation's being definable without significantly acknowledging descriptive elements or human intentions.

If one accepts this picture of scientific realism, understood metaphysically, then it is natural to think that what makes the associated conception of truth a correspondence conception is that reference is seen as a relation between terms and such independently existing kinds. The realist correspondence conception, so conceived, is subject to two important challenges.

First, if we think of natural kinds as things somehow independent of linguistic and methodological practices, then there are lots of natural kinds out there, and it is difficult to see how the causal conception of reference fixing could explain how a natural kind term could ever have a unique referent. This problem is exacerbated if one thinks of reference as being purely causal in the way just indicated, since intentional and descriptive factors, which might otherwise be thought to reduce the ambiguity of the reference relation, are set aside. Such considerations seem to be the basis of the "model theoretic" arguments in Putnam 1978, 1980) against "metaphysical realism."

Secondly, reference to natural kinds is supposed to explain the inductive successes of scientific practice, so there must be some quite intimate connection between natural kinds and the conceptual machinery of the sciences. If one thinks of realist theories as entailing that natural kinds are independent of that machinery, it is hard to see how the explanation could work unless it rested on something like a objective idealist theory according to which natural kinds are somehow metaphysically "fitted" for explanation and induction independently of the relevant practices. Such an assumption is profoundly at odds with the philosophical naturalism and metaphysical materialism ordinarily associated with scientific realism. This sort of consideration appears to underwrite aspects of Putnam's criticism of materialist metaphysical realism in "Why There Isn't a Ready Made World" (Putnam 1983a).

5.4 Realist responses

Of these two challenges, the first has received much more attention from scientific realists. There has been widespread acceptance of the view that descriptive and/or intentional factors must figure in any scientific realist account of reference (e.g., Boyd 1999, Enç 1976, Kitcher 1992, Papineau 1979, Psillos 1999).

Much less has been said by realists about the sense, if any, in which scientific realism is committed to there being natural kinds (etc.) which are independent of us. Psillos (1999), for example, discusses problems with pure causal theories of reference extensively, but takes it to be a basic posit of scientific realism that "…the world has a definite and mind-independent natural-kind structure" (xix). Boyd (1999) offers an alternative approach according to which, like natural kind terms and classificatory practices , natural kinds themselves should be thought of as social artifacts deployed in achieving an appropriate fit or accommodation between inductive and explanatory practices and relevant causal structures.

Whether the intrusion of descriptive and intentional notions into realist accounts of reference, or the treatment of natural kinds as social artifacts, is compatible with the main spirit of scientific realism depends on the sense(s) in which scientific realism should be understood as entailing that the phenomena scientists study are "mind independent." A possible response to this question, compatible with the proposals just mentioned, is that the relevant sense of mind independence is fully captured by the no non-causal contribution doctrine discussed earlier.

Most recent work in the relatively new discipline of science studies (see, e.g, Biagioli 1999; Galison 1987; Latour and Wolgar 1979; Latour 1987; Pickering 1984, 1995; Pinch 1985; Shapin 1982, 1994; Shapin and Schaffer 1985) and a significant body of work in feminist philosophy of science or feminist aproaches to particular science (see, e.g., Alcoff and Potter 1993; Antony 1993; Antony and Witt 1993; Conkey and Spector 1984; Fuss 1989; Gero and Conkey 1991; Harding 1986, 1987, 1991; Harding and Hintikka 1983; Harding and O'Barr 1987; Hartsock 1987; Haslanger 1993; Keller 1983: Longino 1989, 1990; Tuana 1989; Wright 1996; Wylie 1991, 1993, 2000; Wylie and Okruhlik 1987) has been to some extent influenced by, or has engaged with, anti-realist "postmodern" conceptions according to which such phenomena as science, knowledge, evidence and truth are social constructions , in some sense or other which implies that one should reject the idea that scientific practices achieve an approximate representational fit of some sort or other between the content of scientific theories and the world or reality .

Although serious interchanges between scientific realism and these approaches have not developed to the level of exchanges between, e.g., scientific realist approaches and logical empiricist or neo-Kantian ones, a number of philosophers of science have defended a realist approach against post modern relativism and skepticism (see, e.g., Boyd 1999; Kitcher 1993; Papineau 1998; Pettit 1998; Sismondo 1993a, 1993b, 1996). Several factors are probably important in determining the dimensions of the dispute between realists and postmodernists.

6.1 Boundary Work

Sociologists of science have identified a feature of scientific work which is especially important when new (sub)disciplines are being established. Practitioners of emerging disciplines devote considerable effort to distinguishing the approach of their new disciplines from the approaches of more fully established disciplines, often by adopting a substantially adversarial stance towards them. This phenomenon has been played out in the establishment of science studies and (to a somewhat lesser extent)feminist philosophy. In each of these cases, mainstream realist and empiricist approaches to epistemology have been special targets of such adversarial stance taking. In the case of science studies, to a very good first approximation, the "boundary work" foundations of the emerging discipline rest on a critique of epistemology and of the correspondence conception of truth. This perfectly ordinary, and non-culpable, boundary work resistance to traditional epistemology and the correspondence theory has proven to be a barrier to communication between mainstream philosophers of science and others in science studies.

6.2 Postmodern Responses to Naive Empiricist Conceptions of Objectivity

There is a prevalent conception of scientific objectivity which is historically associated with empiricist conceptions of science, even though it is sufficiently naive that probably no professional empiricist philosopher of science ever defended all of its components. According to it, the objects of scientific study are natural kinds (etc.) which are

  • independent of human practices,
  • unchanging,
  • ahistorical, and

necessary and sufficient membership conditions;

  • fundamental,
  • exceptionless,
  • eternal, and
  • ahistorical
  • ahistorical,
  • politically and culturally neutral, and
  • foundational

scientific methods.

To a significant extent, anti-realist postmodern conceptions of science take these components of naive empiricism to be definitive of the notion of scientific objectivity. Postmodern students of science hold -- correctly (Boyd 1999; Sismondo 1993a, 1993b, 1996; Knorr Cetina 1993) -- that nothing in actual scientific practice even remotely fits these criteria for objectivity. On this basis they often reach the anti-realist conclusion that scientific research never achieves objective knowledge. It is characteristic of defenses of realism against postmodern anti-realism that they deny, about one or more of the components mention, that they are necessary for objective knowledge.

6.3 "Quantum Superposition" of Conceptions of Social Construction

There are, in the literature and in intellectual discourse, roughly three versions of "social constructivism," the view that science is the "social construction of reality."

  • Neo - Kantian social constructivism . This is the view discussed earlier according to which the adoption of a scientific paradigm successfully imposes a quasi-metaphysical causal structure on the phenomena scientists study.
  • Science - as - social - process social constructivism . This is the view that the production of scientific findings is a social process subject to the same sorts of influences -- cultural, economic, political, sociological, etc. -- which affect any other social process.
  • Debunking social constructivism . This is the skeptical position according to which the findings of work in the sciences are determined exclusively, or in large measure, not by the "facts," but instead by relations of social power within the scientific community and the broader community within which research is conducted.

These are quite distinct positions. For example, 1. and 3. are mutually inconsistent, and 2. is compatible with either 1., or 3., or with standard logical empiricist and scientific realist conceptions. Nevertheless, in science studies and in other disciplines influenced by postmodernism they tend to become conflated.

In the first place, many practitioners in such disciples, for reasons rehearsed above, take 2. to imply that traditional realist and empiricist conceptions are mistaken. Moreover, having adopted 2., they tend to adopt a position which looks like a quantum superposition of 1. and 3., oscillating between thinking of scientific practice as (really) constructing the (quasi-metaphysical) truth and denying that it leads to truth in any metaphysically interesting sense.

The inconsistencies involved are made clearest in cases in which scientific theories of race and gender are said to be "social constructions." Often the intent here is to engage in scientific and political criticism but, in so far as the neo-Kantian, and the fully debunking conceptions of social construction are simultaneously operative, authors often have a difficult time finding the resources for saying that such theories are really ( really !) false. [For discussions of these conflations and their impact on methodological and political criticism see Sismondo 1993a, 1993b, 1996; Knorr Cetina 1993; Boyd 1999.]

6.4 Naturalism and the symmetry thesis

In one of the founding documents of contemporary science studies, Barnes and Bloor (1982) criticize a tendency in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science to treat true and false scientific theories asymmetrically: explaining the acceptance of true theories as the ordinary and to-be-expected result of applying the scientific method, but explaining the acceptance of false theories by appealing instead to the operation of "social factors." They propose that explanations for the acceptance of scientific theories should be symmetrical, appealing to the same sorts of factors in explaining the acceptance of true and false theories.

In science studies, it has been nearly universal to accept the symmetry thesis and to interpret it as requiring that truth or the facts not be treated as among the factors involved in explaining the adoption of scientific theories. Almost certainly, a defense of scientific realism in the light of the symmetry thesis will require insisting that a naturalistic scientific realism does , by considering facts of all sorts potentially relevant to the explanation of the acceptance of scientific theories, satisfy the requirements of the symmetry thesis. The locus classicus for this approach is Antony 1993; it is developed in Sismondo 1999.

6.5 Essentialism

One of the most important sources of resistance to scientific realism among feminist philosophers has been the conception that realism underwrites essentialism and that essentialism is a central component of racist and sexist ideology (see Fuss 1989 for a discussion). A naturalistic version of scientific realism does entail a sort of essentialism about natural kinds (etc.) but that sort of essentialism need not have the form suggested by the stereotype of scientific objectivity discussed above, and need not be inimical to critiques of scientific racism or sexism (Boyd 1999, Sismondo 1996). In particular, it is compatible with the sort of realist naturalism discussed here that social categories like race and gender might have as their essences a certain role in the stabilization or justification of particular sorts of historically situated oppression and exploitation. Similarly, realist naturalism is compatible with the view that some social categories (like races and genders) or psychological categories (like mental illnesses) are real, but are in some respects artifacts of classificatory (and other) social practices (see, e.g., Hacking 1986a, 1986b). All that is required by naturalistic realism is that the contribution of social practices not violate 2 N 2 C .

6.6 Concluding Remark

Scientific realism is, by the lights of most of its defenders, the sciences' own philosophy of science. Considerations of the significant philosophical challenges which it faces indicate that it can be effectively defended only by the adoption of a meta philosophical approach which is also closely tied to the science, viz ., some version or other of philosophical naturalism.

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  • Pettit, P., 1988. "The Strong Sociology of Knowledge without Relativism." In R. Nola, ed. Relativism and Realism in Science . Dordrecht: Kluwer.
  • Pickering, A., 1984. Constructing Quarks . Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • -----, 1995. The Mangle of Practice . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Pinch, Trevor, 1985. "Towards an Analysis of Scientific Observation: The Externality and Evidential Significance of Observational Reports in Physics", Social Studies of Science 15: 3-36.
  • Psillos, S., 1995. "Is Structural Realism the Best of Both Worlds?" Dialectica 49: 15-64.
  • -----, 1999. Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth . New York and London: Routledge.
  • Putnam, H., 1972. "Explanation and Reference." in G. Pearce and P. Maynard, eds. Conceptual Change . Dordrecht: Reidel.
  • -----, 1975a. "The Meaning of ‘Meaning’." in H. Putnam, Mind, Language and Reality . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • -----, 1975b. "Language and Reality." in H. Putnam, Mind, Language and Reality . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. University Press.
  • Putnam, H. 1978. Meaning and the Moral Sciences . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • -----, 1981. Reason, Truth and History . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • -----, 1983. "Vagueness and Alternative Logic." in H. Putnam, Realism and Reason . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • -----, 1983a. "Why There Isn't a Ready Made World" in H. Putnam, Realism and Reason . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Quine, W.V.O., 1969. "Natural Kinds." in W.V.0. Quine, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays . New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Salmon, W., 1984. Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World . Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • -----, 1989. Four Decades of Scientific Explanation . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Scheffler, I., 1967. Science and Subjectivity . Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Shapere, D., 1964. "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," Philosophical Review , LXXIII, 383-94.
  • Shapin, S., 1982. "History of Science and its Sociological Reconstructions" History of Science xx.
  • -----, 1994. A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth Century England . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Shapin, S., and Schaffer, S., 1985. Leviathan and the Air Pump . Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Shoemaker, S., 1980. "Causality and Properties." in P. van Inwagen (ed.) Time and Cause . Dordrecht: D. Reidel.
  • Sismondo, S., 1993a. "Some Social Constructions," Social Studies of Science 23, 515-53.
  • -----, 1993b. "Response to Knorr Cetina," Social Studies of Science 23, 563-69.
  • -----, 1996. Science without Myth . Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Tuana, N., 1989 Feminism and Science . Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • van Fraassen, B., 1980. The Scientific Image . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Weston, T., 1992. "Approximate Truth and Scientific Realism." Philosophy of Science 59: 53-74.
  • Wilson, R., 1999a. Species: New Interdisciplinary Essays . Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • -----, 1999b. "Realism, Essence, and Kind: Resuscitating Species Essentialism." in R. Wilson, ed. Species: New Interdisciplinary Essays . Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Worrall, J., 1994. "How to Remain (Reasonably) Optimistic: Scientific Realism and the ‘Luminiferous Ether’." In D. Hull and M. Forbes, eds. PSA 1994 , vol 1: 334-44. East Lansing: Philosophy of Science Association.
  • Wright, R., 1996. Gender and Archaeology . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Wylie, A., 1986. "Arguments for Scientific Realism: The Ascending Spiral." American Philosophical Quarterly 23: 287-97.
  • -----, 1991. "Gender Theory and the Archaeological Record: Why is there no Archaeology of Gender?" in Gero and Conkey, eds. Engendering Archaeology . Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • -----, 2000. "Feminism in Philosophy of Science: Making Sense of Contingency and Constraint." in Fricker, Miranda and Hornsby, Jennifer, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • -----, 1993. "Gender Archaeology/Feminist Archaeology" in W. A. Bacus, et al , eds. A Gendered Past . Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Technical Report No. 25: vii-xiii.
  • Wylie, A. and Okruhlik, K. 1987. "Philosophical Feminism: Challenges to Science." Resources for Feminist Research 16 (3): 12-16.
  • Preprints in the Philosophy of Science (sponsored by thr Philosophy of Science Association and the Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh)
  • Links to Philosophy (of Science) Resources (Johns Hopkins University Philosophy Department)
  • A Guide to Resources in Science Studies (Science Studies Program at the University of Missouri/Kansas City)
  • The Science Wars Homepage (sponsored by the Science Wars Monitor International; contains references to the controversies around "social constructivism" in science studies)

[Note: Many of the authors mentioned in this entry who are still active have websites which often contain information about their most recent work.]

Feyerabend, Paul | Kuhn, Thomas | scientific explanation | scientific knowledge: social dimensions of

What is Scientific Realism?

Decades of debate about scientific realism notwithstanding, we find ourselves bemused by what different philosophers appear to think it is, exactly. Does it require any sort of belief in relation to scientific theories and, if so, what sort? Is it rather typified by a certain understanding of the rationality of such beliefs? In the following dialogue we explore these questions in hopes of clarifying some convictions about what scientific realism is, and what it could or should be. En route, we encounter some profoundly divergent conceptions of the nature of science and of philosophy.

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Editor's Introduction

The debate over scientific realism, simply put, is a debate over what we can and should believe about reality once we've critically assessed all the available arguments and empirical evidence. Thinking earnestly about the merits of scientific realism as a philosophical thesis requires navigating contentious historiographical issues, being familiar with the technical details of various scientific theories, and addressing disparate philosophical problems spanning aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology, and beyond. This issue of Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science aims to make participating in the scientific realism debate easier for both newcomers and veterans, collecting over twenty invited and peer-reviewed papers under the title "The Future of the Scientific Realism Debate: Contemporary Issues Concerning Scientific Realism."

Scientific Realism versus Antirealism in Science Education

Scientific realists believe both what a scientific theory says about observables and unobservables. In contrast, scientific antirealists believe what a scientific theory says about observables, but not about unobservables. I argue that scientific realism is a more useful doctrine than scientific antirealism in science classrooms. If science teachers are antirealists, they are caught in Moore’s paradox when they help their students grasp the content of a scientific theory, and when they explain a phenomenon in terms of a scientific theory. Teachers ask questions to their students to check whether they have grasped the content of a scientific theory. If the students are antirealists, they are also caught in Moore’s paradox when they respond positively to their teachers’ questions, and when they explain a phenomenon in terms of a scientific theory. Finally, neither teachers nor students can understand phenomena in terms of scientific theories, if they are antirealists.

On the metaphysics of (epistemological) logical anti-exceptionalism

A recent logical anti-exceptionalist trend proposes that logical theories are revisable in the same manner as scientific theories, either on grounds of the method of theory selection or on what counts as evidence for this revision. Given this approximation of logic and science, the present essay analyzes the commitments of both these varieties and argues that, as it currently stands, this kind of anti-exceptionalism is committed to scientific realism, that is, to realism about some unobservable entities evoked in logical theories. The essay argues that anti-exceptionalism cannot be separated into metaphysical and epistemological varieties, and proposed rather to label anti-exceptionalists views either broadly in terms of theory revision, or narrowly in terms of logic’s affinity with science.

From the Evidence of History to the History of Evidence

This chapter looks into the transition from the Cartesian natural philosophy to the Newtonian one, and then to the Einsteinian science, making the following key point: though the shift from Descartes’s theory to Newton’s amounted to a wholesale rejection of Descartes’s theory, in the second shift, a great deal was retained; Newton’s theory of universal gravitation gave rise to a research program that informed and constrained Einstein’s theory. Newton’s theory was a lot more supported by the evidence than Descartes’s and this made it imperative for the successor theory to accommodate within it as much as possible of Newton’s theory: evidence for Newton’s theory became evidence for Einstein’s. This double case study motivates a rebranding of the “divide et impera” strategy against the pessimistic induction introduced in the book Scientific Realism, which shifts attention from the (crude) evidence of the history of science to the (refined) history of evidence for scientific theories.

1. The methods and fruits of science

This chapter briefly discusses central key topics in the philosophy of science that the remainder of the book draws upon. It begins by considering the scientific method. ‘Induction’—the idea that we construct scientific theories just by generalizing from observations—is a very poor match to real science. ‘Falsification’—Popper’s idea that we create a theory, test against observation, and discard it if it fails the test—is much more realistic, but still too simple: data only falsifies data given auxiliary assumptions that can themselves be doubted. The issues are illustrated through an example from modern astrophysics: dark matter. The chapter then explores how we can resolve issues of underdetermination, where two theories give the same predictions. Finally, it introduces ‘scientific realism’, the view that our best theories tell us things about the world that go beyond what is directly observable.

Scientific realism and antirealism

Traditionally, scientific realism asserts that the objects of scientific knowledge exist independently of the minds or acts of scientists and that scientific theories are true of that objective (mind-independent) world. The reference to knowledge points to the dual character of scientific realism. On the one hand it is a metaphysical (specifically, an ontological) doctrine, claiming the independent existence of certain entities. On the other hand it is an epistemological doctrine asserting that we can know what individuals exist and that we can find out the truth of the theories or laws that govern them. Opposed to scientific realism (hereafter just ‘realism’) are a variety of antirealisms, including phenomenalism and empiricism. Recently two others, instrumentalism and constructivism, have posed special challenges to realism. Instrumentalism regards the objects of knowledge pragmatically, as tools for various human purposes, and so takes reliability (or empirical adequacy) rather than truth as scientifically central. A version of this, fictionalism, contests the existence of many of the objects favoured by the realist and regards them as merely expedient means to useful ends. Constructivism maintains that scientific knowledge is socially constituted, that ‘facts’ are made by us. Thus it challenges the objectivity of knowledge, as the realist understands objectivity, and the independent existence that realism is after. Conventionalism, holding that the truths of science ultimately rest on man-made conventions, is allied to constructivism. Realism and antirealism propose competing interpretations of science as a whole. They even differ over what requires explanation, with realism demanding that more be explained and antirealism less.

The Role of Existential Quantification in Scientific Realism

AbstractScientific realism holds that the terms in our scientific theories refer and that we should believe in their existence. This presupposes a certain understanding of quantification, namely that it is ontologically committing, which I challenge in this paper. I argue that the ontological loading of the quantifiers is smuggled in through restricting the domains of quantification, without which it is clear to see that quantifiers are ontologically neutral. Once we remove domain restrictions, domains of quantification can include non-existent things, as they do in scientific theorizing. Scientific realism would therefore require redefining without presupposing a view of ontologically committing quantification.

Unconceived alternatives and another argument for instrumentalism

Selective skepticism in relation to fundamental scientific theories and criticism of the inference to the best explanation as an eliminative approach to substantiate hypotheses, enable K. Stanford to interpret and combine in his own way the classical arguments against the scientific realism – the arguments of the pessimistic meta-induction and that of the underdetermination of theory by data. Despite the fact that his justification of the instrumentalist interpretation of scientific knowledge is just another version of the argument «from error», K. Stanford’s book should be recommended to a scientific realism could be. Reflection on the book: Stanford K. Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives. Oxford University Press, 2006.

El contenido empírico del realismo científico

RESUMENUna forma común de entender el realismo científico (RC) en las últimas décadas ha sido plantearlo como una inferencia explicativa: RC es la mejor explicación del éxito predictivo-instrumental de la ciencia. Algunos de sus partidarios mantienen, además que es una hipótesis empíricamente constrastable. Intentaré argumentar, que, entendido así, RC no es empíricamente contrastable. En primer lugar, aunque el éxito predictivo-instrumental initerrumpido de una teoría T es una consecuencia observacional de la verdad de T, este hecho no hecho no constituye una evidencia empírica diferente del propio "explanandum". En segundo lugar, elaorar un registro histórico del éxito -no sólo empírico, sino teórico- obtenido mediante la postulación de entidades por consideraciones explicativas, confirmaría como mucho, y eso suponiendo que fuera posible, una cocincidencia entre una metodología determinada y unos resultados, pero no daría cuenta del vínculo explicativo entre éxito predictivo instrumental por un lado, y verdad y existencia, por otro. Por consiguiente, RC no es una hipótesis empírica en un sentido genuino; a fortiori, tampoco es una hipótesis científica. Esta conclusión, no obstante, no cierra el camino a un realismo científico de carácter local.PALABRAS CLAVEREALISMO CIENTÍFICO, OBSERVACIÓN, TEORÍA, INFERENCIA A LA MEJOR EXPLICACIÓNABSTRACTA common way of understanding scientific realism (SR) during the latest decades says that SR is the best explanation of the predictive success enjoyed by scientific theories. Some os this advocates claim, aslo, that SR is an empirically testable hypothesis. I will try to argue that, as an explanation of predictive sucess, SR is not empirically testable. Firstly, even though the uninterrupted preditive success of T is an observational consequence of T´s truth, this fact is not a kind of evidence distinguishable from the very explanandum. Secondly, a historical record of success obtained by postulating theoretical emities would confirm, at most, a correlation between some methodological norms and some particular results. But confirming such correlation is not the same as vindicating an explanotory link between truth and existence (the explanans), and predictive success (the explanandum). In sum, SR is not a genuine empirical hypothesis; a fortiori, it is neither a scientific hypothesis. Anyway, this conclusion does not forbid some kind of "local" scientific realism.KEYWORDSSCIENTIFIC REALISM, OBSERVATION, THEORY, INFERENCE TO THE BEST EXPLANATION

Scientific Realism

This chapter addresses scientific realism. After the heyday of empiricism in the interwar period and its immediate aftermath, many critical reactions to empiricism seemed to suggest scientific realism. It was widely agreed that scientific theories make references to things that cannot be directly observed (or at least seen), and thus emerged the issue of the status of non-observables. As scientific realism became increasingly dominant, new philosophical stances such as Bas C. van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism were often defined in opposition to it. Van Fraassen understands scientific realism as a claim that science aims to give us, in its theories, a literally true story of what the world is like; and acceptance of a scientific theory involves the belief that it is true. More in line with established forms of scientific realism, Ilkka Niiniluoto talks about verisimilitude, or truth-likeness. This concept is supposed to avoid the consequences of claiming to have access to the truth itself. The chapter then considers how the social sciences seem to pose difficulties for scientific realism.

William H. Miller III Department of Philosophy

Evidence, explanation, and realism: essays in philosophy of science.

Evidence, Explanation, and Realism: Essays in Philosophy of Science

  • Peter Achinstein (author)
  • Oxford University Press , 2010
  • Purchase Online

The essays in this volume address three fundamental questions in the philosophy of science: What is required for some fact to be evidence for a scientific hypothesis? What does it mean to say that a scientist or a theory explains a phenomenon? Should scientific theories that postulate “unobservable” entities such as electrons be construed realistically as aiming to correctly describe a world underlying what is directly observable, or should such theories be understood as aiming to correctly describe only the observable world?

Distinguished philosopher of science Peter Achinstein provides answers to each of these questions in essays written over a period of more than 40 years. The present volume brings together his important previously published essays, allowing the reader to confront some of the most basic and challenging issues in the philosophy of science, and to consider Achinstein’s many influential contributions to the solution of these issues.

He presents a theory of evidence that relates this concept to probability and explanation; a theory of explanation that relates this concept to an explaining act as well as to the different ways in which explanations are to be evaluated; and an empirical defense of scientific realism that invokes both the concept of evidence and that of explanation.

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Research guide

Paul Dicken

No-one doubts that our current scientific theories are enormously successful in terms of both prediction and manipulation of empirical phenomena. But a theory need not be true in order to be successful, and the history of science may even give us grounds to expect wholesale abandonment of our theoretical claims in the future. Do we have warrant to believe that our most successful scientific theories are (at least approximately) true? Is there any sense to be made of the notion of scientific progress? And if not, what are the alternatives?

The scientific realism debate naturally intersects with a number of other important issues in the philosophy of science: questions over the so-called scientific method for example have an immediate bearing on the justification of, and hence our belief in, a scientific theory. In what follows however, I shall restrict myself to the core elements of the debate – likelihood of truth, and warrant for belief. There are a number of good places to start one's reading on these topics, but one of the best is still:

  • Psillos, P. (1999) Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth (London: Routledge)

which provides both a spirited defence of scientific realism, and a well-informed survey of the leading objections and competitors. Other good introductions to the subject, and to how the scientific realism debate relates to other realism debates within philosophy, include:

  • Papineau, D. (ed.) (1996) The Philosophy of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Ladyman, J. (2001) Understanding Philosophy of Science (London: Routledge).
  • Brock, S. & Mares, E. (2007) Realism and Anti-Realism (Chesham: Acumen).

Of miracles and meta-inductions

Much of the scientific realism debate is still fixed around two competing intuitions: that on the one hand, the predictive and manipulative success of a scientific theory gives us good reason to believe that theory to be (approximately) true; yet on the other hand, the inductive track-record of science gives us good reasons to expect even our most successful scientific theories to be proven false in the fullness of time. The literature on both of these arguments is vast; for some of the canonical readings on the first (the 'no-miracles argument') see:

  • Quine, W. V. (1975) 'Posits and Reality', in his The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), pp. 246-254.
  • Putnam, H. (1975) 'What is Mathematical Truth?' in his Mathematics, Matter and Method: Philosophical Papers Vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 60-78.
  • Boyd, R. (1983) 'On the Current Status of Scientific Realism', Erkenntnis 19, pp. 45-90.
  • Cartwright, N. (1983) 'The Truth Doesn't Explain Much', in her How the Laws of Physics Lie (Oxford: Clarendon), pp. 44-53.
  • Fine, A. (1984) 'The Natural Ontological Attitude', in J. Leplin (ed.) Scientific Realism (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 83-107.
  • Musgrave, A. (1989) 'The Ultimate Argument for Scientific Realism', in R. Nola (ed.) Relativism and Realism in Science (Boston: Kluwer), pp. 229-252.
  • Lipton, P. (1994) 'Truth, Existence and the Best Explanation', in A. A. Derksen (ed.) The Scientific Realism of Rom Harré (Tillburg: Tillburg University Press), pp. 89-111.
  • Psillos, S. (1999) Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth (London: Routledge).
  • Stanford, P. K. (2000) 'An Anti-Realist Explanation of the Success of Science', Philosophy of Science 67, pp. 266-284.
  • Kitcher, P. (2001) 'Real Realism: The Galilean Strategy', The Philosophical Review 110, pp. 151-197.
  • Magnus, P. D. & Callender, C. (2004) 'Realist Ennui and the Base Rate Fallacy', Philosophy of Science 71, pp. 320-338.

And good material on inferences to the best explanation in general is:

  • Lipton, P. (2004) Inference to the Best Explanation (London: Routledge).

Material on the second of these intuitions – the so-called 'pessimistic meta-induction' – is also vast, and frequently overlaps with material on the no-miracles argument. The debate has also become very closely tied to issues in the philosophy of language, in particular the causal theories of reference attributed to Kripke and Putnam. For an overview of some of the debate, see:

  • Hesse, M. (1976) 'Truth and Growth of Knowledge', in F. Suppe & P. D. Asquith (eds.) PSA 1976, Vol. II (East Lansing: Philosophy of Science Association), pp. 261-280.
  • Laudan, L. (1981) 'A Confutation of Convergent Realism', Philosophy of Science 48, pp. 19-48.
  • McMullin, E. (1984) 'A Case for Scientific Realism', in J. Leplin (ed.) Scientific Realism (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 8-40.
  • Kitcher, P. (1993) The Advancement of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Stanford, P. K. & Kitcher, P. (2000) 'Refining the Causal Theory of Reference for Natural Kind Terms', Philosophical Studies 97, pp. 99-129.
  • Lewis, P. (2001) 'Why the Pessimistic Induction is a Fallacy', Synthese 129, pp. 371-380.
  • Lange, M. (2002) 'Baseball, Pessimistic Inductions and the Turnover Fallacy', Analysis 62, pp. 281-285.

For some stimulating work that explicitly contextualizes worries concerning theory-change within the relevant philosophy of language:

  • Smith, P. (1981) Realism and the Progress of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Zammito, J. (2004) A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour (Chicago: Chicago University Press).

And for more on the causal theory of reference, including recent criticisms:

  • Garcia-Carpintero, M. & Macia, J. (eds.) (2006) Two-Dimensional Semantics (New York: Oxford University Press).
  • Soames, S. (2007) Reference and Description: The Case Against Two-Dimensionalism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press).

Structural realism: epistemology, ontology and philosophy of physics

One popular response to our competing intuitions over the no-miracles argument and the pessimistic meta-induction is to try and satisfy both at once with a more nuanced form of realism. This is often articulated as involving a distinction between those claims of a scientific theory that describe (often mathematical) structure, and those that posit specific entities. An assortment of readings here, with a bit of a historical bias, are:

  • Maxwell, G. (1970) 'Structural Realism and the Meaning of Theoretical Terms', in S. Winokur & M. Radner (eds.) Analyses of Theories and Methods of Physics and Psychology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), pp. 182-192.
  • Maxwell, G. (1970) 'Theories, Perception and Structural Realism', in R. Colodny (ed.) Nature and Function of Scientific Theories (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press), pp. 3-34.
  • Ramsey, F. P. (1978) 'Theories', in D. H. Mellor (ed.) Foundations: Essays in Philosophy, Logic, Mathematics and Economics (London: Routledge).
  • Lewis, D. (1983) 'How to Define Theoretical Terms', in his Philosophical Papers Vol. I (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 78-97.
  • Demopoulos, W. & Friedman, M. (1985) 'Critical Notice: Bertrand Russell's The Analysis of Matter : Its Historical Context and Contemporary Interest', Philosophy of Science 52, pp. 621-639.
  • Friedman, M. (1987) 'Carnap's Aufbau Reconsidered', Noûs 21, pp. 521-545.
  • Worrall, J. (1989) 'Structural Realism: The Best of Both Worlds?', Dialectica 43, pp. 99-124.
  • Zahar, E. (1996) 'Poincare's Structural Realism and his Logic of Discovery', in J. Greffe, G. Heinzmann & K. Lorenz (eds.) Henri Poincare: Science and Philosophy (Berlin: Academie Verlag), pp. 45-68.
  • Chakravartty, A. (1998) 'Semirealism', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 29, pp. 391-408.
  • Psillos, S. (2000) 'Carnap, the Ramsey-Sentence and Realistic Empiricism', Erkenntnis 52, pp. 253-279.
  • van Fraassen, B. C. (2006) 'Structure: Its Shadow and Substance', The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57, pp. 275-307.

Work on the more recent 'ontic' formulation of structural realism has also tended to overlap significantly with issues in the philosophy of physics; indeed, Ladyman's most recent defence of the position places just as much weight upon the interpretation of quantum mechanics as it does upon more familiar issues in the scientific realism debate. A good survey of the literature here is:

  • French, S. (1989) 'Identity and Individuality in Classical and Quantum Physics', Australasian Journal of Philosophy 67, pp. 432-446.
  • Ladyman, J. (1998) 'What is Structural Realism?', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 29, pp. 409-424.
  • French, S. (1998) 'On the Whithering Away of Physical Objects', in E. Castellani (ed.) Interpreting Bodies: Classical and Quantum Objects in Modern Physics (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 93-113.
  • Psillos, P. (2001) 'Is Structural Realism Possible?', Philosophy of Science 68, pp. S13-S24.
  • Chakravartty, A. (2003) 'The Structural Conception of Objects', Philosophy of Science 70, pp. 867-878.
  • French, S. & Ladyman, J. (2003) 'Remodelling Structural Realism: Quantum Physics and the Metaphysics of Structure', Synthese 136, pp. 31-56.
  • Ladyman, J. & Ross, D. (2007) Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalised (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Constructive empiricism and the empirical stance

Van Fraassen's empiricist alternative to scientific realism has provoked numerous debates throughout the philosophy of science. For the definitive statement of the position, and for the most useful collections of articles in response, see:

  • van Fraassen, B. C. (1980) The Scientific Image (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • Churchland, P. M. & Hooker, C. A. (eds.) (1985) Images of Science: Essays on Realism and Empiricism (Chicago: Chicago University Press).

Of the many issues raised by constructive empiricism, two debates in particular are currently being conducted in the literature. The first concerns the constructive empiricist's ability to endorse his central distinction between the observable and the unobservable in the context of his own epistemic policy. This issue touches on the debate between the syntactic and semantic approach to theories, the constructive empiricist's other central distinction between believing and merely accepting a theory, and – perhaps – larger issues over self-reference. The relevant work here is:

  • Musgrave, A. (1985) 'Realism Versus Constructive Empiricism', in P. M. Churchland & C. A. Hooker (eds.) Images of Science: Essays on Realism and Empiricism (Chicago: Chicago University Press), pp. 197-221.
  • van Fraassen, B. C. (1985) 'Empiricism in the Philosophy of Science', in P. M. Churchland & C. A. Hooker (eds.) Images of Science: Essays on Realism and Empiricism (Chicago: Chicago University Press), pp. 245-308.
  • Muller, F. A. (2004) 'Can a Constructive Empiricist Adopt the Concept of Observability?', Philosophy of Science 71, pp. 80-97.
  • Dicken, P. & Lipton, P. (2006) 'What Can Bas Believe? Musgrave and van Fraassen on Observability', Analysis 66, pp. 226-233.

The second debate concerns whether the constructive empiricist can provide an adequate account of modality. This again touches on the so-called semantic approach to theories, and van Fraassen's broader work on laws of nature. See:

  • van Fraassen, B. C. (1977) 'The Only Necessity is Verbal Necessity', Journal of Philosophy 74, pp. 71-85.
  • van Fraassen, B. C. (1985) Laws and Symmetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • Ladyman, J. (2000) 'What's Really Wrong With Constructive Empiricism? Van Fraassen and the Metaphysics of Modality', The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 51, pp. 837-856.
  • Monton, B. & van Fraassen, B. C. (2003) 'Constructive Empiricism and Modal Nominalism', The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 54, pp. 405-422.
  • Ladyman, J. (2004) 'Constructive Empiricism and Modal Metaphysics: A Reply to Monton and van Fraassen', The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 55, pp. 755-765.
  • Muller, F. A. (2005) 'The Deep Black Sea: Observability and Modality Afloat', The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 56, pp. 61-99.
  • Dicken, P. (2006) 'Constructive Empiricism and the Metaphysics of Modality', The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 58, pp. 605-612.

Relatively little has been said about van Fraassen's distinction between believing and accepting a theory, although this remains an interesting topic:

  • Horwich, P. (1991) 'On the Nature and Norms of Theoretical Commitment', Philosophy of Science 58, pp. 1-14.
  • Blackburn, S. (2002) 'Realism: Deconstructing the Debate', Ratio 15, pp. 111-133.

Finally, a lot of recent attention has been devoted to van Fraassen's distinctive epistemology – the idea of an epistemic 'stance' – and the consequences this has for the philosophy of science in general. The most interesting work here is to be found in:

  • van Fraassen, B. C. (2002) The Empirical Stance (New Haven: Yale University Press).
  • Monton, B. (ed.) (forthcoming) Images of Empiricism: Essays on Science and Stances (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Bueno, O. & Rowbottom, D. (eds.) (forthcoming) Stance and Rationality (Dordrecht: Kluwer).

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scientific realism essay

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scientific realism essay

Book contents

  • Frontmatter
  • Introduction to volumes 1 and 2
  • 8 Introduction: proliferation and realism as methodological principles
  • 9 Linguistic arguments and scientific method
  • 10 Materialism and the mind–body problem
  • 11 Realism and instrumentalism
  • 12 A note on the problem of induction
  • 13 On the quantum theory of measurement
  • 14 Professor Bohm's philosophy of nature
  • 15 Reichenbach's interpretation of quantum mechanics
  • 16 Niels Bohr's world view
  • 17 Hidden variables and the argument of Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen
  • Subject index

11 - Realism and instrumentalism

comments on the logic of factual support

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012


Realism and instrumentalism provide two alternative interpretations of science and of factual knowledge in general. According to realism such knowledge is descriptive of (general or particular) features of the universe. According to instrumentalism even a theory that is wholly correct does not describe anything but serves as an instrument for the prediction of the facts that constitute its empirical content. Thus, considering Newton's theory of gravitation, a realist would remark that it teaches us of the existence, in addition to physical objects and their spatiotemporal behaviour, of entities of an altogether different kind which cannot be directly seen, heard, or felt, but whose influence is still noticeable enough, viz. forces. An instrumentalist, on the other hand, will take the position that there are no such entities and that the function of words like ‘gravitation’, ‘force’ and ‘gravitational field’ is exhausted by their giving an abbreviated description of the spatiotemporal behaviour of physical objects. He may even deny the existence of these objects and regard object words, too, as instruments, usable for the ordering and predicting of sense data. In this paper I shall argue that realism is preferable to instrumentalism.


Such an argument is of interest only if the issue between realism and instrumentalism is more than just a quarrel about words. Some philosophers deny that it is: Nagel, for example, holds that ‘the opposition between these issues is a conflict over preferred modes of speech’ which cannot be resolved in an objective manner.

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  • Realism and instrumentalism
  • Paul K. Feyerabend
  • Book: Realism, Rationalism and Scientific Method
  • Online publication: 05 June 2012
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An Essay for Educators: Epistemological Realism Really is Common Sense

  • Published: 15 June 2007
  • Volume 17 , pages 425–447, ( 2008 )

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scientific realism essay

  • William W. Cobern 1 &
  • Cathleen C. Loving 2  

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“What is truth?” Pontius Pilot asked Jesus of Nazareth. For many educators today this question seems quaintly passé. Rejection of “truth” goes hand-in-hand with the rejection of epistemological realism. Educational thought over the last decade has instead been dominated by empiricist, anti-realist, instrumentalist epistemologies of two types: first by psychological constructivism and later by social constructivism. Social constructivism subsequently has been pressed to its logical conclusion in the form of relativistic multiculturalism. Proponents of both psychological constructivism and social constructivism value knowledge for its utility and eschew as irrelevant speculation any notion that knowledge is actually about reality. The arguments are largely grounded in the discourse of science and science education where science is “western” science; neither universal nor about what is really real. The authors defended the notion of science as universal in a previous article. The present purpose is to offer a commonsense argument in defense of critical realism as an epistemology and the epistemically distinguished position of science (rather than privileged) within a framework of epistemological pluralism. The paper begins with a brief cultural survey of events during the thirty-year period from 1960–1990 that brought many educators to break with epistemological realism and concludes with comments on the pedagogical importance of realism. Understanding the cultural milieu of the past forty years is critical to understanding why traditional philosophical attacks on social constructivist ideas have proved impotent defenders of scientific realism.

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Traditionally realism refers to ontology. However, especially in education circles, realism is taken as an epistemology. Few anti-realist in the education community are ontological anti-realists––the issue is epistemology.

Our cultural survey is of necessity very brief. First, our argument is meant as an hypothesis to stimulate further study and discussion. Second, a longer treatment would be beyond the scope of the journal. Third, our focus is limited to American culture. Other countries and societies would undoubtedly tell the story differently.

It should be noted that logical positivism , in its doctrinaire form, was never a realist position. Early positivists like Carnap and Ayer rejected the idea that science aims to describe an independent reality, not because they thought it was false, but because they saw no way to confirm or disconfirm it by experience. Later (long before the 1960s), many former positivists abandoned this position in favor of a form of realism known as logical empiricism . The two positions have significant similarities but should not be confused (Salmon 2000 ).

There were other reasons for reforming science education. See Rudolph ( 2002 ) for a thorough discussion of economic and political pressures for science education reform prominent in the early Cold War period.

For an excellent discussion of the difference between the interests of science and public interest in science, see Eger ( 1989 ).

For examples of socially relevant science curriculum ideas of the period, see Baird ( 1937 ) or Zechiel ( 1937 ).

One indication that the critics failed in their efforts is that the Kromhout and Good title reappears thirteen years later in Gross et al. ( 1996 ). Indeed, in the eyes of many in science, the situation had only worsened as indicated by the two-word addition in the Gross et al title, The Flight From Science and Reason .

See < > for a brief biographical sketch of Kuhn’s life and work. See also Science & Education vol.9 nos.1–2 for discussion of Kuhn’s impact on science educators.

We are not indicating a chronological order. For the most part, these were simultaneous events during the decade.

Although our focus is the United States, Kuhn’s book had more immediate impact in Great Britain during the late 1960s founding of the University of Edinburgh’s Strong Program in the sociology of science. This school of sociology was “in direct conflict with all philosophical theories that seek to distinguish logic or rationality from psychology or sociology” (Giere 1991 , p. 51). On the Continent, while no direct influence is claimed here between Kuhn’s science writings and the European literary “deconstructionists,” it is interesting to note some similar revolutionary writings. While Kuhn was revising the first edition of his magnum opus in an attempt to deal with criticisms of his myriad uses of “paradigms” in science communities, Jacque Derrida was, at about the same time, “deconstructing” literary texts in articles with titles like Ends of Man (Derrida 1969 ), The Purveyor of Truth (Derrida ( 1975 ), or his psychoanalysis of the “truth factor” ( 1975 ).

See (“a website devoted to the life and legacy of Rachel Carson”) at:

The education and social science literatures often overstate Kuhn’s influence in academic philosophy. As a counterbalance, consider that in Wesley Salmon's ( 1989 ) Four Decades of Scientific Explanation , Kuhn is mentioned only once in over 200 pages of meticulous historical survey.

The notion that Copernicus was an instrumentalist is an historical myth. “All of the evidence is that Copernicus was a robust realist and that it is Osiander, not Copernicus, who bears responsibility for the instrumentalism here. When Copernicus's disciple Georg Joachim Rheticus (author of the famous “Narratio Prima”) read the unsigned preface, he was furious and said that if he had positive proof that Osiander had inserted this he would personally give him such a thrashing that Osiander would never again interfere in the affairs of scientific men! Many good scientists who read further than the preface realized that Copernicus is an earnest realist: Maestlin and his famous pupil Kepler, Thomas Digges in England, etc.” (McGrew 2002 )

We quote Vico because Glasersfeld does; however, we do not necessarily agree with Glasersfeld’s interpretation of Vico’s work. For a different perspective on Vico, see Lilla ( 1993 ).

For a discussion on types of multiculturalism, see: Haack ( 1998 , Ch. 8).

It should be apparent that epistemological realism and ontological realism go hand in hand.

The inability to have direct access to reality is a key supposition for anti-realists. For an incisive rebuttal and defense of the theory of direct perception, see Nola ( 2003 ).

Along with the sociology of science, critical realism agrees that constructing goes on in science––that science is not about discovering “already categorized objects and relations.” The difference comes, however, in that scientists can legitimately claim “genuine similarities” between logical constructs and aspects of reality. Rather than “critical,” Giere ( 1999 ) refers to “perspectival” realism to emphasize that scientific theories never capture completely the “totality of reality” but provide us with only—perspectives “…science that is perspectival rather than absolute” (Giere 1999 , p. 79). Our use of “critical realism” is in this vein. For a philosophical introduction to critical realism, see Bhaskar ( 1989 ), Harré ( 1975 ), Putman ( 1987 ) or Salmon ( 1989 ). There are different varieties of critical realism such as Giere’s ( 1999 ) “constructive realism” but what they have in common is nicely described by Polkinghorne ( 1991 , p. 304): “epistemology models ontology.”

For more on Traditional Ecological Knowledge, see Snively and Corsiglia ( 2001 ).

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Cobern, W.W., Loving, C.C. An Essay for Educators: Epistemological Realism Really is Common Sense. Sci & Educ 17 , 425–447 (2008).

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Scientific Realism

Scientific realism is primarily a view about theoretical science.  According to a classic (or "standard") form of scientific realism, the unobservable "theoretical" entities postulated by scientific theories (e.g. atoms, electrons) are real and theoretical claims about those entities are true or approximately true.  Scientific realism contrasts with commonsense realism, which is realism about the observable entities of the ordinary, everyday world.  Scientific realism may be combined with commonsense realism, though some philosophers take there to be a conflict between science and common sense, which may make it difficult to reconcile the two doctrines.  Some scientific realists ("entity realists") emphasise the reality of theoretical entities while downplaying or avoiding altogether talk of the truth of theories.  Some scientific realists (e.g. "structural realists") downplay or reject the reality of theoretical entities while emphasising structural aspects of theory or reality. Some anti-realists (e.g. "constructive empiricists") admit commonsense realism while rejecting or withholding judgment about scientific realism.  The classic opponent of scientific realism ("instrumentalism") denies that theoretical discourse about theoretical entities is to be interpreted in literal fashion, instead taking the latter to be fictitious entities which play at most a role in prediction at the observational level.  The major argument for scientific realism is the "success argument" (also known as the "no miracles argument" and the "ultimate argument") that scientific realism is the best explanation of the success of science.  Scientific realists who emphasize truth in their formulation of the view require an account of approximate truth or verisimilitude because they tend to see science as progressing toward truth rather than having already reached the final truth about the world (this view is sometimes known as "convergent realism").  The main arguments against scientific realism are that the truth of theory is radically underdetermined by empirical data and the so-called "pessimistic induction" from the falsity of past theories to the likely falsity of current theories.  An important response to the latter objection is that scientific realists should only take specific parts of theories to be true or approximately true rather than take the entirety of a theory to be true or approximately true (so-called "deployment realism"). 
Ian Hacking's book, , provides general discussion of the issues relating to scientific realism, emphasising entity realism.  Stathis Psillos's book, , also provides general coverage, while developing a deployment realist approach. Two important collections are Jarrett Leplin (ed.) , and the more recent Realism edited by Juha Saatsi .  Larry Laudan's paper, 'A Confutation of Convergent Realism', presents criticism of scientific realism that is sometimes understood as a pessimistic induction  .  Bas van Fraassen's book,   , presents criticism of scientific realism and articulates the constructive empiricist form of anti-realism.  For development of structural realism, see John Worrall, 'Structural Realism: The Best of Both Worlds?'  and James Ladyman 'What is Structural Realism?' .
See Michael Devitt's entry on scientific realism in ,  and Anjan Chakravartty's entry on scientific realism in the For a quite basic introduction to scientific realism, see Howard Sankey, 'What is Scientific Realism?' , which is also available in French translation .
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Scientific Realism: Selected Essays of Mario Bunge

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Scientific Realism: Selected Essays of Mario Bunge Hardcover – August 1, 2001

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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Prometheus; Illustrated edition (August 1, 2001)
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Mario bunge.

Mario Augusto Bunge (/ˈbʊŋɡeɪ/; Spanish: [ˈbuŋxe]; September 21, 1919 – February 24, 2020) was an Argentine philosopher and physicist who was mainly active in Canada.

Bunge was a prolific intellectual, having written more than 400 papers and 80 books, notably his monumental "Treatise on Basic Philosophy" in eight volumes (1974–1989), a comprehensive and rigorous study of those philosophical aspects Bunge takes to be the core of modern philosophy: semantics, ontology, epistemology, philosophy of science and ethics. In his Treatise, Bunge developed a comprehensive scientific outlook which he then applied to the various natural and social sciences.

Bunge was distinguished with twenty-one honorary doctorates and four honorary professorships by universities from both the Americas and Europe. Bunge was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1984–) and of the Royal Society of Canada (1992–), and he is in the Science Hall of Fame of the AAAS.

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scientific realism essay

The Role of the ‘No Miracles’ Argument for Scientific Realism Essay

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The most general explanation of the principles of scientific realism is based on the idea that science can provide the true description of the real world and details of the world’s processes.

To justify the appropriateness of the philosophy, the supporters of scientific realism are inclined to promote the ‘no miracles’ argument which is discussed as rather debatable among anti-realists (French & Saatsi 2011, p. 84). That is why, it is necessary to discuss the role of the argument for supporting scientific realism.

This significant role was accentuated by Hilary Putnam as the developer of the argument. According to Putnam’s discussion of the argument, if the scientific theory is not true, it is a miracle that this theory can generate effective and working predictions, and moreover, “the positive argument for realism is that it is the only philosophy that doesn’t make the success of science a miracle” (Putnam, cited in Norris 2002, p. 218).

On the one hand, the ‘no miracles’ argument is rather convincing to support scientific realism because it is the strongest argument based on the principle of the empirical success.

On the other hand, the ‘no miracles’ argument cannot be discussed as convincing to support the philosophy because it fails to explain why many successful scientific theories of the past are not discussed as true ones today.

As a result, to conclude about the appropriateness of the argument, it is important to focus on the ideas of such anti-realists as Bas Van Fraassen and Larry Laudan. Moreover, it is necessary to discuss the ‘no miracles’ argument from the point of scientific realists who support the argument and refer to Alan Musgrave and Ian Hacking’s views.

The ‘no miracles’ argument is also known as the ‘success’ or ‘ultimate’ argument. According to this argument, the scientific theories are successfully accepted and used because they are approximately true. If these theories are not true, their success is rather miraculous.

Thus, the success of the theories is grounded on their truth and empirical evidence, but not miracles (French & Saatsi 2011, p. 84-85). The argument provides the non-miraculous alternative to speak about the success of scientific theories, and the empirical success should be taken into account while discussing the effectiveness of theories (Clarke & Lyons 2002, p. xi).

While referring to the ideas of the above-mentioned philosophers of science, it is reasonable to start with the discussion of anti-realists’ ideas and their visions of the effectiveness of the ‘no miracles’ argument because in their works, Musgrave and Hacking are inclined to support the argument as important for scientific realism in response to Van Fraassen and Laudan’s discussions.

Scientific realism should be discussed from the perspective of its three dimensions, which are the commitment to the development of the mind-independent world; the specific semantic commitment to the literal interpretation of hypotheses, and the epistemological commitment to discussing scientific entities (Sankey 2012, p. 34).

Metaphysically, commitment to the mind-independent world means that scientists develop theories to explain the objective or external reality which is independent from their mind (Sankey 2012, p. 7).

The semantic commitment explains the scientists’ focus on discussing claims about different entities as literally true and valuable even if they are not observed. The epistemological commitment is the focus on theoretical statements as explaining and forming the true knowledge of the whole world (Sankey 2012, p. 36).

In his works, Van Fraassen refers to the ideas of constructive empiricism, discusses the dimensions of scientific realism and proposes the improved statement of the philosophy of scientific realism while discussing the effectiveness of the ‘no miracles’ argument as the ‘ultimate’ argument (Van Fraassen 2013, p. 1078-1079).

Thus, Van Fraassen is inclined to propose the more developed and accurate statement referred to scientific realism, “science aims to give us, in its theories, a literally true story of what the world is like; and acceptance of a scientific theory involves the belief that it is true.

This is the correct statement of scientific realism” (Van Fraassen 2013, p. 1062). Thus, the philosopher focuses on the importance of the science’s aim and on the role of the belief to speak about the theory as true or not. Moreover, according to Van Fraassen, scientific theories can be discussed as successful when they are literally construed.

To oppose the ‘no miracles’ argument, Van Fraassen chooses not only to develop the definition of scientific realism but also focuses on the discussion of the alternative vision, which is more effective than scientific realism to discuss the relations between the world and science.

Thus, Van Fraassen states that scientific realism in contrast to constructive empiricism cannot provide the real platform for discussing the successful theory and notes that “acceptance of a theory involves as belief only that it is empirically adequate” (Van Fraassen 2013, p. 1065).

From this point, constructive empiricism is more effective to speak about the success of scientific theories because it operates the idea of adequacy.

Pointing at the weaknesses of scientific realism, Van Fraassen develops the alternative explanation to the ‘no miracles’ argument, according to which it is even unnecessary to explain the nature of the scientific theories’ success because this success “is no miracle” (Van Fraassen 2013, p. 1080).

Van Fraassen is inclined to discuss the success of the definite scientific theories as the natural process, which is similar to survival because “only the successful theories survive – the ones which in fact latched on to actual regularities in nature” (Van Fraassen 2013, p. 1080).

On the one hand, Van Fraassen’s approach can be discussed as the indirect criticism of the ‘no miracles’ argument because the philosopher chooses to discuss the successful theories from the unusual perspective and with references to the Darwinist’s view.

On the other hand, Van Fraassen adds to the discussion of the role of the ‘no miracles’ argument for scientific realism because of improving the statement of scientific realism’s principles.

From this perspective, Van Fraassen cannot provide the effective arguments and evidences to state that the ‘no miracles’ argument is irrelevant because he avoids explaining of the reasons for the theories’ success.

One of the anti-realists’ responses to the ‘no miracles’ argument is the researches conducted by Laudan to state that many successful theories of the past are not supported today.

In his works, Laudan is inclined to build his argument against the ‘no miracles’ argument as the platform of scientific realism while evaluating the effectiveness of the argument in relation to meeting the dimensions of scientific realism (Laudan 2013, p. 1110).

Thus, Laudan focuses on the central question of the debates among realists and anti-realists, which is “whether the realist’s assertions about the interrelations between truth, reference and success are sound” (Laudan 2013, p. 1111).

While focusing on discussing the correlation between the mentioned notions, Laudan pays attention to the fact that the realists’ argument fail because it has weaknesses to explain the success of the theories from the point of semantic and epistemic perspectives as well as from the point of truth in the theoretical context.

To develop his argument, Laudan continues to focus on semantic and epistemic aspects as significant to conclude about the relevance of realists’ visions.

That is why, according to Laudan, even if the realist had “a semantically adequate characterisation of approximate or partial truth, and even if that semantics entailed that most of the consequences of an approximately true theory would be true”, this realist would have no any criterion “that would epistemically warrant the ascription of approximate truth to a theory” (Laudan 2013, p. 1119).

As a result, basing on the set dimensions and criteria, realists cannot provide explanations to the theories “which are not approximately true”, but often successful, as it is relevant while discussing the theories of the past (Laudan 2013, p. 1124).

Thus, according to Laudan, the aspects of the theories’ successfulness and effective empirical evidence associated with the ‘no miracles’ argument cannot serve to reflect the real world appropriately.

As a result, if the ‘no miracles’ argument fails to explain the success of the definite theories in the history of science, this argument also fails to support the idea of scientific realism effectively.

However, Laudan is rather focused to state that realists fail to explain the success of theories in the historical context, and this approach prevents him from looking at the problem from many perspectives (Hudson 2013, p. 203-204).

That is why, Laudan’s position is directly opposed to Musgrave’s one, and Musgrave provides many effective arguments to support his focus on the positive role of the ‘no miracles’ argument for scientific realism.

If Van Fraassen and Laudan as anti-realists are inclined to provide the sound evidence and support to state that the idea of scientific realism based on the platform of the ‘no miracles’ argument is not appropriate to discuss the true character of many successful scientific theories, Musgrave and Hacking focus on responding to the opponents while supporting the role of the ‘no miracles’ argument for scientific realism.

Thus, Musgrave builds his argument for scientific realism with its theoretical platform and against the anti-realists’ visions while evaluating Van Fraassen’s approach in detail.

According to Musgrave, Van Fraassen’s Darwinian explanation can be “accepted by realists and anti-realists alike”, but Musgrave also pays attention to the fact that “to say that only successful theories are allowed to survive is not to explain why any particular theory is successful” (Musgrave 2013, p. 1094).

As a result, Van Fraassen’s approach cannot be discussed as threatening to the idea of the ‘no miracles’ argument because the philosopher’s argument should be considered as the alternative vision of the problem.

According to the ‘no miracles’ argument promoted by Musgrave, successful scientific theories make claims which are true or approximately true because the entities mentioned in the claims and scientific theories really exist. As a result, the success of the theories is closely connected with the empirical success.

That is why, it is not a miracle that the scientific claims are associated with the empirical success because the entities mentioned in the theories exist, and the theories as well as their principles are true or approximately true (Musgrave 2013, p. 1087; Sankey 2012, p. 130).

Thus, according to Musgrave, anti-realism fails to provide the appropriate explanation to speak about the success of theories (Sankey 2012, p. 130). That is why, the ‘no miracles’ argument or the ‘ultimate’ argument serves perfectly to support scientific realism in order to explain the success of scientific theories.

While referring to Van Fraassen’s theory, it is also important to note that his constructive empiricism “is weaker than earlier anti-realist views in all kinds of ways, and correspondingly closer to realism” (Musgrave 2013, p. 1105).

As a result, Musgrave supports the idea that Van Fraassen in his discussions of the successful theories can be considered as closer to realists than anti-realists that is why scientific realism seems to be the most appropriate philosophy to discuss and explain the essence of the scientific theories’ success.

Furthermore, it is important to pay attention to the fact that Musgrave concentrates on the ‘no miracles’ argument as the best explanation to the theories’ success with references to the idea of predictive novelty.

Thus, anti-realists build their arguments against the effectiveness of scientific realism with references to the fact that the ‘ultimate’ argument cannot provide the explanation to the successfulness of the theories which are not true today (Sankey 2012, p. 130).

However, Musgrave points at the specific idea of the predictive novelty which means that it is reasonable to concentrate on hypotheses which can be useful to predict unknown facts rather than on hypotheses operating known details; thus, those theories are successful which serve to make novel, but credible predictions (Sankey 2012, p. 132).

This approach allows the further discussion of the approximately true theories focused on the novel knowledge. In this situation, Musgrave is inclined to use the epistemic terms in order to speak about the ‘ultimate’ or ‘no miracles’ argument, and this fact contributes to his discussion of scientific realism (Sankey 2012, p. 132).

From this point, Musgrave’s claims that Van Fraassen’s theory fails to explain the success of scientific theories, and Van Fraassen’s discussions are rather correlated with realists’ ones because of using the same terms and concentrating on the same relations between the ideas of truth and success (Musgrave 2013, p. 1094).

Furthermore, Musgrave supports the ‘ultimate’ argument while focusing on the concept of the novelty to explain the aspects which are predominantly discussed by such anti-realists as Laudan as the main ones to argue against the principles of scientific realism (Psillos 2005, p. 70-72).

As a result, Musgrave’s focus on the predictive novelty contributes to the support of the ‘no miracles’ argument, and his explanations can diminish the threatening effect of Van Fraassen’s alternative approach on the notions of scientific realism.

In this situation, Musgrave’s discussion is effective to support the unique role of the ‘no miracles’ argument for scientific realism, and this argument sounds as really ‘ultimate’ for the philosophy.

However, to state about the appropriateness of the ‘no miracles’ argument to support scientific realism, it is also important to refer to the ideas proposed by Hacking. On the one hand, the philosopher’s claims can be discussed as defending in relation to the ideas of scientific realism in general and ‘no miracles’ argument in particular.

On the other hand, Hacking chooses one more alternative position and focuses on the discussion of the role of experiments rather than theoretical arguments for stating about the success of scientific theories (Psillos 2005, p. 303).

Thus, Hacking pays attention to the fact that “discussions about scientific realism or anti-realism usually talk about theories, explanation and prediction”, however, it is necessary to focus on the fact that “only at the level of experimental practice is scientific realism unavoidable” (Hacking 2013, p. 1140).

According to Hacking, experiments and the scientists’ practical activities are more important than the discussions of theories.

Thus, to discuss whether the theories are true, it is necessary to conduct the experiments in order to conclude about the use and existence of entities. Hacking tries to draw the readers’ attention to the problem while stating, “think about practice, not theory” (Hacking 2013, p. 1153).

That is why, the philosopher presents the supporting facts to conclude that theoretical debates cannot provide scientists with more support and evidence to decide on the effectiveness of this or that theory and claim (Hudson 2013, p. 172-173).

From this point, Hacking’s approach cannot add significantly to the discussion of the effectiveness of the ‘ultimate’ argument for developing the principles of scientific realism because the philosopher shares the alternative position (Hacking 2013, p. 1142).

As a result, Hacking’s theory is discussed as closer to supporting scientific realism with its platform than to supporting anti-realists’ visions.

While focusing on the ideas of Bas Van Fraassen, Larry Laudan, Alan Musgrave, and Ian Hacking on the relevance of the ‘no miracles’ argument in relation to scientific realism, it is possible to share the vision of the argument’s supporters.

Thus, the ‘ultimate’ argument can be discussed as the convincing defence of scientific realism because it is the strongest argument to explain the scientific theories’ success while referring to all three dimensions of scientific realism.

In spite of the fact that anti-realists can provide significant arguments to oppose the principles of scientific realism, the ‘no miracles’ argument is the most detailed approach to explain the success of theories while basing on the important theoretical and empirical background (Okasha 2002, p. 66; Psillos 2005, p. 69).

In this case, the most convincing arguments to discuss the ‘ultimate’ argument as the perfect platform for scientific realism are provided by Musgrave who is able to explain all the weaknesses mentioned by anti-realists while operating the notion of the predictive novelty (Sankey 2012, p. 132).

The ‘no miracles’ argument, which states that claims of the successful theories are true and they reflect the real world’s processes seems to be convincing because facts and empirical evidences are traditionally discussed as the convincing arguments to support the theory.

As a result, the ‘no miracles’ argument is effective to explain the success of the scientific theories to support the principles of scientific realism. On the contrary, Van Fraassen’s alternative vision based on the theory of survival is not effective to explain the success of the theories, but only to determine it.

Furthermore, Laudan’s approach is also debatable because it can be criticised with references to Musgrave’s notion of the predictive novelty. In addition, Hacking’s approach can be interpreted from the point of empirical success to support the effectiveness of the ‘ultimate’ argument.

That is why, the ‘no miracles’ argument can be discussed as convincing because there are no opposite arguments which are as effective and detailed as the ‘ultimate’ argument to explain the processes of the real world with references to the theoretical notions and grounds.

The ‘no miracles’ argument also seems to be convincing as the defence of scientific realism while responding to the three dimensions of scientific realism because this philosophy involves the discussion of the argument’s semantic and epistemic nature along with the focus on the possible truth of scientists’ predictions.

Reference List

Clarke, S. & Lyons, T. 2002, Recent themes in the philosophy of science: scientific realism and commonsense , Springer, USA.

French, S. & Saatsi, J. 2011, The Continuum companion to the philosophy of science , Bloomsbury, UK.

Hacking, I. 2013, ‘Experimentation and scientific realism’, in M Curd, J Cover, & C Pincock (eds), Philosophy of science: the central issues, Norton & Company, USA, pp. 1140-1155.

Hudson, R. 2013, Seeing things: the philosophy of reliable observation , Oxford University Press, UK.

Laudan, L. 2013, ‘A confutation of convergent realism’, in M Curd, J Cover, & C Pincock (eds), Philosophy of science: the central issues, Norton & Company, USA, pp. 1108-1125.

Musgrave, A. 2013, ‘Realism versus constructive empiricism’, in M Curd, J Cover, & C Pincock (eds), Philosophy of science: the central issues, Norton & Company, USA, pp. 1083-1106.

Norris, C. 2002, Hilary Putnam: realism, reason and the uses of uncertainty , Manchester University Press, UK.

Okasha, S. 2002, Philosophy of science: a very short introduction , Oxford University Press, UK.

Psillos, S. 2005, Scientific realism: how science tracks truth , Routledge, USA.

Sankey, H. 2012, Scientific realism and the rationality of science , Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., Australia.

Van Fraassen, B. 2013, ‘Arguments concerning scientific realism’, in M Curd, J Cover, & C Pincock (eds), Philosophy of science: the central issues, Norton & Company, USA, pp. 1060-1081.

  • Duhem-Quine Thesis Analysis
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IvyPanda. (2019, May 1). The Role of the ‘No Miracles’ Argument for Scientific Realism.

"The Role of the ‘No Miracles’ Argument for Scientific Realism." IvyPanda , 1 May 2019,

IvyPanda . (2019) 'The Role of the ‘No Miracles’ Argument for Scientific Realism'. 1 May.

IvyPanda . 2019. "The Role of the ‘No Miracles’ Argument for Scientific Realism." May 1, 2019.

1. IvyPanda . "The Role of the ‘No Miracles’ Argument for Scientific Realism." May 1, 2019.


IvyPanda . "The Role of the ‘No Miracles’ Argument for Scientific Realism." May 1, 2019.

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‘The Afterlife of Mal Caldera’ and other books by Latino authors we’re reading this month

Collage of a woman with her face covered by a sunflower.

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What is the meaning of death? Can the afterlife be a celebration that goes beyond a binary view of heaven and hell? With her captivating debut novel, “ The Afterlife of Mal Caldera ,” published in June by Penguin Random House, queer author Nadi Reed Perez explores these questions in an enchanting tale that transcends — and blurs — the boundaries of life and death.

The story follows the ethereal journey of Mal Caldera, who lingers in the world of the living after her recent passing. She strives to communicate with her beloved sister Cris, who’s left behind to piece together the remaining fragments of Mal’s life. Through themes of grief, diverse sexual expressions, love and family, Reed Perez’s narrative unfolds with a blend of mystery, charm and humor.

Natasha S Alford

De Los Reads: Here’s what we’re reading in June

From a memoir on the Afro Latinx experience in the U.S. to a graphic novel about crying, here’s what we’re reading in June.

June 10, 2024

“My mom is from Mexicali, Mexico. [She] told me lots of ghost stories,” said Reed Perez, adding that her mother delivered these tales as facts, not fiction.

“The matter-of-fact way of casually mentioning, ‘Oh, when my grandfather died, he came to visit me, he lifted up the bedsheet like a gust of wind, and I felt his presence, and then the bed sheet fell and I find out the next day that he had passed away,’” she said.

"The Afterlife of Mal Caldera," by Nadi Reed Perez

It was never about believing in ghosts. Rather, it became a question of whether she chose to believe her mother and her family stories.

Reed Perez’s exploration of the afterlife is a richly textured narrative filled with touches of magical realism. As Mal navigates the curious afterworld, she encounters an array of peculiar characters that add depth and intrigue to a story Reed Perez says she concocted as a preteen.

“I was pretty young when I came up with the idea [for the book], like 11 or 12,” she said. “I thought about, ‘What would happen if I went to my own funeral? Would my crush reveal whether or not he really liked me all along? What would my friends say about me? Would they all be talking about me behind my coffin?”

Mal’s journey through the afterlife is marked by moments of lightheartedness, even as she grapples with profound themes of mortality and the human experience. The novel balances absurdity and introspection, offering a unique perspective on an inevitability that awaits every human being.

“Death is mysterious. I think a lot of narratives around grief don’t always capture that it can be really complicated when there’s a lot left unsaid and unresolved,” Reed Perez said, adding that she believes fiction can help readers process those feelings.

“Stories give you a model for how to live. When you’re grieving, you feel like you’re supposed to be a certain way,” she said. “If I remember something funny about the deceased and I laugh, people are going to think that I didn’t care that they died, but everyone grieves differently.”

A quick warning: “The Afterlife of Mal Caldera” contains descriptions of suicide that may be distressing too some readers. However, these scenes, which are integral to the story’s exploration of loss, are handled with care.

For anyone seeking a book that is both thought-provoking and entertaining, “The Afterlife of Mal Caldera” is a must-read.

De Los Reads July picks

En Agosto Nos Vemos By Gabriel García Márquez

1. (Vintage Español) 2. (Tiny Reparations Books) 3. (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

“En Agosto Nos Vemos,” by Gabriel García Márquez (Vintage Español)

Gabriel García Márquez’s last work, “En Agosto Nos Vemos,” published a decade after his death, delves into feminine, sensual self-discovery through the captivating journey of Ana Magdalena Bach. On a visit to the coastal town where her mother is buried, she fearlessly embraces new possibilities while exploring her intimate desires, ultimately finding a new self in the company of her “desconocidos de una noche.” The book is also available in English.

“Magical/Realism : Essays on Music, Memory, Fantasy, and Borders , ” b y Vanessa Angélica Villarreal (Tiny Reparations Books)

This collection of essays is a modern exploration of topics such as loss, colonialism, migration and gender through the lens of pop culture. It provides a reflective narrative that prompts readers to reconsider their perspectives on these subjects.

“At the border between Western consciousness and Indigenous knowledge, there is a wolf,” writes Villareal. “Like every border, it too is imaginary and man-made, separating two profoundly different perspectives of the land and its beings: property or relative, settlement or wilderness body, human vs. animal. … Is the wolf an animal, or is it your kin?”

“The Dream Catcher , ” b y Marcelo Verdad (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

This picture book is a delightful escape to a sun-kissed beach where little Miguelito and his grandfather sell fresh coconuts and handmade dream catchers. Through our protagonist’s innocent eyes, we learn the joy of living in the present and appreciating life’s everyday gifts. The collage illustrations are enchanting, with a soothing color palette that invites readers to contemplate the serene beauty of a sunset with their buddy. “The Dream Catcher” is a gentle reminder to savor the moment.

Roxsy Lin is a bilingual journalist and illustrator originally from Venezuela. Her work focuses on the pulse of the modern rhythms of Latinidad, arts and culture. @roxsy_lin

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Guest Essay

‘Twisters’ Is a Great Escape Until It Happens to Your Town

A movie screen outdoors shows a scene from “Twisters,” and people watch while standing in floodwaters.

By Chris Vognar

Mr. Vognar is a cultural critic. He wrote from Houston.

Nobody goes to Hollywood movies, much less disaster movies, seeking realism. The catastrophes in summer blockbusters — superstorms, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis — can seem downright thrilling, especially when you factor in the personal dramas and simmering romances that are woven into the mayhem. There is no such thrill in real-life disasters — where the true horror story lies in just how poorly prepared we are for these increasingly common events, and how quickly a spectacular crisis transitions to a crushing procession of tedious setbacks and everyday frustrations.

I first saw the trailer for “Twisters” — which opens in theaters on Friday — in May at a movie theater in Houston, where I live. I’d just returned from a trip to find my hometown had been slammed by a derecho, which, I soon learned, is a particularly nasty breed of windstorm. My power was out, and it was hot (as Houston in the spring generally is), so I decided to hit the nearest multiplex that had electricity. Before the main feature started, up popped the pretty faces of a cocky cowboy “tornado wrangler,” played by Glen Powell, and the more science-minded meteorologist, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, with whom he exchanges quips. “You don’t face your fears,” the wrangler tells the scientist. “You ride ’em.”

Yee-haw, I thought in the theater, as I wondered if my air-conditioning at home was back on.

Last week, another powerful storm battered Houston, as Hurricane Beryl had a brief but eventful landfall on the South Texas coast. Record-high ocean temperatures had given Beryl a big boost, making it the most powerful hurricane on record this early in the Atlantic hurricane season. It killed 22 people (as of the latest tally), flooded roads and left more than two million people without power; last I checked, around 200,000 were still without electricity. A blockbuster romp like “Twisters” is a safe and sanitized way to experience a natural disaster: as a fantasy. But we can’t let an escapist version of the climate crisis blind us to how woefully unready we are for the effects of the real thing.

If Hollywood wanted to make a more accurate disaster movie, the plot might look something like this: After yet another unprecedented storm, the hero wakes up day after day sweaty and irritable. He tries in vain to reach a human being who can provide information on when the power might be back on. The food in the fridge is quickly rotting, so it gets tossed. The Wi-Fi is down as well, making work difficult, if not impossible. There’s a two-hour wait at the few gas stations still open.

In these post-catastrophe conditions life becomes a simmering boil — and I do mean boil — of aggravation interrupted by long bouts of tedium. “It’s very hot, and it’s very boring,” as a 12-year-old quoted in The Texas Tribune put it in the wake of Hurricane Beryl. “There’s nothing to do, you just have to sit there.” Or, to paraphrase “Twisters,” you just have to ride it.

Hollywood has long tried to capture nature’s fickleness in the most dramatic terms possible. The 1970s brought us “Earthquake” (a seismic apocalypse in Los Angeles) and “The Andromeda Strain” (deadly pathogen threatens mankind), as well as deadly insect movies like “The Swarm” (killer bees), “Empire of the Ants” (gigantic ants) and “The Giant Spider Invasion” — all reflections of a newly heightened awareness, probably stoked by best sellers like Rachel Carson’s 1962 exposé “Silent Spring,” that Mother Nature was getting a little peeved. But anxiety over climate catastrophe was funneled into cool-looking effects and larger-than-life monsters, like giant spiders, which were way more fun to watch onscreen than a bunch of people complaining about smog.

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