Thursday, November 10, 2011

Week 13: The Realism/Anti-Realism Debate

We turn our attention for the next three classes to a longstanding debate in the philosophy of science about what attitude we should take toward scientific theories. Should we see them as offering us literal “pictures” of how reality is in all of its aspects? 

The Scientific Realist answers yes. None of us have ever seen an electron or a neutrino; but many of us are convinced that they exist and that our current theories accurately describe what they are like. That is, we have good reason for thinking that our theories are true. That is not to say that we should be certain (or even that we know our theories are true); the position is epistemically modest. Rather, we the Realist sees truth as a legitimate and realistic aim or ideal of scientific inquiry. Perhaps this is a natural stance, but it’s also “natural” to imagine that the earth is motionless. The key question is what argument we can offer for realism. Apparently the strongest argument for realism draws upon the Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE). 

Think (way) back to the first day of class. I asked you what would happen if I mixed lead nitrate and sodium iodide. Some of you whipped out iPhones and Googled it, offering a prediction in under a minute that turned out to be true. Think about the science that that little prediction involved. First of all, there are the chemical theories which explain why a precipitate of lead iodide forms, why it’s yellow, &c. Then there are the theories of semiconductors and electronics that allow us to build computers, networks, and all the rest that make iPhones and Google possible. What is the best explanation of these impressive technical capabilities? Surely: the fact that these theories have the world in the relevant aspects more or less correct.

Anti-Realists think that this ideal is misplaced for various reasons. There are other competing explanations for the success of science; science has a history of advocating theories that later are overturned; our theories are in fact under-determined by the observational data; and so on. There are several anti-realist positions here — just as there are various realist positions which we’ll read more about in Chapter 8, some of them compromises made to the anti-realists under the pressure of their arguments. 

Because we’re doing presentations on Thursday and continuing to discuss the issues we raise on Tuesday, there’s just one set of questions for this week. 

Tuesday (11/15): Realism
• French, Ch. 7
• Stanford, Chs. 1–2 from Exceeding Our Grasp [PDF]*

Questions: (Respond to two)
  1. Are the contents of The Box observable or unobservable?
  2. Why is the observable/unobservable distinction more important for the anti-realist than the realist?
  3. What is your reaction to the pessimistic meta-induction?
  4. How does Stanford’s “Problem of Unconceived Alternatives” improve upon the pessimistic induction?*
  5. What seems to you the most worrisome argument against realism? Why?
Thursday (11/17): Finale of the Box Project & Continued Discussion
• Final Box Project Presentations 
• Continued Discussion 

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