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Realism and anti-realism in the philosophy of science

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).