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Scientific realism is, at the most general level, the view that the world described by science (perhaps ideal science) is the real world, as it is, independent of what we might take it to be. Within philosophy of science, it is often framed as an answer to the question "how is the success of science to be explained?" The debate over what the success of science involves centers primarily on the status of unobservable entities apparently talked about by scientific theories. Generally, those who are scientific realists assert that one can make reliable claims about unobservables (viz., that they have the same ontological status) as observables, as opposed to instrumentalism.
Scientific realism involves two basic positions. First, it is a set of claims about the features of an ideal scientific theory; an ideal theory is the sort of theory science aims to produce. Second, it is the commitment that science will eventually produce theories very much like an ideal theory and that science has done pretty well thus far in some domains. It is important to note that one might be a scientific realist regarding some sciences while not being a realist regarding others. For example, one might hold realist attitudes toward physics, chemistry and biology, and not toward economics, psychology and sociology.
According to scientific realism, an ideal scientific theory has the following features:
Combining the first and the second claim entails that an ideal scientific theory says definite things about genuinely existing entities. The third claim says that we have reasons to believe that the things said about these entities are true.
Scientific realism usually holds that science makes progress, i.e. scientific theories usually get successively better, or, rather, answer more and more questions. For this reason, many people, scientific realist or otherwise, hold that realism should make sense of the progress of science in terms of theories being successively more like the ideal theory that scientific realists describe.
The following claims are typical of those held by scientific realists. Due to the wide disagreements over the nature of science's success and the role of realism in its success, a scientific realist would agree with some but not all of the following positions.
Scientific realism is related to much older philosophical positions including rationalism and realism. However, it is a thesis about science developed in the twentieth century. Portraying scientific realism in terms of its ancient, medieval, and early modern cousins is at best misleading.
Scientific realism is developed largely as a reaction to logical positivism. Logical positivism was the first philosophy of science in the twentieth century and the forerunner of scientific realism, holding that a sharp distinction can be drawn between observational terms and theoretical terms, the latter capable of semantic analysis in observational and logical terms.
Logical positivism encountered difficulties with:
These difficulties for logical positivism suggest, but do not entail, scientific realism, and lead to the development of realism as a philosophy of science.
Realism became the dominant philosophy of science after positivism. Bas van Fraassen developed constructive empiricism as an alternative to realism. Responses to van Fraassen have sharpened realist positions and lead to some revisions of scientific realism.
One of the main arguments for scientific realism centers on the notion that scientific knowledge is progressive in nature, and that it is able to predict phenomena successfully. Many realists (e.g., Ernan McMullin, Richard Boyd) think the operational success of a theory lends credence to the idea that its more unobservable aspects exist, because they were how the theory reasoned its predictions. For example, a scientific realist would argue that science must derive some ontological support for atoms from the outstanding phenomenological success of all the theories using them.
Arguments for scientific realism often appeal to abductive reasoning or "inference to the best explanation". Scientific realists point to the success of scientific theories in predicting and explaining a variety of phenomena, and argue that from this we can infer that our scientific theories (or at least the best ones) provide true descriptions of the world, or approximately so.
On the other hand, pessimistic induction, one of the main arguments against realism, argues that the history of science contains many theories once regarded as empirically successful but which are now believed to be false. Additionally, the history of science contains many empirically successful theories whose unobservable terms are not believed to genuinely refer. For example, the effluvial theory of static electricity is an empirically successful theory whose central unobservable terms have been replaced by later theories. Realists reply that replacement of particular realist theories with better ones is to be expected due to the progressive nature of scientific knowledge, and when such replacements occur only superfluous unobservables are dropped. For example, Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity showed that the concept of the luminiferous ether could be dropped because it had contributed nothing to the success of the theories of mechanics and electromagnetism. On the other hand, when theory replacement occurs, a well-supported concept, such as the concept of atoms, is not dropped but is incorporated into the new theory in some form.
Also against scientific realism social constructivists might argue that scientific realism is unable to account for the rapid change that occurs in scientific knowledge during periods of revolution. Constructivists may also argue that the success of theories is only a part of the construction. However, these arguments ignore the fact that many scientists are not realists. In fact, during what is perhaps the most notable example of revolution in science—the development of quantum mechanics in the 1920s—the dominant philosophy of science was logical positivism. The alternative realist Bohm interpretation and many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics do not make such a revolutionary break with the concepts of classical physics.
Another argument against scientific realism, deriving from the underdetermination problem, is not so historically motivated as these others. It claims that observational data can in principle be explained by multiple theories that are mutually incompatible. Realists might counter by saying that there have been few actual cases of underdetermination in the history of science. Usually the requirement of explaining the data is so exacting that scientists are lucky to find even one theory that fulfills it. Furthermore, if we take the underdetermination argument seriously, it implies that we can know about only what we have directly observed. For example, we could not theorize that dinosaurs once lived based on the fossil evidence because other theories (e.g., that the fossils are clever hoaxes) can account for the same data. Realists claim that, in addition to empirical adequacy, there are other criteria for theory choice, such as parsimony.
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