When someone cites one of my old papers, I get a notification. And I’m always surprised to see from responses to papers that I wrote a decade or more ago that parts of the scientific realism debate are going on in roughly the same terms that they’ve been going on for 40 years. Realism is taken to be the commitment that we should believe in unobservable posits of our best scientific theories, like electrons— alternately, that our best theories are probably at least approximately true.1
Lots of the debate seems to rely on treating realism as if it’s committed to finalism and overconfidence.
By ‘finalism’ I mean the view that the answers we’ve got now will not need to be revised or abandoned in the future. It is easily rebutted by the historical record of past theories, by any plausible projection of how future science will go, and by noting that the present is not some magically privileged position.
By ‘overconfidence’ I mean the view that belief means certainty. Some anti-realists claim that not believing in electrons would mean taking alternatives more seriously in a way that would be healthy.
I think we should be fallibilists, so I reject finalism and overconfidence. Fallibilism is the the admission that our beliefs might be wrong. It portrays our epistemic and doxastic situation as already and always being underway. We never get to step outside of ongoing inquiry to report final results. This naturally requires attention to well-formulated and potentially fruitful alternative lines of research. Perhaps we’ll find out that our prior beliefs need to be revised; perhaps we’ll just understand their context better.
This is all compatible with believing in electrons. I’m more confident that there are electrons than I am about empirical claims about distant parts of the world that I’ve read about but haven’t thought about too much. I’m more confident that there are electrons than I am about hazily remembered bits of my own biography.
So it seems to me that either (a) a modest realism is right for mundane, common sense reasons, or (b) the usual way of understanding ‘scientific realism’ should be abandoned. On neither horn of the dilemma does contributing more words to the scientific realism debate serve any purpose.2