September 16, 2010
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.