Realism and anti-realism

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The debate between realism and anti-realism is, at least, a century old. Does Science describe the real world – or are its theories true only within a certain conceptual framework? Is science only instrumental or empirically adequate or is there more to it than that? Jose Ortega y Gasset said (in an unrelated exchange) that all ideas stem from pre-rational beliefs. William James concurred by saying that accepting a truth often requires an act of will which goes beyond facts and into the realm of feelings. Maybe so, but is there is little doubt today that beliefs are somehow involved in the formation of many scientific ideas, if not of the very endeavour of Science. After all, Science is a human activity and humans always believe that things exist (=are true) or could be true.

A distinction is traditionally made between believing in something’s existence, truth, value of appropriateness (this is the way that it ought to be) – and believing that something. The latter is a propositional attitude: we think that something, we wish that something, we feel that something and we believe that something. Believing in A and believing that A - are different.
It is reasonable to assume that belief is a limited affair. Few of us would tend to believe in contradictions and falsehoods. Catholic theologians talk about explicit belief (in something which is known to the believer to be true) versus implicit one (in the known consequences of something whose truth cannot be known). Truly, we believe in the probability of something (we, thus, express an opinion) – or in its certain existence (truth).
All humans believe in the existence of connections or relationships between things. This is not something which can be proven or proven false (to use Popper’s test). That things consistently follow each other does not prove they are related in any objective, “real”, manner – except in our minds. This belief in some order (if we define order as permanent relations between separate physical or abstract entities) permeates both Science and Superstition. They both believe that there must be – and is – a connection between things out there.

Science limits itself and believes that only certain entities inter-relate within well defined conceptual frames (called theories). Not everything has the potential to connect to everything else. Entities are discriminated, differentiated, classified and assimilated in worldviews in accordance with the types of connections that they forge with each other. Moreover, Science believes that it has a set of very effective tools to diagnose, distinguish, observe and describe these relationships. It proves its point by issuing highly accurate predictions based on the relationships discerned through the use of said tools.

Science (mostly) claims that these connections are “true” in the sense that they are certain – not probable. The cycle of formulation, prediction and falsification (or proof) is the core of the human scientific activity. Alleged connections that cannot be captured in these nets of reasoning are cast out either as “hypothetical” or as “false”. In other words : Science defines “relations between entities” as “relations between entities which have been established and tested using the scientific apparatus and arsenal of tools”. This, admittedly, is a very cyclical argument, as close to tautology as it gets.
Superstition is a much simpler matter: everything is connected to everything in ways unbeknown to us. We can only witness the results of these subterranean currents and deduce the existence of such currents from the observable flotsam. The planets influence our lives, dry coffee sediments contain information about the future, black cats portend disasters, certain dates are propitious, certain numbers are to be avoided. The world is unsafe because it can never be fathomed. But the fact that we – limited as we are – cannot learn about a hidden connection – should not imply that it does not exist.

Science believes in two categories of relationships between entities (physical and abstract alike). The one is the category of direct links – the other that of links through a third entity. In the first case, A and B are seen to be directly related. In the second case, there is no apparent link between A and B, but a third entity, C could well provide such a connection (for instance, if A and B are parts of C or are separately, but concurrently somehow influenced by it).
Each of these two categories is divided to three subcategories : causal relationships, functional relationships and correlative relationship


  © Blogger templates Newspaper by 2008

Back to TOP