Thursday, February 12, 2015

Scientific realism and anti-realism

[J.P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 172]

The debate over scientific realism and anti-realism deals with the nature of scientific statements and entities. The question is NOT: Are things described using scientific theories true (which is Vern Poythress' misunderstanding of scientific realism)? Rather, are the theories objectively true, and do entities such as "[electrical] current," "light waves" and other such entities ontologically exist, or rather that such [theoretical] entities are short-hand for a complex relationship between actual physical entities (for example, density describes the relation between the mass of an object and its volume, and is not a distinct ontologically entity by itself).

When the question is correctly phrased, the whole idea of the reality of this world and its general law-like structure has little if anything to do with the question of scientific realism/ anti-realism. The alternate rational nonrealist view, Instrumentalism, claims merely that science "works." In other words, we do not claim that scientific theories/ laws and entities actually exist, but rather that they work, in that "they are successful in accomplishing the purpose for which they were formulated" (Ibid., 172). I would regard myself as a Pragmatist, and thus science is successful in solving puzzles. Scientific theories are "true" in the sense that they adequately solve the puzzles we want to solve, and so help us in conjuring up an adequate (for our purposes) understanding of how things work. "Truth" in science is thus a function of usefulness of description, not a function of true truth.

It may be objected that something which works must have some relation with the way the world does in fact operate. And I do not see why we should dispute that. But the question is not whether there is some relationship with the way the world actually works, but whether we can know what that relation actually is. Scientific theories and entities are functional analogues, and that is the most we can say. The history of science is filled with competing and rejected scientific paradigms, and some of these worked very well for its time (e.g. Ptolemaic cosmology), so therefore we cannot claim ours is the final perfect truth of the world. We see in the law-like structure of science an analogy of God's law in General Revelation, not THE law(s) of General Revelation.

Philosophizing about science is second-order thinking. Or rather, since General Revelation is primary, science is the study of General Revelation, which makes it second order, philosophizing about science is third-order thinking. Christianity does not therefore mandate we take either the realist or anti-realist position, contra Poythress. Rather, through common philosophizing about the nature of science, it seems that the anti-realist, instrumentalist and pragmatist view of science is the best option for understanding science.

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