Scientific realism

Can we claim to know anything about reality? Is it a goal of science to describe reality? Does science make any progress at describing reality?

This outline focuses on the issues of metaphysical progress from science, while my outline on the scientific method discusses the epistemological foundations and limitations of science.

Contents

  1. Issues and positions
    1. Metaphysics
    2. Realism and anti-realism
    3. Humeanism
    4. Scientific realism
    5. Instrumentalism
    6. Positivism
    7. Postpositivism
    8. Pragmatism
    9. Relativism
    10. Constructive empiricism
    11. Structural realism
    12. Critical realism
    13. Active realism
  2. My thoughts
    1. My defense of realism
  3. Annotated bibliography
    1. Wittgenstein, L. (1921). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
    2. Moore, G.E. (1925). A Defense of Common Sense.
    3. Carnap, R. (1928). The Logical Structure of the World and Pseudoproblems in Philosophy.
    4. Carnap, R. (1936). Testibility and Meaning.
    5. Reichenbach, H. (1938). Experience and Prediction.
    6. Carnap, R. (1950). Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology.
    7. Quine, W.V.O. (1951). Two Dogmas of Empiricism.
    8. Reichenbach, H. (1951). The Rise of Scientific Philosophy.
    9. Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations.
    10. Carnap, R. (1955). The Logical Foundations of the Unity of Science.
    11. Carnap, R. (1956). The Methodological Character of Theoretical Concepts.
    12. Popper, K. (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery.
    13. Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
    14. Maxwell, G. (1962). The Ontological Status of Theoretical Entities.
    15. Sellars, W. (1963). Science, Perception, and Reality.
    16. Feyerabend, P. (1974). Against Method.
    17. Bhaskar, R. (1975). A Realist Theory of Science.
    18. Putnam, H. (1975). The Meaning of Meaning.
    19. van Fraassen, B. (1980). The Scientific Image.
    20. Laudan, L. (1981). A Confutation of Convergent Realism.
    21. Putnam, H. (1981). Reason, Truth, and History.
    22. More articles to do
  4. Links and encyclopedia articles
    1. SEP
    2. IEP
    3. Wikipedia
    4. Others
    5. Videos
  5. References

Issues and positions

Metaphysics

When one encounters the word “metaphysics”, what is usually meant is one of the three following ideas:

The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject-matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle’s death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) titled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta phusika”—“the after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle’s Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle’s philosophy that they should attempt Metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones”, the books about nature or the natural world. (van Inwagen, 2014)

Stealing from encyclopedia.com:

In medieval and modern philosophy “metaphysics” has also been taken to mean the study of things transcending nature—that is, existing separately from nature and having more intrinsic reality and value than the things of nature—giving meta a philosophical meaning it did not have in classical Greek.

Especially since Immanuel Kant metaphysics has often meant a priori speculation on questions that cannot be answered by scientific observation and experiment. Popularly, “metaphysics” has meant anything abstruse and highly theoretical—a common eighteenth-century usage illustrated by David Hume’s occasional use of metaphysical to mean “excessively subtle”. The term has also been popularly associated with the spiritual, the religious, and even the occult. In modern philosophical usage metaphysics refers generally to the field of philosophy dealing with questions about the kinds of things there are and their modes of being. Its subject matter includes the concepts of existence, thing, property, event; the distinctions between particulars and universals, individuals and classes; the nature of relations, change, causation; and the nature of mind, matter, space, and time.

Realism and anti-realism

Figure 1: Scientific realism vs anti-realism (philosophy-in-figures.tumblr.com).

Figure 1: Scientific realism vs anti-realism (philosophy-in-figures.tumblr.com).

Humeanism

Humean supervenience is named in honor of the greater denier of necessary connections. It is the doctrine that all there is to the world is a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact, just one little thing and then another. (Lewis, 1986, p. ix)

Scientific realism

Some attempts at definitions:

Science makes real progress in describing real features of the world.

To a very rough, first approximation, realism is the view that our best scientific theories correctly describe both observable and unobservable parts of the world. (Chakravartty, 2007)

Scientific realism is a positive epistemic attitude towards the content of our best theories and models, recommending belief in both observable and unobservable aspects of the world described by the sciences. (Chakravartty, 2011)

Figure 2: All matter is the same, Geraldine Cox (2011)

Figure 2: All matter is the same, Geraldine Cox (2011)

Challenges to Scientific Realism:

At first blush it seems to us that the theories last only a day and that ruins upon ruins accumulate. Today the theories are born, tomorrow they are the fashion, the day after tomorrow they are classic, the fourth day they are superannuated, and the fifth they are forgotten. (Poincaré, 2014)

TODO: find the page number for above Poincaré quote.

Our arguments have to be about the world we experience, not about a world made of paper. (Rovelli, 2003, p. 5)

As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality. (Einstein, 1922)

There is a difference, however, between working crossword puzzles and the pursuit of higher mathematics. In the case of mathematics, you don’t triumph over the capricious machinations of another human being (the designer of the puzzle) but, rather, over the absolute fabric of logical relations. The body of knowledge you have developed has the enviable characteristic of being demonstrably and absolutely true, given the set of assumptions (axioms) underlying your contemplations, irrespective of the foibles of your own human limitations, indeed, irrespective of the existence of humanity itself. And, as an added bonus, if it should so happen that the set of axioms on which your intellectual fortress is built is somehow relevant to the physical world, then you can even walk away with a deeper understanding of your natural surroundings. The wonder of group theory is that its relevance to the disciplines of both mathematics and natural science far exceeds the self-contained boundaries within which it was first developed. (Schumm, 2004, p. 144)

Instrumentalism

Theoretical concepts may have use in predicting observations, but we have no ontological commitments to them.

Positivism

All statements that can’t be empirically verified are meaningless.

Note any differences between:

The “death” of positivism:

Positivism is a philosophy of science and epistemology that roughly defends a qualified empiricism, that the scientific method is the only route to knowledge, and that all statements that cannot be empirically verified are meaningless. Positivism is strongly eliminative about metaphysics and claims that many metaphysical questions and positions are not open or false, but meaningless because of their lack of attachment to empirically demonstrable things or effects.

This means that positivism is generally seen to imply anti-realist views of science and mathematics, preferring as Carnap says in Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology:

As far as possible they [empiricists] try to avoid any reference to abstract entities and to restrict themselves to what is sometimes called a nominalistic language, i.e., one not containing such references.

Positivists have instrumentalist (anti-realist) views about the models science produces, given that they are constructed from abstractions and involve the epistemological limitations of induction and theory change. As a qualified sort of empiricism that supports the primacy of the scientific method, positivism is sometimes equated with scientism (often derogatorily) if one takes it to claim that science is the only way to attain knowledge.

In a more general sense, positivism is aligned with naturalism, the meta-philosophy that roughly says that science should inform and bootstrap our philosophical claims. Naturalists, having a more broadly aligned and various support for science, may not have such exclusive views of epistemology or such eliminative views of metaphysics. Many naturalists are instead realists about science, math, and/or ethics, for example following a version of structural realism about the discoveries from science, capturing and constraining real structures in nature.

See also:

Posted at: r/PhilosophyofScience: What is positivism?

Google gives – Logical positivism: a form of positivism, developed by members of the Vienna Circle, that considers that the only meaningful philosophical problems are those that can be solved by logical analysis.

Postpositivism

Pragmatism

Relativism

Constructive empiricism

Science aims to give us theories that are empirically adequate, but does not justify metaphysical claims about reality.

Figure 3: True vs literal theories (philosophy-in-figures.tumblr.com).

Figure 3: True vs literal theories (philosophy-in-figures.tumblr.com).

Structural realism

Science has identified real patterns, relationships, and structures (at least within a regime) in nature.

[W]hat is objective must be common to many minds and consequently transmissible from one to the other. … [P]ure quality … is intransmissible… . But it is not the same with relations… From this point of view, what is objective is … only pure relation. (Poincaré, 2014)

TODO: find the page number for above Poincaré quote. I found the above quotes in a talk by Arthur Fine: Structural Realism, Then & Now.

Critical realism

Critical realists believe that there are unobservable events which cause the observable ones; as such, the social world can be understood only if people understand the structures that generate such unobservable events.

Active realism

My thoughts

Here, I plan to summarize my thoughts after finishing the analysis of several sources below.

Ways to phrase the issue:

Misc.:

Questions:

My defense of realism

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Annotated bibliography

Wittgenstein, L. (1921). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

My thoughts


Moore, G.E. (1925). A Defense of Common Sense.

My thoughts


Carnap, R. (1928). The Logical Structure of the World and Pseudoproblems in Philosophy.

My thoughts


Carnap, R. (1936). Testibility and Meaning.

My thoughts


Reichenbach, H. (1938). Experience and Prediction.

My thoughts


Carnap, R. (1950). Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology.

1. The problem of abstract entities

In physics it is more difficult to shun the suspected entities because the language of physics serves for the communication of reports and predictions and hence cannot be taken as a mere calculus.

2. Linguistic frameworks

To recognize something as a real thing or event means to succeed in incorporating it into the system of things at a particular space-time position so that it fits together with the other things as real, according to the rules of the framework.

3. What does acceptance of a kind of entities mean?

4. Abstract entities in semantics

5. Conclusion

My thoughts


Quine, W.V.O. (1951). Two Dogmas of Empiricism.

1. Background for analyticity

2. Definition

3. Interchangeability

4. Semantical rules

5. The verification theory and reductionism

6. Empiricism without the dogmas

My thoughts


Reichenbach, H. (1951). The Rise of Scientific Philosophy.

My thoughts


Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations.

My thoughts


Carnap, R. (1955). The Logical Foundations of the Unity of Science.

My thoughts


Carnap, R. (1956). The Methodological Character of Theoretical Concepts.

My thoughts


Popper, K. (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

My thoughts


Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

My thoughts


Maxwell, G. (1962). The Ontological Status of Theoretical Entities.

My thoughts


Sellars, W. (1963). Science, Perception, and Reality.

My thoughts


Feyerabend, P. (1974). Against Method.

My thoughts


Bhaskar, R. (1975). A Realist Theory of Science.

My thoughts


Putnam, H. (1975). The Meaning of Meaning.

My thoughts


van Fraassen, B. (1980). The Scientific Image.

“Arguments Concerning Scientific Realism”

My thoughts


Laudan, L. (1981). A Confutation of Convergent Realism.

1. The Problem

2. Convergent Realism

3. Reference and Success

4. Approximate Truth and Success: the ‘Downward Path’

5. Approximate Truth and Success: the ‘Upward Path’

6. Confusions About Convergence and Retention

7. The Realists’ Ultimate ‘Petitio Principii’

8. Conclusion

My thoughts


Putnam, H. (1981). Reason, Truth, and History.

My thoughts


SEP

IEP

Wikipedia

Others

Videos

References

Carnap, R. (1950). Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology. Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 4, 20–40.

———. (1955). The Logical Foundations of the Unity of Science. In International Encyclopedia of Unified Science: Volume I. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 42–62.

Chakravartty, A. (2007). A Metaphysics for Scientific Realism. Cambridge University Press.

———. (2011). Scientific realism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-realism/

Einstein, A. (1922). Geometry and Experience. London: Methuen & Co. Address given to the Prussian Academy of Sciences on January 27, 1921. http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Extras/Einstein_geometry.html

Ladyman, J., Ross, D., Spurrett, D., & Collier, J. (2007). Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalised. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, D. (1986). Philosophical Papers II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Poincaré, H. (2014). The Foundations of Science: Science and hypothesis, the value of science, science and method. (G. Halstead, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Originally published in 1905).

Psillos, S. (1999). Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth. London, New York: Routledge.

Putnam, H. (1981). Reason, Truth, and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Quine, W. V. O. (1951). Two Dogmas of Empiricism. The Philosophical Review, 60, 20–43.

Rovelli, C. (2003). A dialog on quantum gravity. https://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0310077

Schumm, B. A. (2004). Deep Down Things. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

van Fraassen, B. (1980). The Scientific Image. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

van Inwagen, P. (2014). Metaphysics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/metaphysics/


  1. Putnam (1981).

  2. Carnap (1950).

  3. Quine (1951).

  4. Carnap (1955).

  5. van Fraassen (1980).

  6. Ladyman, Ross, Spurrett, & Collier (2007).

  7. Psillos (1999).