A link and some whinging about realism

Nautilus has an interview with Bas van Fraassen which is worth the read.

For me, it underscores my sense that the realism/anti-realism debate as it has been framed in the last few decades poses a false dichotomy. As Van Fraassen frames it, the choice is to be an empiricist who believes only the observable predictions of science or a realist who thinks that science is after the singular underlying truth of everything. In images that the interview plays with, observations are just fragments of the real world: the tips of icebergs above the surface, in contrast to the vast totalities beneath the waves which are postulated by theory. The empiricist just believes in the fragments while the metaphysical realist believes in the vast totality.

The alternative is an obvious middle ground which believes in lots of the fragments and in some of the contours beneath the waves, without any pretense that science should or could reveal the totality of everything. For example, I am more confident in the existence of electrons than I am in some poorly confirmed empirical phenomena. But that doesn’t mean I believe in superstrings, nor that I am sceptical about observables in general.

In the interview, van Fraassen pulls on similar intutions. He says:

My main point is that it is practically impossible to describe the chaos of what actually happens in the world. We can construct useful theories or models that are empirically adequate—that tell us something, for instance, about the behavior of what we call electrons, without having to say what an electron is.

The thing to note about this is that there can only be behaviour of electrons if there are electrons. Even though electrons are unobservable, we learn about what they do. This is compatible with denying that we learn anything about their fundamental nature or about deep metaphysics. Of course, van Fraassen goes further by arguing that we just ought to believe in the observable results of electrons.*

We can disagree over whether my position should be called “realism” or not, but there is precedent in usage of the term. For example, so-called “entity realists” argue that we should believe in entities (like electrons) insofar as we can manipulate them.**

* Insofar as this is motivated by the humble thought that we can’t describe the chaos of what actually happens, it seems like an odd move. It’s in one way too humble, because it stops short of even the most well-confirmed unobservable entities. It’s also not humble enough in imagining that science aims to capture all the observables. There are lots of trivia which are observable only at great pain and expense, which are outside the purview of science.

** I differ from the entity realist by thinking that the contour between what merits belief and what’s mere construction doesn’t always cut between entities and natures. But entity realism sets the precedent that partial realism which eschews deep metaphysics still counts as “realism”.

5 thoughts on “A link and some whinging about realism”

  1. Hi Professor, I was wondering if you would also endorse a position like epistemic structural realism? And your thoughts on the problem of the catch-all hypothesis, an issue I think Stanford and Roush raise.

  2. Structural realism, like entity realism, is an attempt to characterize in a general and principled way the unobversable that we should be realist about.
    My insistence is just that evidence does not merit belief in all and only the observable parts of a theory. The *more* that it justifies believing in might vary from case to case. Perhaps it can’t be characterized in general.
    Which is to say— I’m no more a structural realist than an entity realist.

  3. Hi Professor! Hope you’re doing well and sorry to bother you.

    I have two further questions for you regarding realism as you are a renown expert in the field:

    1) in one of your papers, Cautious realism and middle range ontology, you write “cautious realism underwritten by the Galilean Strategy fits comfortably with the approach to metaphysics characterized by middle range ontology” (p. 6). I wanted to clarify if you believe the Galilean Strategy of Philip Kitcher is cogent as a defense of a limited realism since you critique the strategy in Magnus 2003? If not, would you say the continuity argument of instruments and experts that you advance in your review of Barnes’ Paradoxes of Predictivism is a cogent route to a limited realism?

    My second question pertains to a book written by Peter Vickers, a philosopher of science at Durham U, called Identifying Future-Proof Science. Here, he identifies a series of 30 scientific claims that are “future-proof” (i.e., they will not be overturned in the future). My question for you is whether you consider claims like “knowledge of the structure and behavior (within organisms) of important molecules such as various sugars, fats, proteins, vitamins, caffeine, alcohol, etc.” and “knowledge of the structure of all kinds of molecules, and chemical reactions between molecules” (p 35) to be worthy of a defensible realist endorsement. Please note that I don’t think these claims need to be seen as “future-proof,” merely as fallible in the way that you define it in one of your earlier blog posts.

    Appreciate your response very much!

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