Question Forum 3

Please refer to the readings assigned for readings assigned for 17 October

1. What do convergent realists believe to be reasons for why convergent realism is true? What does their argument look like? Is it deductive, inferential or abductive in nature?

2. What would the convergent realist say is the relationship between approximately true theories and real objects?

3. On page 1110, Laudan presents two arguments and argues that he will “raise” doubts about both. After reading the article, do you think Laudan was successful in doing so? Explain.

4. Laudan states in the beginning of the reading that there are potential hazards as well as advantages associated with the ‘scientizing’ of epistemology (p 1108). From the reading or from other sources, list and discuss these potential advantages and hazards.

5. Laudan seems to think that without scientific realism, science is nothing short of miraculous. After he ‘debunks’ common tenets of scientific realism, what are we to do with the miraculous aspects of science? Can we intuit an alternative? Are we okay with admitting to glorifying (studying) a miraculous institution?

6. What would a more frequent acceptance of scientific realism among scholars do to the field of STS? How would it change the questions that the field asks? What would it do the accounts that we choose to privilege (think last week’s class discussion)?

Kian's answer to Question 1:

According to Laudan, realists want to explain why science in general has worked so well (1113). In other words, a realist’s concern is to explain why scientific theories have enjoyed success. Convergent realists claim that: 1) scientific theories are approximately true, and that newer scientific theories are increasing approximations to the truth, 2) the theoretical terms within the theories of a mature science refer to real and observed entities, 3) in mature science, earlier theories will be related to, and be the ‘limiting cases’ of successive and later theories, 4) new theories that are accepted and successful should be able to also explain the success of the theories that come before it, and 5) claims 1 to 4 show why scientific theories are successful, and these claims are the best explanation for the success in science (Laudan, 1109-1110). To convergent realists, their theses are confirmed by “the success of science”, and non-realist views are invalidated due to their “inability to explain both the success of current theories and the progress which science historically exhibits” (Laudan, 1111).

How then is ‘success’ defined? Laudan says convergent realists provide little information about what ‘success’ amounts to, and the success of certain sciences is understood as a given. Laudan thinks that to convergent realists, a scientific theory is considered a ‘success’ if it has “functioned in a variety of explanatory contexts,” and has “led to confirmed predictions and has been of broad explanatory scope” (1112).

Realists generally argue that a scientific theory is success simply because it is true. To prove their claim, convergent realists use two elaborate abductive* arguments expressed in the following:

To prove claims 1) and 2),
If a scientific theory is approximately true, it will normally be successful;
A scientific theory is normally successful if the observational and theoretical terms in it refer to real entities;
Scientific theories are empirically successful;
Hence, it can be concluded from the above inferences that scientific theories are approximately true and their observational and theoretical terms refer.

To prove claim 3),
If earlier scientific theories in a ‘mature’ science is approximately true and if the their central terms refer to real entities, the theories can be preserved and be a ‘limiting case’ for later successful theories within the same science;
Scientists seek to preserve earlier theories as limiting cases and succeed in doing so;
Hence, it can be concluded that earlier theories in a ‘mature’ science are approximately true and can be referred to real entities.

*An abductive argument begins with an observation and proceeds to the most likely or best theory to explain the observation.

Roger B answers
Question 3:
“A Confutation of Convergent Realism” is a heavy exercise in definitions that make it a difficult read for this novice. In direct answer to the question which accepts that two arguments are presented, it seems that the statements in the arguments are simply a continuation from one to another. The break point that produces two arguments seems to be “mature” science, but what is mature science is presented as somewhat of an arbitrary distinction that then loops back around into the domain of definitions. As I read and then reread the Laudan piece and attempted to understand “convergent epistemological realism” I didn’t find any compelling doubts raised regarding his page 1110 arguments. The piece does a wonderful job of furthering the definition of “the success of science”. In fact, Laudan cautions “Nothing I have said here refutes the possibility in principle of a realistic epistemology of science.” (p1125)

Question 5
Regarding scientific realism vs a miraculous view of science: “The positive argument for realism is that it is the only philosophy that doesn’t make the success of science a miracle.” (H. Putnam, 1975, p1108). Laudan agrees but then drags scientific realism through some pretty tough knotholes before concluding that realism is likely correct. A wonderful supporting argument regarding the view of scientific realism seems to be the conclusion of van Fraassen” “Arguments Concerning Scientific Realism”. “In just the same way, I claim that the success of current scientific theories is no miracle. … any scientific theory is born into a life of fierce competitions, a jungle red in tooth and claw. Only the successful theories survive—the ones which in fact latched on to actual regularities in nature.” (p1080)

Question 6
Based on the class discussions of Oct 10, 2016, it seems that the field of STS is beginning to grapple with the sacred as part of the STS context. The miracle of human reason is an issue beginning to arise as are the ethics of science and technology. Scientific realism would be a supporting pillar to excursions into the above issues. The miracle is not the science, but rather the human endeavor that achieves it. Understanding human reason and the forces that shape it would seem to be issues that modern STS is beginning to deal with.

Question 3 - Amanda Phillips
Lauden’s argument in A Confutation of Convergent Realism draws from previous work in the history of science to demonstrate that arguments made by scientific realists fail to mesh with the historical record. When he seeks to ‘raise doubts’ about the assertions of realists he works to test temporally static claims with cases from history that seem to suggest otherwise. Later in this discussion I want to turn to the role of time in Lauden’s argument and how it might be considered amongst the claims of realists. But before doing so it is worth considering how historical evidence is used in the construction of arguments within this article.

In section three of the essay, Lauden argues against realist positioning that utilizes ‘reference’ as a measure of success or a verifiable mapping onto the world. For scholars such as Putnam (who Lauden takes to task in this essay) “reference can explain the success of science” (1117). Using Putnam’s work, Lauden understands reference as genuinely referring to phenomena in the world as it exists; yet still allowing for claims made about the referent to be false (1118). He points to examples from the history of science that shake this understanding of referent, demonstrating cases where theories that referred to genuinely existing entities failed to reach a empirically verifiable status. Thus reference fails to meet a standard of epistemological empiricism required to embrace a realist perspective regarding the success of science. Lauden makes a case that in privileging reference as a marker of scientific success there must be a corresponding record of this over time. The many instances of science behaving otherwise fail to substantiate the strong status of reference as explanatory.

I find Lauden’s argument a convincing one through its demonstration of historical scientific claims failing to meet the standards set out by realists. An argument privileging reference to genuinely true phenomena does little to account for failure, misinterpretation, or various historical contingencies. Yet I wonder if a realist epistemological perspective demands the inclusion of temporally bound evidence. Might the realist perspective; in attempting to make claims as to how science so successfully creates knowledge that maps onto the world, need to understand itself as future (or action oriented) rather than historically situated? This question is a bit unclear, and needs further clarification. Yet, I find the use of temporally situated evidence as the crux of this argument and I wonder the bearing this has on disciplinary claims within philosophy, which might draw from different sets (or frames) of evidence.

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