Intro to Philosophy – Week 6 – Are Scientific Theories True?

  • this module was not what I expected – I was expecting to learn about the philosophy of science (e.g., positivism, post-positivism, etc.), but instead the whole module was about the debate between scientific realism vs. scientific anti-realism – a debate about the aims of science (rather than a debate on a specific scientific topic)
  • two main aims of science seem to be:
    • science should be accurate and provide us with a good description and analysis of the available experimental evidence in a given field of inquiry. We want “scientific theories to save the phenomenon”
    • science is not just about providing an accurate account of the available experimental evidence  and to save the phenomena, but to “tell us a story about those phenomena, how they came about , what sort of mechanisms are involved in the product of the experimental evidence, etc.
    • [I don’t fully understand what “save the phenomena” means – the instructor in the lecture just says it like we should understand it. Some further elaboration was given in the elaboration on the quiz that appeared in the first lecture, where the course instructor wrote that “saving the phenomena” is also known as “saving the appearances”: providing a good analysis of scientific phenomena as they appear to us, without any commitment to the truth of what brings about those phenomena or appearances” ]
  • Ptolemic astronomers described the motion of planets as being along small circles that were rotating along larger circles; they didn’t necessarily believe this to be what was actually happening, but rather it was a mathematical contrivance that “saved the phenomena” – that is, as long as the calculations agree with observations, it didn’t matter if they were true (or even likely)
  • Galileo, however, “replaced the view that science has to save the appearances, with the view that science should in fact tell us a true story about nature”
  • scientific realism: = “view that scientific theories once literally construed, aims to give us a literally true story of the way the world is.”
    • a semantic aspect to this idea: “once literally construed” means that “we should assume that the terms of our theory have referents in the external world” (e.g., planets are planets. Electrons are electrons.)
    • an epistemic aspect to this idea: “literally true story” – “we should believe that our best scientific theories are true, namely that whatever they say about the world, or better about those objects which are the referents of their terms, is true, or at least approximately true”
  • the “No Miracles Argument” suggests that unless we believe that scientific theories are at least approximately true, the success” of science at “making predictions later confirmed by observation, explaining phenomena, etc.” would be very unlikely
  • constructive empiricism” agrees with the semantic aspect of scientific realism (i.e., we should take the language of science at face value), but disagrees with scientific realism with the epistemic aspect (i.e., it thinks that a theory does not need to be good to be true). They think “Models must only be adequate to the observable phenomena, they are useful tools to get calculations done, but they do not deliver any truth about the unobservable entities” (e.g., atoms, protons, etc. that we cannot observe with the naked eye) – so the theory does not need to be “true” – it just needs to be “empirically adequate”. They think that science is successful because the theories that survive turned out to be the “fittest” (survival of the fittest) – the ones that best “saved the phenomena” over time.
  • Constructive empiricists view the “metaphysical commitment” necessary for scientific realism to be “risky”. If we discover later that something in our theory was non-existent, it would make scientific realism wrong, but not constructive empiricism.
  • The scientific realist would counter that the theories that survive do so because they are true (and those that fail do so because they are false).
  • Another issue is the distinction between observed vs. unobserved. E.g., observing with the “naked eye” and observing with scientific instruments. Why should we believe one more than the other?
  •  Philip Kitcher and Peter Lipton say that “we are justified to believe in atoms, electrons, DNA and other unobservable entities because the inferential path that leads to such entities is not different from the inferential path that leads to unobserved observables”
  • e.g., we know about dinosaurs from fossil evidence – we didn’t observe the dinosaurs ourselves, but can infer from the fossils. Similarly, we can infer Higgs Bosons from the evidence we get from the Large Hadron Collider.
  • “inference to the best explanation” = “we infer the hypothesis which would, if true, provide the best explanation of the available evidence”
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