Scientific realism is a positive epistemic attitude toward the content of . be more inclined to commit (Musgrave ; Lipton ; Leplin ;. Buy Scientific Realism (Campus) on ✓ FREE SHIPPING on qualified orders. Scientific realism is the view that the universe described by science is real regardless of how it . “A Confutation of Convergent Realism” Philosophy of Science; Leplin, Jarrett. (). Scientific Realism. California: University of California Press.

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Debates about scientific realism are closely 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 toward 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.

This article explains what scientific realism is, outlines its main variants, considers the most common arguments for and against realidm position, and contrasts it with its most important antirealist counterparts. It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to say that scientific realism is characterized differently by every author who discusses it, and this presents a challenge to anyone hoping to learn what it is. Fortunately, underlying the ldplin idiosyncratic qualifications and variants of the position, there is a common core of ideas, typified by an epistemically positive attitude toward the outputs of scientific investigation, regarding both observable and unobservable aspects of the world.

The distinction here between the observable and the unobservable reflects human sensory capabilities: This is to privilege vision merely for terminological convenience, and differs from scientific conceptions of observability, which generally extend to things lrplin are detectable using instruments Shapere realidm Turner regarding the distant past.

If it is problematic, this is arguably a concern primarily for certain forms of antirealism, which adopt an epistemically positive attitude only with respect to the observable. It is not ultimately a concern for scientific realism, which does not discriminate epistemically between observables and unobservables per se. Before considering the nuances of what scientific realism entails, it is useful to distinguish between two different kinds of definition in this context.

Most commonly, the position is described in terms of the epistemic achievements constituted by scientific theories and models—this qualification will be taken as given henceforth. On this approach, scientific realism is a position concerning the actual epistemic status of theories or some components thereofand this is described in a number of ways.

For example, most people define scientific realism in terms of the truth or approximate truth of scientific theories or certain aspects of theories.

Some define it in terms of the successful reference of theoretical terms to things in the world, both observable and unobservable.

A note about the literature: Others define scientific realism not in terms of truth or reference, but in terms of belief in the ontology of scientific theories.

What all of these approaches have in common is a lepliin to the idea that our best theories have a certain epistemic status: For definitions along these lines, see Smart ; Boyd ; Devitt ; Kukla ; Niiniluoto ; Psillos ; and Chakravartty a.

Another way to think about scientific realism is in terms of the epistemic aims of scientific inquiry van Fraassen That is, some think of the position in terms of what science aims to do: There is a weak implication here to the effect that if science aims at truth, and scientific practice is at all successful, the characterization of scientific realism in terms of aim may then entail some form of characterization in terms of achievement.

But this is not a strict implication, since defining scientific realism in terms of aiming at truth does not, strictly speaking, suggest anything about the success of scientific practice in this regard.

For this reason, some take the aspirational characterization of scientific realism to be too weak Kitcher Most scientific realists commit to something more in terms of achievement, and this is assumed in what follows.

The description of scientific realism as a positive epistemic attitude toward theories, including parts putatively concerning the unobservable, is a kind of shorthand for more precise commitments Kukla Traditionally, realism more generally is associated with any position that endorses belief in the reality of something.

But what, more precisely, is that? In order to be clear about what realism in the context of the sciences amounts to, and to differentiate it from some important antirealist alternatives, it is useful to understand it in terms of three dimensions: Metaphysically, realism is committed to the mind-independent existence of the world investigated by the sciences.

This idea is best clarified in contrast with positions that deny it. This sort of idealism, however, though historically important, is rarely encountered in contemporary philosophy of science. More common rejections of mind-independence stem from neo-Kantian views of the nature of scientific knowledge, which deny that the world of our experience is mind-independent, even if in some cases these positions accept that the world in itself does not depend on the existence of minds.


It is important to note in this connection that human convention in scientific taxonomy is compatible with mind-independence. For example, though Psillos Semantically, realism is committed to a literal interpretation of scientific claims about the world.

Traditionally, instrumentalism holds that claims about unobservable things have no literal meaning at all though the term is often used more liberally in connection with some antirealist positions today.

Some antirealists contend that claims involving unobservables should not be interpreted literally, but as elliptical for corresponding claims lellin observables. These positions are described in more detail in section 4. Epistemologically, realism is committed to the idea that theoretical claims interpreted literally as describing a mind-independent reality constitute knowledge of the scientiric.

This contrasts with skeptical positions which, even if they grant the metaphysical and semantic dimensions of realism, doubt that scientific investigation is epistemologically powerful enough to yield such knowledge, or, as in the case of some antirealist positions, insist that it is only powerful enough to yield knowledge regarding observables.

The epistemological dimension of scientiifc, though shared by realists generally, is sometimes described more specifically in contrary ways. For example, while many realists subscribe to the truth or approximate truth of theories understood in terms of some version of the correspondence theory of truth as suggested lepiln Fine a and contested by Ellissome prefer a truthmaker account Asay or a deflationary account of truth Giere Amidst these differences, however, a general recipe for realism is widely shared: The general recipe for realism just described is accurate so far as it goes, but still falls short of the degree of precision offered by most realists.

The motivation for these qualifications is perhaps clear.

If one is to defend a positive epistemic attitude regarding scientific theories, it is presumably sensible to do so not merely in connection with any theory especially when one considers that, over the long history of the sciences up to the present, some theories were not or are not especially successfulbut rather with respect to theories or aspects of theories, as we will see momentarily that would appear, prima facieto merit such a defense, viz. The challenge of making these qualifications more precise, however, is significant, and has generated much discussion.

Consider first the issue of how best to identify those theories that realists should be realists about. A general disclaimer is in order here: These grounds are bolstered by restricting the domain of theories suitable for realist commitment to those that are sufficiently mature and non- ad hoc Worrall On these construals, however, both the notion of maturity and the notion of being non- ad hoc are admittedly vague.

One strategy for adding precision here is to attribute these qualities to theories that make successful, novel predictions. Talk of approximate truth is often invoked rdalism this context and has produced a significant amount of often highly technical work, conceptualizing the approximation of truth as something that can be quantified, such that judgments of relative approximate truth of one proposition or theory in comparison relaism another can be formalized and given precise definitions.

This work provides one possible means by which to consider the convergentist claim that theories can be viewed as increasingly approximately true over time, and this possibility is further considered in section 3.

A final and especially important qualification to the general recipe for realism leplij above comes in the form of a number of variations. These species of generic realism can be viewed as falling into three families or camps: There is a shared principle of speciation here, in that all three approaches are attempts to identify more specifically the component parts of scientific theories that are most worthy of epistemic commitment.

Explanationism recommends realist commitment with respect to those parts of our best theories—regarding unobservable entities, laws, etc. Entity realism is the view that under conditions in which scisntific can demonstrate impressive causal knowledge of a putative unobservable scienific, such as knowledge that facilitates the manipulation of the entity and its use so as to intervene in other phenomena, one has good reason for realism regarding it. Structural realism is the view that one should be a realist, not in connection with descriptions of the natures of things like unobservable entities found in our best theories, but rather with respect to their structure.

All three of these positions adopt a strategy of selectivity, and this and the positions themselves are considered further in section 2. Arguably, the fact that realists have endeavored to qualify their view and propose variations of it, as described above, suggests a collective moral: Adopting a realist attitude toward the content of scientific theories does not entail that one believes all such content, but rather that one believes those aspects, including unobservable aspects, regarding which one takes such belief to be warranted, thus indicating a realism about those things more specifically.


The argument begins with the widely accepted premise that our best theories are extraordinarily successful: What explains this success? One explanation, favored by realists, is that our best theories are true or approximately true, or correctly describe realiwm mind-independent world of entities, laws, etc.

Scientific realism

Indeed, if these theories were far from the truth, so the argument goes, the fact that they are so successful would be miraculous.

And given the choice between a straightforward explanation of success and a miraculous explanation, clearly one should prefer the non-miraculous explanation, viz. For elaborations of the miracle argument, see J. Realisj ; Boyd ; Lipton ; Psillos Though intuitively powerful, the miracle argument is contestable in a number of ways.

One skeptical response is to question the very need for an explanation of the success of science in the first place. For example, van Fraassen It is not entirely clear, however, whether the evolutionary analogy is sufficient to dissolve the intuition behind the miracle argument.

A Novel Defense of Scientific Realism – Jarrett Leplin – Oxford University Press

One might wonder, for instance, eralism a particular theory is successful as opposed to why theories in general are successfuland the explanation sought may turn on specific features of the theory itself, including its descriptions of unobservables.

Whether such explanations need be true, though, is a matter of debate. While most theories of explanation require that the explanans be true, pragmatic theories of explanation do not van Fraassen More generally, any epistemology of science that does not accept one or more of the three dimensions of realism—commitment to a mind-independent world, literal semantics, and epistemic access to unobservables—will thereby present a putative reason for resisting the miracle argument.

These positions are considered in section 4. Some authors contend that the miracle argument is, in fact, an instance of fallacious reasoning called the base rate fallacy Howson Consider the following illustration. If one tests positive, what are the chances that one has the disease? The lower csientific incidence of the disease at large, the lower the probability that a positive result signals the presence of the disease.

Scientific Realism

By analogy, using the success of a scientific theory as an indicator of its approximate truth assuming a low rate of false positives—cases in which theories far from the truth are nonetheless successful is arguably, likewise, an instance of the base rate fallacy.

The success of a theory does not by itself suggest that it is likely approximately true, and since there is no independent way of knowing the base rate of approximately true theories, the chances of it being approximately true cannot be assessed.

Worrall unpublished, Other Internet Resources maintains that these contentions are ineffective against the miracle argument because they crucially depend on a misleading formalization of it in terms of probabilities cf. Menke ; for a criticism of the miracle argument based on a different probabilistic framing in terms of likelihoods, see Sober If an unobservable entity is putatively capable of being detected by means of a scientific instrument or experiment, reqlism may well form the basis of lepin defeasible argument for realism concerning it.

If, however, that same entity is putatively capable of being detected by not just one, but rather two or more different means of detection—forms of detection that are distinct with respect to the apparatuses they employ and the causal mechanisms and processes they are described as exploiting in the course of detection—this may serve as the basis of a significantly enhanced argument for realism cf.

Different techniques of detection, such as those employed in light microscopy and transmission electron microscopy, make use of very different sorts of physical processes, and these operations are described theoretically in terms of correspondingly different causal mechanisms. For similar examples, see Salmon The argument from corroboration thus runs as follows. The fact that one and the same thing is apparently revealed by distinct modes of detection suggests sciebtific it would be an extraordinary coincidence if the supposed target of these revelations did not, in fact, exist.

The greater the extent to which detections can be corroborated by different means, the stronger the argument for realism regarding their putative target.

The argument here can be viewed as resting on an intuition similar to that underlying the miracle argument: The idea that techniques of putative detection are often constructed or calibrated precisely with the intention of reproducing the outputs of others, however, may stand against the realsim from corroboration.

Additionally, van Fraassen