Scientific realism and antirealism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q094-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 19, 2021, from

1. Arguing for realism

Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century debates over the reality of molecules and atoms polarized the scientific community on the realism question. Antirealists like Mach, Duhem and Poincaré – representing (roughly) phenomenalist, instrumentalist and conventionalist positions – at first carried the day with a sceptical attitude towards the truth of scientific theories and the reality of the ‘theoretical entities’ employed by those theories (see Phenomenalism; Conventionalism). Led by the successes of statistical mechanics (see Thermodynamics) and relativity (see Relativity theory, philosophical significance of), however, Planck and Einstein helped turn the tide towards realism. That movement was checked by two developments. In physics the quantum theory of 1925–6 quickly ran into difficulties over the possibility of a realist interpretation (see Quantum mechanics, interpretation of) and the community settled on the instrumentalist programme promoted by Bohr and Heisenberg. This was a formative lesson for logical empiricism whose respect for developments in physics and whose positivistic orientation led it to brand the realism question as metaphysical, a pseudo-question (see Logical positivism, philosophy of). Thus for a while empiricist and instrumentalist trends in science and philosophy eclipsed scientific realism.

The situation changed again in the 1960s, by which time science and its technological applications had become a ubiquitous and dominant feature of Western culture. In this setting philosophers like Smart (1963) and Putnam (1975) proposed what came to be known as the ‘miracles’ argument for scientific realism (see Smart, J.J.C. §3; Putnam, H. §2). They argued that unless the theoretical entities employed by scientific theories actually existed and the theories themselves were at least approximately true of the world at large, the evident success of science (in terms of its applications and predictions) would surely be a miracle. It is easy to see, at least with hindsight, that the most one could conclude from scientific success, however impressive, is that science is on the right track. That could mean, as the argument concludes, on the track to truth or it could just mean on the track to empirical success, perhaps with deeply flawed representations of reality. The ‘miracles’ argument is inconclusive. Nevertheless, during the next two decades it was compelling for many philosophers. Indeed, during this period realism became so identified with science that questioning realism was quickly put down as anti-science.

Realist orthodoxy found support in Popper’s attack on instrumentalism, which he criticized as unable to account for his own falsificationist methodology (Popper 1956) (see Popper, K.R. §2). Broadening this line, Boyd developed an explanationist version of the ‘miracles’ argument that focused on the methods of science and tried as well to give proper due to the human-centred (constructivist and conventionalist) aspects of science emphasized by Kuhn and Feyerabend. Boyd asks why methods crafted by us and reflecting our interests and limitations lead to instrumentally successful science. Contrasting realism with empiricism and constructivism, he finds that realism offers the best (indeed, the only) explanation. That is because, he argues, if we begin with truths or near-truths the methods we have crafted for science produce even more of the same. Since it is only realism that demands the truth of our scientific theories, then realism wins as giving the best explanation for the instrumental success of science. Hence, like a scientific hypothesis, realism is most likely to be true and we should believe in it.

The explanationist argument is carefully framed so that we ask only about the instrumental success of science; that is, success at the observational level. To take science as successful (for example, truth-producing) at the theoretical level would beg the question against empiricism and instrumentalism. Once this is recognized, however, we can see a significant gap in the reasoning. The argument is driven by a picture of science as generating new truths from old truths, but the explanatory issue raised is only about truths at the level of observation, not about truths in general. Antirealists might well reject this as an illegitimate request for explanation. If they accept it, there is an obvious empiricist or instrumentalist response: namely, that our scientific methods are made by us to winnow out instrumentally reliable information. If we begin with fairly reliable statements, the methods we have crafted for science will produce even more. Thus the explanation for scientific success at the instrumental level need not involve the literal truth of our scientific principles or theories, just their instrumental reliability. This move nicely converts the argument for realism as the best explanation of scientific success into an argument for instrumentalism.

There is a second problem with the explanationist tactic, perhaps even more serious. The conclusion in support of realism depends on an inference to the best explanation (see Inference to the best explanation). That principle, to regard as true that which explains best, is a principle that antirealisms (especially instrumentalism and empiricism) deny. Van Fraassen, for example, regards being the best explanation as a virtue, but one separate from truth. (He reminds us that the best may well be the best of a bad lot.) Although not required, there could perhaps be an instrumentalist principle of inference to the best explanation. It would not infer to the truth of the explanation but to its instrumental reliability (or empirical adequacy) – precisely the strategy pursued above where we infer instrumentalism from the instrumental success of science. Thus the explanationist argument uses a specifically realist principle of inference to the best explanation and, in so doing, begs the question of truth versus reliability, one of the central questions at issue between realism and antirealism.

Citing this article:
Fine, Arthur. Arguing for realism. Scientific realism and antirealism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q094-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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