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?

Comments

  1. #1 eric
    August 17, 2012

    Are these supposed to be camps of scientists or camps of philosophers of science? I think most scientists would not really draw a strong line between the two positions. Its possible to simultaneusly admit that we can only access data, not reality (anti-realism), while also holding that its reasonable to think this data reflects reality (realism). The two positions do not seem to me to be mutually exclusive the way their names might imply.

    There are lots of QM concepts that don’t conform to our intuitive sense of reality. The ‘shut up and calculate’ school may simply be stressing that it is somewhat useless to spend time trying to describe these foreign concepts in words when the math works just fine. Why spend inordinate amounts of time trying to describe what a wavefunction “is” in plain English vocabulary that humans can relate to? A wavefunction is the thing described by the math.

  2. #2 Greg Esres
    August 17, 2012

    I suspect that even the most die-hard anti-realist scientists *feel* that they truly discovering the underlying truth of the universe or else they wouldn’t find much satisfaction in their work

  3. #3 TylerD
    August 17, 2012

    Welcome to the neo-classical pragmatist camp, Jason. We have cookies!

  4. #4 Ryan
    http://www.skepticblogs.com/humesapprentice
    August 17, 2012

    Hi Jason,

    I wrote a blog post re: to this one here, and it’s called “Stephen Hawking is Wrong (And So is Jason Rosenhouse).” Here’s the conclusion:

    “Determining which scientific theory is real is not merely a matter of looking at what it predicts, though that is a key part of the process. Nor is it something that must be done with ‘just common sense’ or ‘intuition’ – it can and should be done objectively, and this can be done with an analysis of Bayesian prior probabilities.”

    http://www.skepticblogs.com/humesapprentice/2012/08/17/stephen-hawking-is-wrong-and-so-is-jason-rosenhouse/

    Sincerely,
    Ryan

  5. #5 TylerD
    August 17, 2012

    Ryan, I think you’ll find that Bayesianism is far from the only solution to the problem you elucidate. MDL model selection, for instance, looks at the problem as optimizing the tradeoff between predicting observed data and predicted all possible unobserved data as well, or in other words, trading off accuracy versus complexity.

    But what you say is essentially correct, discriminating between possible scientific theories requires more considerations than simple predictive power. But most scientists, with their fairly strict adherence to Occam’s Razor, seem to already acknowledge this and are, I would, already implicitly MDLers.

  6. #6 MNb
    August 17, 2012

    Frankly I think Pigliucci is presenting a false dilemma. The simplest example is gravity. Is gravity tre? Well, yes, pretty much everybody accepts he/she will fall downward when jumping from a bridge. Alas, no, gravity can’t be observed directly. So I am not sure how much of an extra realists actually add; neither am I sure if anti-realists refuse to add this consequently.
    My feeling is that Pigliucci tries to make more from scientific scepticism than it actually is: the notion that even the best formulated, best tested and most widely accepted theory could be wrong in some respect.
    If I’m right this explains why Pigliucci conveniently forgets to mention that Newtonian Mechanics directly can be derived from Relativity by assuming that the Lorenz Factor equals 1. Thus it is misleading to say that Newtonian Mechanics are “wrong in a deep sense”.
    Another simple example illustrates this. When you calculate how much time you need to travel from home to your work you assume that the Earth is flat. In what deep sense is this assumption wrong?

  7. #7 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 17, 2012

    Ryan —

    Thanks for the link. You provide a lot of food for thought, but I don’t agree with your conclusions.

    I think two different questions are being conflated . The thing that I was describing as axiomatic is the idea that the progress of science gives us better and better approximations of the real world as it is. So, to use Pigliucci’s example, I just take it for granted that the tremendous usefulness of hypothesizing electrons in our physical theories reflects the fact that electrons actually exist and behave essentially as physicists say they do.

    I might reconsider this position if someone comes up with a theory that is just as successful as modern physics but which makes no reference at all to electrons.

    A separate question is how you decide between rival theories that make the same predictions. And I would say that if you have two theories that really are absolutely identical in their predictive power, so that there is no hope of distinguishing them by conducting further experiments, then I don’t see how Bayesian probability will be much help in determining which is more likely to be true. An example might be the inverse square law for gravitation. If we hypothesize that the correct exponent is not 2, but actually 2.0000000000000001, there is no experiment we could ever do that would distinguish them. In that case I would say we should use the 2 not because it’s more likely to be an accurate description of the world as it is, but because it is simpler to apply. End of story..

    Likewise for your criteria about preferring theories with fewer assumptions or fewer free variables. Again, if we are stipulating that the two theories are exactly identical in their predictive power then the decision should be made on practical grounds. Which is easier to use in actual situations? In other words, scientists should adhere to Ockham’s Razor not because simpler theories are more likely to be true, but because simpler theories are more likely to be useful.

  8. #8 Russell
    August 17, 2012

    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?

    Well, to assume they’re the best we have so far, but that what we figure out in the next century or two might change how we view the world in ways we can’t yet predict. Any time we think about how the real world is, that conception inevitably is the map, and not the territory.

  9. #9 Wow
    August 17, 2012

    An example is there is no curremt ned for nertial mass and gravitational mass to be precisely 1:1.

    We can’t tell any difference to many decimal places, though. So it’s taken as exactly equal whilst so continue to lok for a reason for it. Or finding out if it’s not.

  10. #10 JeromeS
    August 17, 2012

    What does it mean for something to be “empirically adequate” but not “true?”

  11. #11 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 17, 2012

    Ryan —

    A quick caveat to my earlier comment. It’s easy to come up with extremely contrived theories to account for any set of data. For example, you might have mountains of evidence against a suspect, even evidence that could not possibly have been planted by any human being, but you still have to contend with the theory that an awesome, omnipotent intelligence really has it in for the suspect. Obviously in such a situation something other than predictive accuracy would be necessary to distinguish between them, and I can see how you might use Bayesian analysis in such a situation to dismiss the omnipotence theory as having almost no chance of being true.

    But that sort of thing is separate from what I was discussing in the post, or what I was thinking about in my earlier comment. The dispute between realists and anti-realists has to do with the status of unobservable entities: are they real or just useful fictions? My point was that it just seems obvious that science per se can only address itself to empirical adequacy, and that any assertion that, say, electrons are real, requires a leap beyond what can be established by predictive accuracy alone. I am happy to take that leap, however.

  12. #12 Wow
    August 18, 2012

    Those leaps, however, are what’s needed to explain to the average folk what science is. The woomeisters snd fundies know that brevity beats accuracy in punditry every time.

  13. #13 SLC
    August 18, 2012

    For example, you might have mountains of evidence against a suspect, even evidence that could not possibly have been planted by any human being, but you still have to contend with the theory that an awesome, omnipotent intelligence really has it in for the suspect.

    It would appear that Prof. Rosenhouse is referring to a certain crime that occurred on June 12, 1994 in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles and the shenanigans that occurred in the subsequent trial of the suspect.

    Just for the information of Prof.
    Rosenhouse, the DA and the LAPD made so many mistakes in the evidence collection and subsequent conduct of the trial that they deserved to lose. Just to mention one of the multitude of mistakes made during evidence collection, a warmup suit was found in the suspect’s washing machine, and,despite being told by a witness that the suspect was wearing such clothing earlier in the evening, the police and the evidence collectors failed to collect it and take it into evidence.

  14. #14 Blaine
    August 18, 2012

    Pigliucci is a realist because he is a moral realist and is thus committed to realism in science( The converse does not hold fortunately. I am a scientific realist, but a moral nihilist – I hold to the ugly ditch between fact and value. ). Certainty, understanding, insight, etc are psychological states and not truth conditions. Kepler understood and was certain that the planets move around the sun in circular orbits until he demonstrated that they didn’t and then became absolutely certain and understood that their movement was elliptical. People are sensitive to the realism/anti-realism debate because knowledge is power. Those who can speak in the name of truth get to define what is. Knowledge legitimizes power. It is not that long ago that homosexuals were treated at worst as moral criminals and at best as mentally ill. Many were lobotomized ( read Ginsberg’s Howl ). To be a realist now requires a much more nuanced, less fascist view of science. How do you control for bad science? Remember the eugenics movement of the 20’s in the US? How do you decide when you’ve reached the true description of the world? Hopefully we’ve learned to be much more humble. People like Sam Harris concern me. Values aren’t discovered. They are imputed by real living people. Values are created not discovered. That is the kernel of the realist/anti-realist debate. You all get that, right?

  15. #15 MNb
    August 18, 2012

    @JR: “A separate question is how you decide between rival theories that make the same predictions.”
    Sometimes you can decide by using Ockham’s Razor indeed.The De Broglie-Bohm interpretation of Quantum Mechanis is deterministic and produces exactly the same predictions as the acausal Copenhagen interpretation. One problem of BB is that it introduces so called hidden variables. Another one is that it becomes non-deterministic if you expand it analogous to Quantum Electro Dynamics.

    “I am happy to take that leap, however.”
    And I wonder if it is a leap indeed on closer look, or that Pigliucci is messing around with the meanings of “real” and “true”. He wouldn’t be the first.
    Blaine confirms my suspicion.

  16. #16 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 18, 2012

    SLC —

    It would appear that Prof. Rosenhouse is referring to a certain crime that occurred on June 12, 1994 in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles and the shenanigans that occurred in the subsequent trial of the suspect.

    You’re reading way too much into what I wrote. I absolutely was not referring to any particular case.

  17. #17 Neil Rickert
    August 18, 2012

    I guess that I am mostly agreeing with Jason, though in different words. To me realism and anti-realism seem indistinguishable.

    And then I saw Ryan’s comment, and I wondered whether I should write a post on “Why Ryan is wrong.” At the end of the post to which Ryan linked, he mentions Bayesianism, in which Ryan is presumably a true believer.

    I find it quite puzzling that many philosophers seem to think that Bayesian inference can explain science. It ought to be obvious that it cannot.

  18. #18 Wow
    August 18, 2012

    ‘How do you decide when you’ve reached the true description of the world?’

    Which ‘you’ are you talking about? If it’s “you scientists”, then ‘never’. If ‘you people who aren’t studying the nature of reality’, then when you have an answer that gives you the correct result.

    Lobotomy of gays isn’t the correct result. See the gay relationships in nature. ALL species that interact in partnershipsto rear their young engage in some fraction of homosexual intercourse.

    Quite why you brought up an incorrect result as an example of aparent correct reasoning is unclear to me…

  19. #19 duncan cairncross
    NZ
    August 20, 2012

    “What does it mean for something to be “empirically adequate” but not “true?”

    Here is one I can answer as an engineer
    We still use the “Griffith crack criterion” in design – despite the theoretical foundations having been found – inadequate –
    because it gives a good guide to allowable flaw sizes

    It’s wrong – but very useful

  20. #20 Didac
    Barcelona
    August 20, 2012

    Anti-realism is irrefutable. So is realism. Realism suppose that an external reality exists, and that our mind reflects a portion of it. Inversely, Anti-realism suppose that all is in our mind, even the farest galaxies.

    The most famous (failed) attempt to disprove Anti-realism was from Samuel Johnson, as explained by Boswell:

    “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.'”

  21. #21 Wow
    August 20, 2012

    “Anti-realism is irrefutable. So is realism.”

    Nope, wrong.

  22. #22 MNb
    August 20, 2012

    “Anti-realism suppose that all is in our mind.”
    I doubt if this is what anti-realism applies, but for the moment I have others question. Does any anti-realist – or anyone – think the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) happened in the minds of the victims ánd of Paul Tibbets (and Charles Sweeney)?
    What psychologists and neurobiologists observe, does that only happen in their (whoever those they are) minds too? That results in a nice Droste effect.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Droste_effect

  23. #23 JeromeS
    August 20, 2012

    Duncan Cairncross,

    That doesn’t really answer my question. You say “it’s wrong” but you don’t explain what you mean by that. If by “wrong” you mean something like “insufficiently accurate/precise,” then you’re still defining true/false (or “right/wrong”) in terms of empirical adequacy.

  24. #24 Kel
    http://kelosophy.blogspot.com
    August 20, 2012

    I do wonder if that the reason both realism and anti-realism have their merits is that science is not monolithic. I could have a lot more confidence in the reality of evolution than I could in a particular implementation of quantum mechanics. That models of the solar system would be a great example of realism, while models of electrons orbiting atoms might be a boundary case.

    At the end of the day, I do think that the important lesson from science is that it works; but explanations of how things work add a new dimension to thought. The difference between things falling to earth because it’s observed to work, and things falling to earth because the earth is a large mass change how we view it. It’s not that if we drop things from higher than ever before that we don’t know what will happen – we do know, and it’s the explanation that allows us to know!

  25. #25 duncan cairncross
    August 20, 2012

    Hi Jerome
    Griffith had the idea that crack growth was controlled by the requirements of surface energy
    but he had no way of measuring it so he derived his criterion empirically

    Later it was found that cracks were controlled by plastic deformation at the tip
    Griffith’s theory was wrong!
    That was NOT the mechanism involved
    Surface energy was an order of magnitude less important

    But the curves he derived were really useful so we still use them!

  26. #26 couchloc
    August 21, 2012

    “Is there some risk that actual harm will come from being wrong on this point [i.e., realism]?”

    The short answer is that, yes, you will acquire false beliefs about the world and that’s harmful to humanity.

    The general issue has been nicely discussed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “scientific realism” which is worth looking at.

    “Debates about scientific realism are centrally connected to almost everything else in the philosophy of science, for they concern the very nature of scientific knowledge. Scientific realism is a positive epistemic attitude towards the content of our best theories and models, recommending belief in both observable and unobservable aspects of the world described by the sciences. This epistemic attitude has important metaphysical and semantic dimensions, and these various commitments are contested by a number of rival epistemologies of science, known collectively as forms of scientific antirealism.”

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-realism/

  27. #27 Wow
    August 21, 2012

    “Though intuitively powerful, the miracle argument is contestable in a number of ways. One sceptical response is to question the very need for an explanation of the success of science in the first place.”

    Well, the most liable one to be correct is that the scientific theories are self-selecting for accuracy.

    It’s rather like guessing a number, getting a hint as to whether it’s high or low, then “miraculously” guessing the random number between 1 and 100 within 8 guesses as opposed to 50…).

    Ones that aren’t good explanations get chucked when they’re found to be so.

    “One might wonder, for instance, why a particular theory is successful”

    Because if it isn’t successful, it’s chucked. If it’s not possible to get a successful theory, a different approach is taken (you don’t use Schroedinger’s Equation to work out the habits of cats, you use Biology, which asks the question a different way).

    Look at the three-body problem. NO THEORY will explain it as far as we can tell. So, rather than look for a theory to explain it, we asked a different question. Answering that gives us chaos theory and attractors.

  28. #28 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 21, 2012

    couchloc —

    The short answer is that, yes, you will acquire false beliefs about the world and that’s harmful to humanity.

    Holding false beliefs about the world is not necessarily harmful to anyone. Moreover, I don’t see how realists and anti-realists behave any differently in their day to day life. I still don’t see how I will ever make a bad decision in life if I believe that electrons actually exist, but it turns out they are really just incredibly useful fictions.

  29. #29 Wow
    August 21, 2012

    “Holding false beliefs about the world is not necessarily harmful to anyone”

    Those people who flew planes into skyscrapers held false beliefs about the world.

    And this wasn’t seen as odd because so many other people believed in false things, so why would this one be any different?

  30. #30 Ryan
    http://www.skepticblogs.com/humesapprentice
    August 21, 2012

    Hi Jason,

    “So, to use Pigliucci’s example, I just take it for granted that the tremendous usefulness of hypothesizing electrons in our physical theories reflects the fact that electrons actually exist and behave essentially as physicists say they do.

    “I might reconsider this position if someone comes up with a theory that is just as successful as modern physics but which makes no reference at all to electrons.”

    I think we all would. However, the electron theory and the hypothetical theory that makes all the same predictions are not “equally real.” Further, it might be possible to tell the difference between the two, if there were some difference in prior probability (though there might not be, in which case I still think one would be real and the other wouldn’t, though we could not tell the difference at that point).

    “…Scientists should adhere to Ockham’s Razor not because simpler theories are more likely to be true, but because simpler theories are more likely to be useful.”

    I think there is something to be said for using theories simply for the sake of usefulness. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. However, for those who want to know what’s actually the case about the real world, Ockham’s razor can help in deciding what is more likely (see the comments and references in my blog post).

    “The dispute between realists and anti-realists has to do with the status of unobservable entities: are they real or just useful fictions? My point was that it just seems obvious that science per se can only address itself to empirical adequacy, and that any assertion that, say, electrons are real, requires a leap beyond what can be established by predictive accuracy alone. I am happy to take that leap, however.”

    I think science can address more than just predictive accuracy. For example, suppose that a group of sociologists is observing a high school, and that it is reported that the prom queen has pubic lice. The scientists come up with two hypotheses: one is that the rumor started because the prom queen really does have pubic lice and a confident or sexual partner of hers leaked the info to everyone else. The other hypothesis is that this is a malicious rumor started by someone who was jealous they did not get to be prom queen. Suppose that scientists go on a wild goose chase of interrogating students and are unable to find any further testimony to support either hypothesis. So the predictive power is exactly equal for either hypothesis. Suppose the group stumbles on to a peer-reviewed paper that had more extensive information on high-school gossip (had installed secret microphones and cameras all over the schools they studied for long periods of time) and it said that in 90% of cases, high school rumors about STDs are false. The group rightly concludes that the rumor is probably a fiction. That’d be an example of where prior probability can rule the day in a case where predictive powers between two theories are equal. Of course, with other theories, like whether electrons exist, determining a prior can be very difficult (even impossible practice) but I suspect we can do it in ways other than just looking at parallel cases in which we know the answer (like using Ockham’s razor and other logical considerations).

  31. #31 couchloc
    August 22, 2012

    The debate between realists and antirealists is important in terms of how they understand the aims of science. One tradition holds that science is fundamentally about the ability to control nature for our ends; that we seek scientific knowledge for power over nature. This follows the Baconian tradition in science that seeks control of nature. But there is a second tradition that descends from Descartes and others that characterizes science differently. For many science is more than engineering and building bridges and stuff, but fundamentally concerns knowledge of the world. This characterization follows from the Enlightenment’s concern with understanding nature in her very depths (cf. Newton’s interest in “learning the mind of God”). This view is reflected in contemporary practice by scientists who do pure science and pursue theoretical projects (an epistemic, not practical, aim). For instance, many scientists defended the search for the higgs boson in terms of its contribution to our knowledge of the universe. So the debate comes from the history of science itself.

    As to your specific point, these views will affect my understanding of claims about electrons in different ways. For one, if science is read instrumentally how can it be “a way of knowing” if it is not even aiming at truth about the world (note: knowledge is “justified, true, belief”)? Instrumentalist views give up the right to say that science is getting us closer to the truth about nature, and this may seem worrying to some. Moreover, I think part of the problem comes from the example you offer. I agree that with “electrons” there doesn’t seem much to worry about since this is a theoretical posit removed from our lives. But take something like behaviorism in psychology. This is an instrumentalist theory of people that claims “minds and consciousness” do not exist and that psychology is restricted to external behavior. An instrumentalist reading of psychology may lead me to treat/view people very differently. Am I really to believe that my wife doesn’t “love” me in some internal, emotional, genuinely psychological sense because “love is a useful fiction and nothing more”? Is talk of “pain and human misery” merely a fiction that doesn’t really warrant our compassion? The issues here become more interesting with different examples.

  32. #32 Wow
    August 22, 2012

    “Instrumentalist views give up the right to say that science is getting us closer to the truth about nature”

    How does that follow?

    “This is an instrumentalist theory of people that claims “minds and consciousness” do not exist and that psychology is restricted to external behavior.”

    No it doesn’t. Unless you want to clarify “do not exist” in some nonstandard niche way.

    “Am I really to believe that my wife doesn’t “love” me in some internal, emotional, genuinely psychological sense”

    Do or don’t.

    But nothing changes the fact that that love is expressed as chemical reactions in her body.

  33. #33 couchloc
    August 22, 2012

    Wow, it follows given the claims of instrumentalism. From the article I linked to above:

    “In the first half of the twentieth century [antirealism] came predominantly in the form of varieties of “instrumentalism”: the view that theories are merely instruments for predicting observable phenomena or systematizing observation reports. . . . Traditionally, instrumentalists maintain that terms for unobservables, by themselves, have no meaning; construed literally, statements involving them are not even candidates for truth or falsity.”

    The instrumentalist says theoretical posits like “electrons” are neither true nor false but serve as “instruments” for predicting certain events. Theories that invoke them cannot properly be described as getting us “closer to the truth” about nature since instrumentalists deny that truth-likeness is a relevant feature of such posits.

  34. #34 Wow
    August 22, 2012

    “Wow, it follows given the claims of instrumentalism.”

    How?

    You maintain that “The instrumentalist says theoretical posits like “electrons” are neither true nor false but serve as “instruments” for predicting certain events” but that’s not saying what you maintain it is.

    There is a theory of an electron. That would be your “instrument” from that quote from your linked article.

    That theory makes predictions. And those predictions are (to a large extent) bourne out as true because of their utility to predict the actual expression.

    That does not mean there are no electrons.

    It just isn’t saying that the theory of the electron is the electron.

    I.e. electron spin.

    But for electrons of the largest possible size that wouldn’t register as extent to our tests (we have not found any size to the electron in our tests for it), the surface of the electron would have to be spinnning faster than light.

    Which is impossible.

    Therefore it cannot be acting like spin.

    But this doesn’t mean that electrons don’t exist.

    Similarly, instrumentalism doesn’t mean we’re not getting toward the truth of what an electron is. It used to be thought to be a liquid. It used to be thought flowing the other way (hence the electron charge is negative).

    We are closer to the truth.

    Even if you take it as purely instrumentalism.

  35. #35 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 22, 2012

    couchloc —

    Science is a valid way of knowing regardless of whether you take a realist or anti-realist position. The only issue is what you are obtaining knowledge about. A realist would say that science produces knowledge about the world as it actually is, whereas an anti-realist says we are merely producing knowledge about what works in experimental situations. But science produces knowledge in either case.

    In your behaviorism example, it is not philosophical commitments about realism vs. anti-realism that will govern how you treat other people. That’s about morals and values, not about the status of unobserved entities in scientific theories. Thinking that “love” is just a useful fiction does not at all entail that you should behave as though love isn’t real. Quite the contrary, in fact. (After all, what else could it mean to say it is a “useful” fiction). And if someone did behave as though “human misery” is a fiction that does not warrant our compassion, the argument against him wouldn’t be, “You hold a blinkered philosophy of science. If you switched to a realist view of things you would know better.” Rather, the argument against him would be, “Your behavior is plainly leading to harmful effects, and therefore you should change your behavior.”

    I also don’t agree with your opening paragraph. There is nothing in anti-realism that says you should spurn theoretical projects, and certainly nothing in realism that says you should spurn practical projects. Regarding the Higgs, realists and anti-realists alike could argue that our search for the Higgs is important. Realists, would say that finding the Higgs increases our knowledge of how the world is while anti-realists would say it increases the predictive power of our best theories. Likewise, the distinction between the Baconian and Cartesian traditions is not nearly as stark as your opening paragraph suggests.

    Heck, for all we know the very idea of “external reality,” or “the real world” is itself just a useful fiction our brains fob on off us because it’s so, well, useful.

    But maybe I’m wrong and this really is a terribly important debate to have. Answers to all sorts of practical questions are riding on it. In that case all I can say is, gosh, we’d better resolve this thing once and for all. Any suggestions for how to do that?

  36. #36 couchloc
    August 22, 2012

    Your last paragraph seems rather snotty to me, and so I don’t see why I should spend time trying to address an issue that you yourself brought up and I was trying to make helpful comments about. If you don’t think it’s an worthwhile topic to discuss, that’s fine. But then maybe you shouldn’t waste everyone’s time with posts about it.

  37. #37 Wow
    August 22, 2012

    You weren’t really begin all that helpful in your commenting, thoough.

  38. #38 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 22, 2012

    couchloc —

    Considering that I spent a lot of time today composing a long and polite reply to your earlier lengthy comment, your petulance about what I think is worthwhile seems pretty obviously misplaced. That final paragraph was not meant to be snotty, it was meant to emphasize one of the main points of my post. I want to know why philosophers think this discussion is important since, so far as I can tell, there is absolutely nothing of practical significance riding on it, and there is no way of even discussing something like “how the world really is” except through the medium of predictive accuracy.

  39. #39 couchloc
    August 22, 2012

    I’d say the “gosh” in the last paragraph comes across as having a very patronizing tone. Maybe you didn’t intend it that way but that’s how it reads to me in the paragraph. If I have read too much into it, then my mistake. Let me consider your response further and see if I can say something useful since we’re clearly interpreting the issues differently.

  40. #40 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 22, 2012

    Very well. I apologize for using the word “gosh,” since it apparently connotes more than I intended. I’ll look forward to your reply.

  41. #41 couchloc
    August 23, 2012

    I’ll just pick up with your 3:47 post. You state that science is a way of knowing regardless of realism or antirealism; the issue is what one obtains knowledge about. The realist says science produces knowledge about the world as it is, and the antirealist says science produces knowledge about experimental situations. I think this is right. But it’s important to be clear about what this implies about unobservable entities. The realist claims theories about electrons refer to actual particles in the world. What does the antirealist claim? At 7:39, you characterize the antirealist as believing that unobservable entities are “useful fictions.” This suggests that by antirealism you mean “instrumentalism”–the view that theories should be viewed as useful instruments for the prediction of observable phenomenon. This means the term “electron” does not refer to particles in the world, but merely provides a convenient way of organizing various observations we have. So, yes, they both produce “knowledge,” but about different things.

    Now, what matters in this context is how they view reference to unobservable entities. So turn to the “love” example I gave. You write: “Thinking that ‘love’ is just a useful fiction does not at all entail that you should behave as though love isn’t real. Quite the contrary, in fact.” I don’t understand this statement. What part of the term “fiction” are you misunderstanding? If entity X is “a fiction” then by definition it’s not “real”. So if I believe entity X is a fiction, that would certainly affect my behavior towards it.

    If I believe my wife doesn’t “really” love me, but rather that my merely talking this way about her helps me organize my experience in certain ways, then I’m relating to her differently. Is that not a practical difference in my attitudes towards my wife? Would it not be helpful to point out to such an individual that love is a genuine feature of the world (your “blinkered” option)?

  42. #42 Wow
    August 23, 2012

    ” the issue is what one obtains knowledge about.”

    No, the method works whatever you want to have knowledge about.

    “The realist says science produces knowledge about the world as it is, and the antirealist says science produces knowledge about experimental situations”

    And they see it as the same thing.

    “But it’s important to be clear about what this implies about unobservable entities”

    It is. YOU, however, haven’t understood it.

    It implies that unobservable entities can be observed by their effects.

    “The realist claims theories about electrons refer to actual particles in the world. What does the antirealist claim?”

    They claim that the electron theory is the theory about electrons.

    “This suggests that by antirealism you mean “instrumentalism””

    Which you likewise get wrong.

    “This means the term “electron” does not refer to particles in the world, but merely provides a convenient way of organizing various observations we have”

    Nope, it doesn’t mean that.

    Maybe the problem isn’t the realist/anti-realist but your understanding. Ever considered that?

    “If I believe my wife doesn’t “really” love me, but rather that my merely talking this way about her helps me organize my experience in certain ways, then I’m relating to her differently.”

    If you believe that then you’re not an anti-realist.

    “Is that not a practical difference in my attitudes towards my wife?”

    Yes, but that’s your problem, not one of the realist or anti-realist.

  43. #43 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 23, 2012

    couchloc —

    To say that something is a useful fiction means precisely that it is useful to behave as if it were real. That it is not actually real is irrelevant when it comes time to determine how you should behave in a given situation, or at least it is not obviously relevant. So even if you view love as just a term that is useful for organizing certain experiences, and not as something “really real,” I don’t see how that entails that your behavior towards your wife will be different in any way at all from the behavior of someone who takes a realist view of love.

    Can you point to something specific that about how a realist would behave towards his wife that an anti-realist would regard as absurd, because of his different understanding of what love is?

    To take a more stark example, there are philosophers who defend the idea that there is no such thing as a mind-independent reality. To them, the idea of external reality is itself just a useful fiction. And yet their behavior is utterly indistinguishable from those who take the more instinctive, realist view.

    Incidentally, as I understand it, the anti-realist is not committed to the idea that electrons, say, actually don’t exist. Rather, he simply remains agnostic on the subject. It might be, from his perspective, that there really are actual electrons out there in the world, but their usefulness in scientific theories is not strong evidence for that belief.

  44. #44 couchloc
    August 24, 2012

    Jason: This makes it clear to me that we’re interpreting the issues differently, as I feared. Let me offer some clarifications since I think we’re talking past each other (this will be long).

    There are different versions of antirealism that have distinct implications for our approach to unobservables. The language you’re using suggests one version, but you actually intend another. The antirealist claims that science produces knowledge about observables, and that terms that refer to unobservables are not referring to actual unobservable entities. So the term “electron” does not refer to particles in the world, but provides a convenient way of organizing the observations we have. But there are different ways of understanding what this amounts to:

    (a) instrumentalism=df. terms for unobservables are instruments for helping us make sense of our experiences; they are convenient devices (“fictions”) for organizing our experiences.
    (b) empiricism(classical)=df. terms for unobservables do not refer to real entities behind our experiences, but are merely ways of *redescribing* our experiences. “There are electrons” means the same as “if you look that way, you will see such and such.”
    (c) empiricism(modern)=df. terms for unobservables refer to potentially real entities in the world, but we should only concern ourselves with what’s available to observation (what’s verifiable).

    Each of these views claims something different about “the status” of terms for unobservables.

    (a) claims they are literally meaningless; neither true nor false. See my SEP quote @3:01: “instrumentalists maintain that terms for unobservables . . . have no meaning . . . are not even candidates for truth or falsity.” As one might say, they are “useful fictions”—fictions in the sense of not denoting anything real. This is what I thought you intended given your several remarks about “fictions,” and why I’ve replied as I have, but this isn’t your view.

    (b) claims they are the SAME in meaning to statements about observables. Talk about electrons is really disguised talk about observations we expect to have in certain contexts; there’s no difference here. Notice that on this view terms for unobservables are *meaningful*. Incidentally, this appears to be Wow’s interpretation @ 3:49: (Couchloc) “The realist says science produces knowledge about the world as it is, and the antirealist says science produces knowledge about experimental situations.” (Wow replies) “And they see IT AS THE SAME THING.” So Wow interprets antirealism as (b) and assimilates you to this interpretation (but this it seems is mistaken).

    (c) claims terms for unobservables are independently meaningful and potentially true or false, but we don’t care. All that matters to us are statements about observables. This appears to be your view. As you say, “the antirealist is not committed to the idea that electrons….actually don’t exist….he simply remains agnostic on the subject.” This is certainly an interpretation to have, fine. But let me say the following: this is not usefully characterized in terms of reference to “fictions” as you do (this suggests (a)). Fictional entities don’t exist. This is very different from agnosticism about entities. Compare: if someone is agnostic about the existence of God, that is not equivalent to their believing God is a fiction. So I think we’re talking past one another since we’re referring to different views in our discussion.

  45. #45 couchloc
    August 24, 2012

    Ok, having said that, if we view “love” under interpretation (a) then strictly speaking my wife doesn’t (really) love me. Talk of love does not denote anything real, but simply helps me organize my experiences. It seems appropriate to me to make the “blinkered” response here I mentioned since my attitude towards my wife will be different. Further, I think there’s plausible grounds for this response, and so I think debate about this issue isn’t merely trivial.

    If we use your interpretation (c), though, the situation is more difficult, and your worry is more plausible. There seems little difference between realism and antirealism in this sense, many think. But, first, notice that it would be wrong to interpret the debate between realists and antirealists as only about this interpretation. The history of science shows many accept other interpretations. So I don’t think one should say categorically that debates in this area are trivial. Second, many philosophers have agreed that this debate is hard to settle and doesn’t clearly have practical implications. But I’m not sure why that’s the relevant criterion to use. Debates about multiverses don’t clearly concern people’s practical behavior, and are not near to being settled. Does that mean we shouldn’t have them either? Aren’t there “theoretical” reasons for having such debates? Maybe this response is too weak, but it can be difficult to determine what makes something interesting to discuss.

  46. #46 Wow
    August 24, 2012

    “Ok, having said that, if we view “love” under interpretation (a) then strictly speaking my wife doesn’t (really) love me”

    That’s what YOU say. But that is a caricature strawman.

    Under interpretation (a), strictly speaking your wife really DOES love you. Probably not any more after reading how you think she doesn’t really love you, mind.

    “Talk of love does not denote anything real”

    Never did. You can’t shovel a pound of love in a bag. You can’t trade it in, hoard it or reflect it round corners.

    Turning left isn’t real either.

    North isn’t real.

    Neither is dark.

  47. #47 JollyRancher
    August 24, 2012

    Jason Rosenhouse:” …so far as I can tell, there is absolutely nothing of practical significance riding on it,…”

    Forgive me if this comes across as glib, but frankly, I find it amusing that a mathematician of all people would entertain this sentiment about any intellectual debate, given that most of humanity couldn’t give less of a damn about the entire discipline (of mathematics) absent its usefulness in achieving other goals (not a sentiment I share btw). Any ordinary practical man might well wonder why anyone would ever spend innumerable hours and amounts of energy trying to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem for it’s own sake. One could easily point out that much of practical interest often follows from investigations of such an esoteric sort, but we all know that those kinds of answers are simply to keep the intellectual philistines at bay, and that mathematicians do what they do for the sake of the subject itself.

    Likewise, I expect there are some people who REALLY want to know what the world is REALLY like, and consequently, want to know whether they have good reasons, or nothing better than knee-jerk reactions, to think that the scientific picture of the world is (or parts of it) are accurate representations of reality or predictive instruments. Apparently, some people do not care, which is fine, but I don’t see where the motivational mystery lies in having the debate in the first place, anymore than there is a mystery involved in why mathematicians spend all day thinking about math.

    Furthermore, although I think your claim that nothing practical depends on one’s position on these matters is in general correct, this shouldn’t be altogether surprising, given that most philosophical positions are rather foundational in nature, such that they establish the frameworks that all the day to day works gets done in, and thus the consequences of holding one view or the other only tend to bear fruit when there is a need for a larger shift in the intellectual landscape than is more often the norm.
    For instance, Ludwig Boltzmann reputedly had an extraordinarily hard time getting some of his work accepted because the reigning orthodoxy of the day was, as the facts would have it, anti-realistic with regards to atoms. As well, I’m sure everybody remembers the heady optimism of early AI research, and that annoying Hubert Dreyfus’ critiques of the underlying philosophical assumptions underwriting the entire program. Like Boltzmann, Dreyfus was successfully ignored at the time because much of his critique went against the philosophical grain of the day, even though some of them certainly seem relevant now given the causes of that particular strain of AI’s failure.
    Anyhow, I suspect that the persistence of these kinds of debates is a result of the aforementioned simple desire to have good reasons for one’s metaphysical worldview, which as I see it is surely a laudable goal that would, when applied to areas of debate, no matter how impractical day to day, would help prevent the sorts of philosophical prejudice apparent in the cases mentioned above, and, I’m sure, numerous others.

  48. #48 Wow
    August 24, 2012

    “Forgive me if this comes across as glib”

    Not unless your dictionary has a very different way of defining “glib”.

    I guess you’re cheesed off because your specific version of God isn’t considered to be the Only True God.

  49. #49 JollyRancher
    August 24, 2012

    Wow:”I guess you’re cheesed off because your specific version of God isn’t considered to be the Only True God.”

    Please, do us all a favour and find a bridge to crawl under, you’ll feel more at home.

  50. #50 Wow
    August 24, 2012

    What, the one you just walked out from?

  51. #51 couchloc
    August 25, 2012

    JollyRancher, Your larger post is nicely stated. As it happens I was a student of Dreyfus’s as an undergraduate.

  52. #52 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 26, 2012

    Jolly Rancher —

    Regarding mathematics, I agree completely that much of what mathematicians study is arcane and of no practical interest. But you’ll notice that I don’t write lengthy blog posts exhorting people to learn more upper-level math. When a philosopher tells me he’s not interested in mathematics I don’t accuse him of “philosophism” and suggest that he’s in thrall to a blinkered world view that colors his assessments of what’s important.

    Yet it seems that the philosophical blogosphere goes crazy any time someone makes a snide remark about philosophy. Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking went a bit overboard, but the anguished blog posts in response, not to mention op-eds in The New York Times and lengthy essays about scientism in The New Republic, were just silly.

    With regard to the present discussion, my objection is a bit more than simply that I see no practical value in this debate. It’s that I don’t see how you can even have an intelligent discussion about “what’s really real.” What we know is that the steady progress of science renders nature more predictable and controllable. Most people just take it for granted that this is because there is a mind-independent reality and that science gradually reveals more and more factual information about it. It’s all but impossible to live your life under any other assumption. But if that’s not enough for you than I don’t see what else there is to say. I also would like to know what’s really real, but I don’t see how we have any access at all to ultimate reality, if that’s even a meaningful concept. We only know what our imperfect senses tell us, as interpreted by our imperfect brains.

    The motivational mystery lies in why anyone outside of the philosophy of science should care about it. If the subject is just about people who happen to find that sort of thing interesting talking amongst themselves, then that’s fine. Just say that and I’ll be happy to leave you all alone. But it seems like any time a scientist suggests that the philosophy of science has no relevance to scientists (and we’re talking about the likes of RIchard Feynman and Steven Weinberg here) philosophers get very indignant and suggest that they are lesser scientists for holding such a blinkered view. So which is it?

  53. #53 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 26, 2012

    couchloc —

    My argument is not committed to any particular one of your three alternatives. I would argue that you could hold to any of your three options, and it would still not entail any necessary difference in my daily behavior relative to what a realist would do. That is, even if I think love is just a word that is useful for describing certain actions my wife takes and is not “really real” whatever that means, I don’t see why I cannot consistently behave precisely as someone would who took a realist view of love.

    With regard to the rest of your comment, see my reply to Jolly Rancher. With regard to realism vs. anti-realism specifically, I tend to be suspicious of metaphysical discourse precisely because I don’t see how we have any basis at all for talking about anything like “ultimate reality.” More generally, my interest is in the relevance of philosophy of science more generally. Most of it really does seem awfully arcane. That doesn’t mean it has no value, but it goes a long way towards explaining the general lack of interest among scientists for it.

  54. #54 couchloc
    August 26, 2012

    Jason, a fuller reply will have to wait a day since my semester starts tomorrow and I’m backed up. But, with all due respect, you are focusing on a few recent episodes between scientists and philosophers of science and drawing general conclusions about the field. As a matter of fact, many scientists engage with philosophers of science seriously. To give some examples:

    Coyne discusses Kitcher
    Crick’s books cite Churchland and Dennett
    Mayr’s articles cite Nagel, Scriven, and Bunge
    Smollin sided with Albert
    Alex Rosenberg (phil) and Daniel McShea (biology) coauthored a major “Philosophy of Biology” book recently

  55. #55 JollyRancher
    August 26, 2012

    Jason Rosenhouse:” But you’ll notice that I don’t write lengthy blog posts exhorting people to learn more upper-level math.”

    And your blog is all the better for that! :) But I suspect that you would exhort anyone opining on transfinite numbers to learn some set theory before making pronouncements about that, no?

    Similarly, I suspect much of the outrage philosophers feel when scientists make silly remarks about the field, stems from the fact that what they are often criticizing is scientists making philosophical claims under the guise of science without often realizing it, and then, when told about the rather contentious philosophical nature of these claims, simply going on to assert philosophy is useless, and that the answer is obvious, without really knowing very much about the field, or the issue in question, in the first place, because, hey ,they don’t feel they really need it to do science. And they would be right, they don’t. The problem, however, is that, like everyone else, many scientist can’t help but tread into philosophical waters, and when they do, they bring their philosophical baggage with them, rather than checking it at the door, and refuse to recognize they have any baggage to begin with, all the while continuing to insist on contributing to the conversation which they are simultaneously not a part of, but nevertheless have the most obvious and sensible answer to.

    Jason Rosenhouse:” When a philosopher tells me he’s not interested in mathematics I don’t accuse him of “philosophism” and suggest that he’s in thrall to a blinkered world view that colors his assessments of what’s important.”
    Nor should you, as long as said philosopher doesn’t opine on topics where a knowledge of mathematics is pertinent (I am aware some in fact do this, and they should be chastised). But it works both ways, and the tricky part with regards to philosophical considerations in general, is, as I’ve said before, that they are FOUNDATIONAL, which is precisely why they are simultaneously irrelevant to day to day affairs, while nevertheless remaining so important, because the simple fact of the matter is that they CAN blinker your worldview, for philosophy is precisely the stuff worldviews are made of. That was the point of my earlier examples.
    For instance, what is the goal of a scientific theory? Simply predictive power and control, or providing a fully coherent model of some phenomena, or something else entirely? Your answer to this question will no doubt influence how one thinks about quantum mechanics. Should we be happy with its predictive power, and shut up and calculate, or bother trying to formulate an interpretation that makes sense to us, however metaphysically far fetched it might seem? How often do questions like this matter for day to day affairs? Not much I would wager, but they do when it comes to the intellectual progress of humanity in the long run.

    Jason Rosenhouse:” With regard to the present discussion, my objection is a bit more than simply that I see no practical value in this debate. It’s that I don’t see how you can even have an intelligent discussion about “what’s really real.”
    I never understood the debate to be about “what’s really real”. It’s more along the lines of asking how far does science get us? And what reasons do we have for believing it gets us this far rather than that far? And Given how far it can possibly get us, what should our expectations of a successful scientific theory be? Empirical adequacy only, or a metaphysically coherent picture as well. Is falsifiability a criterion? If so, where does string theory fit in? What, precisely makes something scientific; that is, what epistemic standards should we aspire to and son and so forth. Again, do individual scientists working in the lab need this day to day? Unlikely. Does science as a whole need this? I should think so, whether it comes from scientists or philosophers or whomever.
    Coincidentally, simply maintaining awareness of a (potential) difference between how reality presents itself to us and what it is “really” like, is itself an act of humility that you seem to find sensible enough, which is great. But many people intent on bloviating about humankind’s place in the universe, be they religious or secular, seem intent on forgetting how limited we really are(or seem to be) in our perspective, and could do with being reminded of such, by, as you say, “a few good points”.
    Jason Rosenhouse:” The motivational mystery lies in why anyone outside of the philosophy of science should care about it….So which is it?”
    It is both. Some of it has absolutely no value whatsoever for the practicing scientist. Some of it does, and some of it does some of the time but not at others. I think part of the problem is that many philosophers feel an attack on ACADEMIC philosophy is an attack on philosophy tout courte, which I don’t necessarily think is the case, because philosophical considerations worm themselves into every discipline. They just get glossed over precisely because they are more fundamental and obscure and difficult than daily operations, and remain in the dark precisely because people feel they won’t get very far with them, until some intellectual crises brings them to the forefront and forces people to deal with them. Such as quantum mechanics, or set theory, or AI or whatever.

    Finally, I would think the failure to recognize the importance of these issues (in the long run) to the intellectual status of humanity, doesn’t speak to people like Krauss and Hawking being less the best scientists they could be. Rather, it speaks to them being less ambitious, less curious, (sometimes)less humble, and, frankly, less interested in seeking truth than they are in finding answers to particular puzzles.

  56. #56 Wow
    August 26, 2012

    Yes, couchloc. That’s called “evidence of your position”.

    It’s rather a fashionable thing to avoid it, but it’s still required for *genuine* debate.

  57. #57 couchloc
    August 26, 2012

    Sober and David Wilson coauthored their biology book together
    Dawkins edits the journal “Biology and Philosophy”
    Ruse and E.O. Wilson have co-authored papers together
    Sokal discusses phil. of science in his recent book
    This list goes on and on……..While not all scientists are favorable to philosophy of science as you note, a closer look reveals a more complicated situation that belies the silly pronouncements of hacks like Krauss. (Don’t forget that biologist Coyne came out rather strongly against Krauss, as did physicist Sean Carroll.)

    Also, does it bother you at all that you take “realism” to be the common-sense, default view of scientists, despite the fact that Steven Hawking argues for a “model-dependent” view of physical theory in his recent book? This position is explicitly antirealist, and by your own admission, Hawking is an authority. Maybe the situation is more complicated than it appears from causal inspection? Further, Coyne himself is fond of saying that scientists can give no noncircular justification of the scientific enterprise, but that it’s still preferable to the religious alternatives “because it works.” This explicitly nonrealist position is pragmatist and at odds with a realist view of science. So you seem to be suggesting there’s more consensus about the issue of realism and antirealism among scientists than in fact their is. The fact that scientsts as a group hold all sorts of different views here doesn’t mean that philosophers who discuss this issue are wasting their time, however difficult such issues are to settle as I’ve agreed about certain cases.

    This does not respond to some of your other worries, but give me a day and I’ll try to get to them.

  58. #58 Wow
    August 26, 2012

    “But I suspect that you would exhort anyone opining on transfinite numbers to learn some set theory before making pronouncements about that, no?”

    Since the bible was “given as truth” to some pre-industrial pre-literate society. It should therefore be understood by someone with that level of knowledge.

    If you insist this is not the case, then you are stating that the Bible was not given to them.

  59. #59 couchloc
    August 26, 2012

    (sorry for the re-post, I hit the wrong button)

    Jason, a fuller reply will have to wait a day since my semester starts tomorrow and I’m backed up. But, with all due respect, you are focusing on a few recent episodes between scientists and philosophers of science and drawing general conclusions about the field. As a matter of fact, many scientists engage with philosophers of science seriously. To give some examples:

    Coyne discusses Kitcher
    Crick’s books cite Churchland and Dennett
    Mayr’s articles cite Nagel, Scriven, and Bunge
    Smollin sided with Albert
    Alex Rosenberg (phil) and Daniel McShea (biology) coauthored a major “Philosophy of Biology” book recently
    Sober and David Wilson coauthored their biology book together
    Dawkins edits the journal “Biology and Philosophy”
    Ruse and E.O. Wilson have co-authored papers together
    Sokal discusses phil. of science in his recent book
    This list goes on and on……..

    While not all scientists are favorable to philosophy of science as you note, a closer look reveals a more complicated situation that belies the silly pronouncements of hacks like Krauss. (Don’t forget that biologist Coyne came out rather strongly against Krauss, as did physicist Sean Carroll.)

    Also, does it bother you at all that you take “realism” to be the common-sense, default view of scientists, despite the fact that Steven Hawking argues for a “model-dependent” view of physical theory in his recent book? This position is explicitly antirealist, and by your own admission, Hawking is an authority. Maybe the situation is more complicated than it appears from causal inspection? Further, Coyne himself is fond of saying that scientists can give no noncircular justification of the scientific enterprise, but that it’s still preferable to the religious alternatives “because it works.” This explicitly nonrealist position is pragmatist and at odds with a realist view of science. So you seem to be suggesting there’s more consensus about the issue of realism and antirealism among scientists than in fact their is. The fact that scientsts as a group hold all sorts of different views here doesn’t mean that philosophers who discuss this issue are wasting their time, however difficult such issues are to settle as I’ve agreed about certain cases.

    This does not respond to some of your other worries, but give me a day and I’ll try to get to them.

  60. #60 Wow
    August 26, 2012

    “Also, does it bother you at all that you take “realism” to be the common-sense, default view of scientists”

    It bothers me that you seem to be making up the entire conversation in your own head.

    I don’t see this as the case AT ALL.

    Rosenhouse has said that the difference between reality and anti-reality is, in essense, a null difference.

    It doesn’t matter if love “really exists” (and if JR says that live doesn’t “really exist”, how can you then turn around and say he has a “realist” viewpoint???) or is just a behavioural modification by chemical processes.

    The result is exactly the same.

    Except in the latter case you have the option of giving a “love potion”. Alcohol often wors that way.

  61. #61 couchloc
    August 26, 2012

    Wow,

    I’m trying to point out that whatever we call Jason’s position (realism, agnosticism–Jason’s not been entirely consistent on the features of his view) his view appears inconsistent with Steven Hawking who clearly endorses antirealism about physical theory (and not the null view). So my broader point still remains.

  62. #62 Wow
    August 26, 2012

    You may be trying to do that, but you’re just making yourself look foolish at best, incompetent at worst.

    And Jason is being consistent as far as its needed to explain the thoughts in face of your misapplication of them.

    His view is not clearly inconsistent with Stephen Hawking. Your caricature of what you want him to think may be, but that’s only your projection of yourself or your strawman.

    Sephen Hawking would not be telling you you should act differently if you decide your wife doesn’t “really” love you (anti-realist) than if love “really” exists (realist).

    YOU, however, insist that they MUST.

    You only get to do that for yourself. And you can’t be both realist and anti-realist, so it’s in fac impossible to do.

  63. #63 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 26, 2012

    couchloc —

    My semester also starts tomorrow, so maybe this is a good time to wrap this up. I’ll read with interest any follow-up comment you care to post, but I think I will make this the last entry from my side.

    Your points are well-taken, and perhaps I am putting too much emphasis on a few recent flare-ups.. On the other hand, you might be putting too much emphasis on a few instances of respectful collaboration. There’s a reason I usually describe my feeling towards philosophy as “ambivalent” and not as simply negative. On the one hand, I keep coming back to it. A lot of it I do find fascinating, and there’s a reason that Rationally Speaking, Talking Philosophy, Jean Kazez, John Wilkins, Brian Leiter, Russell Blackford and even, God help me, Edward Feser, are all part of my regular blog reading. But there have also been a number of incidents over the last few years that have soured me on philosophy. The endless nattering about scientism is flatly ridiculous, in my opinion. There is also Michael Ruse’s writing on science/religion compatibility (not just his blog posts but his books as well), Robert Pennock’s writings on methodological naturalism, Elliott Sober’s recent work on God-guided mutations, and the general clucking of philosophers towards the New Atheists. It seems that whenever philosophical questions do intrude into issues I care a lot about, the philosophers have not distinguished themselves with the clarity of their thought.

    I do think I’m on safe ground in describing realism as the default position among scientists. Massimo said precisely that in the post that started this whole discussion. I’d be very surprised if Jerry Coyne really is an anti-realist. My suspicion is that he holds the same position I described in the opening post. In terms of his daily work as a scientist, he’s an instrumentalist. What matters is what works, full stop. But I think he also just takes it as axiomatic that science is producing genuine knowledge about a world that exists independently of anyone’s mind. You can’t defend that in terms of anything simpler, but it just seems so obvious and natural that there is no reason to deny it.

    That’s why I was emphasizing practical ramifications earlier. I am not inclined to question my assumptions about reality too closely. Am I in danger of making a bad decision because of that lack of introspection?

    I think there’s a decent chance that in the near future I will do a full post going into some of theseissues more carefully, so I’ll stop here. Good luck with your classes this term, and thanks for providing so much food for thought.

  64. #64 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 26, 2012

    Jolly Rancher –

    Mostly I’ll just refer you to my response to couchloc. Certainly if someone is going to discuss philosophical questions, then one should have some familiarity with what philosophers have been saying about it. But I also think it’s often hard to police the boundaries of where science ends and philosophy of science begins. For example, I would say that scientists, as scientists, have at least as much as philosophers to contribute to any intelligent discussion of why there is something instead of nothing. Perhaps Krauss made a hash out of the question, I haven’t read his book yet, but the fact remains that it is every bit as much a scientific question as a philosophical one. Likewise for the question of God’s existence. That is not purely a philosophical question, science has every bit as much to contribute to it as philosophy does, and I don’t think you are required to read large quantities of esoteric philosophy and theology before you are allowed to discuss it (contrary to some of the more pompous responses to the New Atheists).

    I’ll leave it there, and end with the what I said to couchloc. Thanks for the interesting conversation.

  65. #65 JollyRancher
    August 26, 2012

    Jason Rosenhouse:”There is also Michael Ruse’s writing on science/religion compatibility (not just his blog posts but his books as well), Robert Pennock’s writings on methodological naturalism, Elliott Sober’s recent work on God-guided mutations, and the general clucking of philosophers towards the New Atheists.”

    I think that it is more than mere coincidence that many of these issues which you find problematic are either directly or indirectly related to religion (even the whole scientism she-bang). I suspect many of said philosophers are bending over backwards to score some political points by making technical criticisms that I don’t think they otherwise would have ever bothered to make if religion were not such a big elephant in the room in America.

    They are, in effect, trying to carve out a space for religious believers, and in the process end up defending some views that appear to be perfectly inconsequential to anyone but those religious folks who sort of want to have their rational cake and eat it too.

  66. […] Rosenhouse makes a similar point in his post about NM1.  So perhaps this is an example of where the way philosophers think about science is different […]

  67. #67 JollyRancher
    August 26, 2012

    Jason Rosenhouse-

    Since I can see you are done for now, let me just say a little in final a reply to your last response.

    I don’t disagree with it. My point is precisely that the boundaries between the two disciplies, like many others in the intellectual quest to understand, often blur together, and that sometimes it will be vital for people to think in one mode or another, depending on the problems at hand, and sometimes not; instead, they will diverge.

    Scientists have every right, and I would say, every reason, to care and contribute to such issues as you have mentioned. It’s just that they need to get used to expanding their toolset(in the sense of being willing to critically examine some of the assumptions they make when simply trying to get through day to day stuff) to discuss these types of questions, because it is NOT the same as doing day to day science, whether or not science has anything to SAY at all about such issues, which it usually does.

    Nor do I think consuming vast amounts of esoteric philosophy is a prerequisite for intelligent discussion or input from scientists(or anyone else for that matter) on probably most such questions. Of course a general understanding of the intellectual history of an issue would be nice, but I’m inclined to think that a considerable amount of academic philosophy (in terms of actual published papers) is largely unnecessary when it comes to actually understanding what any particular issue is all about, since many are simply arguments for what can seem at times to be frustratingly interminable debates that go nowhere.

    In fact, it would probably be more profitable to simply familiarize oneself with the questions, and just well, gain a an appreciation for the complexity of the issue to immunize oneself against giving facile answers to difficult questions because one has failed to be properly self-critical about one’s own philisophical presuppositions, which seems to me to be what a lot of philosophy is about.

    Anyway, thanks for the conversation, and have a good semester.
    Cheers

  68. #68 couchloc
    August 27, 2012

    Let me just make a few remarks in closing. Much of this has been covered in JollyRancher’s comments above, which I largely agree with.

    Let me get out of the way our discussion about the different interpretations. I still think you are failing to understand the problem with instrumentalism. You keep making the point that under all three interpretations “my behavior will be the same as a realist.” If you are simply saying that, epistemically speaking, an individual only has his experiences to go on in any situation, then I agree the interpretations are on a par. But this is different from saying that all three interpretations have the same implications for our behavior. If I knowingly believe that terms for unobservables are merely instruments (“fictions”) I will not take the same attitude towards them as a realist, and this difference in attitude will affect my behavior in *other* situations. If you doubt this, trying pretending for a while that your wife’s love for you isn’t real but merely an “instrument” for predicting her behavior. In some sense your love for her is contingent on the fact that you believe she truly loves you, and not merely that this belief is useful. All of this is independent of your (correct) observation that the concept of “ultimate reality” is problematic.

    Aside from this, I’ve already noted many philosophers would accept that your interpretation (c) is not very distinct from realism itself. While I think this is probably correct, I would suggest that the broader context of the debate is the answer to your motivational mystery. JollyRancher has made several points in this vein. The history of the issue comes from views scientists offered themselves. Each of the views is taken from scientists and developed in the context of philosophical discussion. The debate today is quite different from where it was in previous periods, when many scientists and philosophers were strict antirealists of various stripes (cf. logical positivism). This has largely changed and many people today have taken a more ecumenical realism-cum-agnosticism view. These changes need to be considered carefully to be sure we understand their implications.

    Finally, you’re not alone in thinking that some areas of philosophy are unhelpful or whatever. Many philosophers also have been ambivalent about parts of field. Maybe as an outsider you look at the debate about realism and antirealism and you see it as a fruitless debate, and maybe it is. But the history of philosophy shows that many problems that seem “obvious” and call for “knee-jerk reactions” are problematic in extremely subtle ways that nobody sees at first (not unlike the history of mathematics, I presume). So philosophers have developed the somewhat tedious habit of being excessively cautious about the issues they examine. I don’t doubt that the pace can be rather frustrating at times and look like “debating the obvious,” but this approach has served us well. The history of philosophy is filled with smart people being seduced by subtle mistakes, and going slow helps.

  69. #69 Wow
    August 28, 2012

    “But this is different from saying that all three interpretations have the same implications for our behavior. ”

    Yes it is.

    “If I knowingly believe that terms for unobservables are merely instruments (“fictions”) I will not take the same attitude towards them as a realist”

    Then that is YOUR issue, not another realists’ issue.

  70. #70 Dan L.
    August 28, 2012

    @Neil Rickert:

    I find it quite puzzling that many philosophers seem to think that Bayesian inference can explain science. It ought to be obvious that it cannot.

    Popperian falsificationism is a special case of Bayes’ theorem. Another way to look at it is that Bayes’ theorem is Popperian falsificationism generalized over all values between 0 and 1 (whereas falsificationism only applies to 0). This is why a lot of people believe (I think correctly) that it can “explain science” — it does so significantly better than the gnu atheists’ favorite philosopher of science.

    Some people are Bayes zealots, but since Bayes’ theorem really is that cool I don’t see this as a huge problem. Richard Carrier has some great stuff on using it in historical research. You should check it out — dismissing it just because some people seem a little too excited about it isn’t exactly skeptical.

  71. #71 Wow
    August 28, 2012

    ” This is why a lot of people believe (I think correctly) that it can “explain science””

    Maybe the problem here is the same as in AGW when it is said by non scientists (or scientists, though they explain exactly what) say “the science is settled”.

    Those who wish to find fault see this as “There is nothing else to investigate because everything is known and there are no errors”. Those who are listening hear it as “there’s no real debate whether it’s correct or not”.

    Similarly here, “explain science” I read as “it does a good job explaining science where appliccable”. Those wishing to find fault will see it as “there is nothing else needed to explain any and all science other than this”.

    Explain what you mean by “explain science” and maybe some of the argument will evaporate in consillience.

  72. #72 Dan L.
    August 28, 2012

    @Wow:

    I think you’re probably right.

    Explain what you mean by “explain science” and maybe some of the argument will evaporate in consillience.

    By “explain science” I mean “explain why scientific methodology tends to converge on explanations that are more precise and accurate than previous explanations”. Bayes’ theorem is one (really good) way to quantify the scientific method.

    It certainly doesn’t explain why the universe is the way it is, i.e. it’s not sufficient for deriving scientific theories. But we always have “entropy-exporting autocatalytic processes” for that.

  73. #73 Wow
    August 28, 2012

    “It certainly doesn’t explain why the universe is the way it is…. But we always have “entropy-exporting autocatalytic processes” for that.”

    Oh dear, Dannie boy.

    No, we have entropy exporting autocatalytic processes as defining life. Not for explaining the NON LIVING universe’s evolution.

  74. #74 Dan L.
    August 28, 2012

    @Wow:

    No, we have entropy exporting autocatalytic processes as defining life. Not for explaining the NON LIVING universe’s evolution.

    Inconsistent with your rhetoric the last time we talked about this. But you’re incapable of serious discussion so let’s leave it at that.

  75. #75 Wow
    August 28, 2012

    No, it isn’t.

    Then again, why should I be suprised at your historical revisionism?

  76. #76 Dan L.
    August 29, 2012

    @Wow:

    You seriously seem to have some rage issues. I’m not kidding or being cute or trying to insult you when I say: try therapy.

  77. #77 Wow
    August 29, 2012

    What on earth are you on about?

    ” “No, we have entropy exporting autocatalytic processes as defining life. Not for explaining the NON LIVING universe’s evolution.”

    Inconsistent with your rhetoric the last time we talked about this”

    This is a complete and utter fabrication. Blaise use that as the definition of life. I agreed with him. You asserted this was wordsalad.

    HOW ON EARTH did you manage to engage in such a whopping lie with a straight face?

  78. #78 Wow
    August 29, 2012

    (looks like it was MNb rather than Blaise)

    http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2012/08/01/the-only-reasonable-reply-to-the-problem-of-evil/

    Dan L.
    August 13, 2:10 pm

    @Mnb:

    Let’s take a step back. I provided a list of what I called “mysteries” associated with a naturalistic worldview. Blaine seemed to think that all of these “mysteries” had been solved simply by nothing that we are “products of an entropy-exporting autocatalytic process” or something like that.

    Explain to me how that resolves any of the “mysteries” — or ‘unsolved problems” if you prefer. If you can’t then I think we can put that argument to bed.

  79. #79 Wow
    August 29, 2012

    Blaine. Gaah.

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