Massimo Pigliucci has a post up that is partly about the issue of realism vs. anti-realism in the philosophy of science. He describes the issue as follows:
To put it very briefly, a realist is someone who thinks that scientific theories aim at describing the world as it is (of course, within the limits of human epistemic access to reality), while an anti-realist is someone who takes scientific theories to aim at empirical adequacy, not truth. So, for instance, for a realist there truly are electrons out there, while for an anti-realist “electrons” are a convenient theoretical construct to make sense of certain kinds of data from fundamental physics, but the term need not refer to actual “particles.” It goes without saying that most scientists are realists, but not all. Interestingly, some physicists working on quantum mechanics belong to what is informally known as the “shut up and calculate” school, which eschews “interpretations” of quantum mechanics in favor of a pragmatic deployment of the theory to solve computational problems.
Pigliucci then describes a few of the arguments on both sides.
I don’t see what there is to debate here. Why isn’t it just completely obvious that scientific theories aim at empirical adequacy, not truth? What reasonable defense could you offer for a statement of the form, “Theory X is true,” beyond the observation that Theory X passes one empirical test after another? Pigliucci’s parenthetical about the limits of human epistemic access to reality is pretty important. What access do we have to reality beyond determining what works and what doesn’t?
I also don’t see how anything at all is riding on this discussion. Realists and anti-realists will behave identically when doing scientific research, and both are happy to use the fruits of science as guides in their daily lives. The only difference is that the realist adds an extra and unnecessary assumption that the reason our best theories are so empirically useful is that they accurately describe the world as it is, whereas the anti-realist prefers not to make that assumption.
At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that I am a knee-jerk anti-realist. Actually, though, I am not. Like most people, I am a knee-jerk realist. The reason is that I agree with the “No Miracles,” argument, presented by Pigliucci as follows:
The best argument in favor of scientific realism is known as the “no miracles” argument, according to which it would be nothing short of miraculous if scientific theories did not track the world as it actually is, however imperfectly, and still managed to return such impressive payoffs, like, you know, the ability to actually send a space probe to Mars. Even so, the anti-realist can reply, we know of scientific theories that are wrong in a deep sense and yet manage to be empirically adequate, Newtonian mechanics perhaps being the prime example.
As a practical matter, it is almost impossible to avoid assuming that our best scientific theories track the world as it actually is. What’s the alternative? What else could they be doing? Realism is axiomatic. It’s not something you try to defend on the basis of simpler principles. Is there some risk that actual harm will come from being wrong on this point? If not, then why should I go to so much intellectual effort to reject an assumption that seems so obvious and natural?
So I am a knee-jerk realist. When anti-realists come along and tell me I’m wrong, I just nod politely, agree that they raise some good points, and then go back to being a knee-jerk realist as soon as they go away.
Problem solved! What’s next?