Scientific Anti-Realism?

Modern society is so entrenched in scientific realism and scientism that I just assumed intelligent people had no viable options other than aligning with those camps or being ridiculed. Enter the philosophy of scientific anti-realism. I can hear the insults now: “Science works you jackass!” “Oh great, another Jesus-lovin’ science denier!” “Tell that to the computer you just used to type this POS blog post you crea-tard!”

From the little bit I’ve read on this so far, one of the central premises of scientific anti-realism seems to be something like: That our best scientific theories are successful is no warrant to believe they are true.

Now that’s an interesting concept. As it turns out, Hawking’s new book The Grand Design covers this concept in semi-thorough detail. I get the idea from their goldfish analogy that the authors actually do embrace some degree of scientific anti-realism. If not, perhaps they want to cut certain debates off at the knees.

If indeed our universe was akin to a round bowl, we could have accurate theories that described an inaccurate reality. Their model-dependent realism we discussed in the last post seems to acknowledge precisely this fact. It prefers utility over truth as the object of concern. This approach has the bonus of sidestepping seemingly intractable, sophistry-prone debates over what is “really real.”

One author elaborated thus:

Opposed to scientific realism are a variety of antirealisms, including phenomenalism and empiricism. Recently two others, instrumentalism and constructivism, have posed special challenges to realism. Instrumentalism regards the objects of knowledge pragmatically, as tools for various human purposes, and so takes reliability (or empirical adequacy) rather than truth as scientifically central. A version of this, fictionalism, contests the existence of many of the objects favoured by the realist and regards them as merely expedient means to useful ends. Constructivism maintains that scientific knowledge is socially constituted, that ‘facts’ are made by us. Thus it challenges the objectivity of knowledge, as the realist understands objectivity, and the independent existence that realism is after. Conventionalism, holding that the truths of science ultimately rest on man-made conventions, is allied to constructivism. [source]

Well. When I question claims like, “4.5 billion calendar years have passed since Earth began to exist,” I’m appealing to one or more premises of scientific anti-realism. I agree strongly with the claim, “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.” This sentiment is exactly what motivated the post, Why Aren’t Less Science Students Atheists?

Of course, in the same way I’m neither a Republican nor a Democrat, I accept one or more premises of scientific realism, too. For example, I agree that theories of motion correlate to things that exist in a mind-independent world. So how do I decide which approach to take at any given time? That depends on the science in question, and the presence or absence of assumed premises and unknown variables. If we’re talking something like observational science, I tend to lean more towards realism. If we’re talking something like theoretical physics or origins science, I tend to lean more towards anti-realism. The latter are inherently fuzzier.

As one website quips humorously,

The realism and antirealism debate asks questions about the very core of the scientific method… Whilst a student performing an experiment to determine the acidity of lemons should not worry too much, areas such as quantum physics are questioning how we see the universe. [source]

This all ties in to my penchant for conservatively-stated claims. Continuing the “4.5 billion calendar years have passed since Earth began to exist” example, my anti-realist leanings prompt me to frown. We don’t actually know that 4.5 billion calendar years have passed since Earth began to exist. We know that rocks have varying amounts of chemicals in them, and we proceed from a set of assumptions accordingly.

On the other hand, I think the claim, “lighter objects fall at the same speed as heavier objects” refers to a mind-independent reality we can all observe. We can observe and repeat this to our heart’s content. We don’t need to rely on any assumptions or unknown variables. The claim “objects fall at the same speed regardless of weight” is a helluva lot more airtight than the claim “4.5 billion calendar years have passed since Earth began to exist,” if you ask me.

Again, I can hear the insults: “Beat it you little sophist! Beat it!” “Oh, so do you doubt gravity too, you fool?” “You are at war with facts!”

Whatever helps people feel superior, I suppose.


  1. James Gray says:

    If I am remembering things correctly, most anti-realists of science are actually just anti-realists about unobservable entities (whatever those are), but there are probably degrees of anti-realism.

  2. James Gray says:

    To think most scientific theories are technically false is compatible with scientific realism. Realism is more about what scientists are trying to do. If it is possible for science to describe reality accurately, then scientific realism is true.

    I take anti-realism to mean that scientists “shouldn’t” even try to have true descriptions of the world. Almost all scientists agree that the theories could be false, but they (a) could be more or less accurate and (b) we attempt to have true theories.

    Here is something I wrote November 9, 2005 for a philosophy of science class:

    It seems necessary for an instrumentalist to admit that science is not merely a tool for predicting the future, but it is also a description that attempts to have identical causal reactions as the real world. This is not evidence that instrumentalism is wrong, but it does show that instrumentalism and realism can be more similar than one might have thought otherwise.

    So, anti-realists have to admit that science has some relation to reality, but they just don’t want to say it “accurately describes” reality for some reason. Why? I guess they prefer a more modest position.

  3. MS Quixote says:

    Great stuff, cl. These are important thoughts for anyone interested in science, and knowledge in general. Naturally, you’ll be ridiculed by some for this, because, for some, Reason is only crucial insofar as it lines up with preconceived notions. At any rate, I agree with your balanced approach here…

  4. cl says:

    Good to “see” you buddy. I’ve been truckin’ along on the book, you’ll be among the first to hear the news, for sure.

  5. woodchuck64 says:

    It prefers utility over truth

    It occurs to me that Hume’s Problem of Induction can’t really be resolved except by appealing to utility. That is, induction can not be argued to lead to truth (except inductively), but it is more useful (perhaps vacuously) than the alternative. So I’m leaning towards science anti-realism.

  6. allzermalmer says:

    Well, I consider myself a scientific anti-realist. What matters is what is observable, and to put that into perspective, observable would be that which is based on our five senses. Thus, scientifically, this falls within the “visible spectrum”. Not to mention, since many things invoked are not based on the “visible spectrum”, and we cannot reach through inference from what is observed to something unobserved (outside the “visible spectrum”), by logic and have to rely on imagination to make such a leap, logic supports that many unobservables will have the same observable result. Thus, experience and logic support the anti-realist position.

    In fact, the scientific method in is in line with anti-realism. Make observations, invent something to account for the observation, and deduce a prediction from it. The first two parts are based on the observable, and the second is just something we invent to account for those two things, and we can always come up with something else that does the same thing.

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