Keyword Forum 3


Laudan, in his contestation of the major tenets of scientific realism, uses the term ‘successful’ relatively freely. He ties the successfulness of scientific theories to both the ability to refer to reality and a theory’s ability to resemble approximate truths. He also seems to suggest that what makes scientific theory successful is their frequency of use (1118), pointing to both Newtonian physics and wave optics as not having clear references, but none-the-less ‘successful.’ With a more pragmatic analysis Laudan claims that “a theory is successful if it makes substantially correct predictions, if it leads to efficacious interventions in the natural order, if it passes a battery of standard tests (1112).”

This definition obviously comes with its own problems. Firstly, it is hard to know if a theory adequately makes a predictions, it’s hard to make conjectures of the future in the present. Second, what it means to have make efficacious interventions in the natural order is unclear. Does this mean to have influence on how people communicate about science? Does it have to have an understood reference, even if it is not tied to truth in any universal way? It’s hard to tell what these interventions would look like. Lastly, the standard tests that scientific theories would have to stand up against in order to be deemed successful are established (and presumably changed) by institutions and/or norms in recognized fields and disciplines. This must be an example of what is previously mentioned (i.e. Newtonian Physics).

If the scientific community accepts and uses the theory, it must have been put up to rigorous testing. But, ironically, this very premise is what Laudan denies of scientific realists—highlighting that they deny themselves the opportunity to intentionally challenge scientific realism. He points to the fear of finding out something that we may not like about our truths. Can we blame these practitioners and scholars, or is their fear and inability to question this foundational belief yet another characteristic of a theory being successful?

n. The use of a source of information in order to ascertain something. (English Oxford Dictionary)

Reference is a position for the empirical argument for realism. Reference can be applied within theories of mature science in regards to observational and theoretical positions. In the text, the term “reference” is used in the empirical argument for realism. This use of reference was primarily developed by Putnam and he is noted to refer to reference more than other philosophers of the realist’s stance. Though Putnam refers to reference directly, this is not the case for most realists (p. 1111). For the sake of this article, Laudan discusses the use of reference in regards to arguing the “success” of science and how reference is not the ideal approach in declaring the success of science.
Laudan’s arugment is as follows: (1) A genuinely referential theory does not need to be successful, for a theory may actually be massively false (p 1113). (2) Reference may be viewed and used to a liberal fashion. This may be the case when the positions of the theory are genuinely used to reference though the claims of a said theory upon the entities of the reference are actually false (p1112). (3) Realists expect referring theories to be empirically successful. However, the theories of reference may themselves be false, thus the scientific theory would be false. (3) The complexity of language opposes referring scientific theories of success because that language can be used for negation (p 1113). (4) Reference can ride the coattails of approximate truth because it can be true or even nearly true of the terms of reference (p. 1114). (5) Lastly, per Laudan, many successful theories are non-referring (p 1117).

Please refer to the readings assigned for 17 October.

Approximate Truth

While approximate truth has not been clearly defined, it can be conceptualized as a measure of a theory’s empirical success. If a theory is the first in a series of progressively more successful theories then it is reasonable to make the inference that the theory or observation in question is approximately true. Subsequent theories are more precise approximations of the truth but also serve the function of preserving the logical relations inherent in the first theory.

One main anti-realist critique of approximate truth is that the reality or veridicality of unobservable objects cannot be reasonably inferred by a scientific theory, based simply on its empirical success. In addition to this, Lauden does not think that the approximate truth is a useful concept, partially because it has yet to be clearly defined. Although, he does acknowledge the success of science, in that it has given us the ability to predict and manipulate nature.
(p 1117-1119)

Lauden also provides examples in which valid inferences do not guarantee the truth of their conclusions—such is the case with the theory of Phlogiston and Ether. This is an attempt to undermine the concept of approximate truth, by highlighting the discontinuity and forfeiture of once important entities in scientific explanations of natural phenomena. (p 1120)

Although it is not clear that the examples provided by Lauden are representative of how science is currently practiced. The examples he provides are centuries old and have long been determined to be non-existent. While current scientific theories may change conceptually, there appears to be is a steady accumulation of attributes assigned to the objects/entities we currently study. While it is true we are less certain about the position of an electron at any given time, it is only because we have expanded the set of attributes we ascribe to electrons, namely, quantum numbers and electron configurations.

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