Scientific Realism

“Is it true that only Scientific Realism can adequately explain the (predictive) successes of scientific theories?”

Scientific realism is the philosophical view that science explains the real world as science describes it to be and that its laid out foundations are as science grasps them to be. Therefore, it believes that such theoretical objects as quarks and electrons are fully real constituents of nature’s real world. They are every part as real as acorns and grains of sand. The latter one sees with the naked eye, the former one understands through sophisticated theoretical triangulation. Nevertheless, a scientific realism of theoretical objects holds that this distinction is accidental. Theoretically, these unobservable entities exists exactly in the same manner in which the scientific theories that outline them maintain. On such a realistic view of scientific theorising, the discoveries of science are absolutely true generalisations about the actual properties of real physical objects which exists in nature.

However the question is, where one should look for such concrete knowledge? The best answer that one can provide is to claim that natural science is our most coherent way to objective reality. It could be said that this notion is the cornerstone of the doctrine of scientific realism. Therefore, advocates of this view argue that natural science puts forward true information about reality. Consequently, if one desires to study the world, then, he should refer to science.

It could be argued that such notion goes beyond a generalised metaphysical realism which disagrees with the theses that there is a mind-independent reality and that one is capable to know something about it. Scientific realism maintains that by applying to science one can, first, come to know a great deal about it, Second, that this knowledge relates not just to peripheral matters but to essentials. Finally, this information is provided only through science. It holds that science provides a rational account of the salient and fundamental properties of what objectively exists in the real-mind-independent world. Scientific theories, with respect to non-observable entities such as sub-atomic particles, electro-magnetic fields, etc characterise the actual properties of real things in the real world, things every bit as real as the animals, trees, mountains, etc that one experience with his own eyes.

Now one can ask that whether is this a coherent position? The answer could be that it is problematic. This is because the theoretical objects which are understood by current science will solely exist as current science maintains them if and only if current science is correct and this is true only if it is able to get things right. Similarly, the notion that current science has got it altogether right, without any doubt has its difficulties. This is due to changes in science that happen all the time not just with respect to accidentals yet even on very fundamental matters. With regards to this belief Rescher writes: “The history of science is the story of the replacement of one defective theory by another. So how can one plausibly maintain a scientific realism geared to the idea that “science correctly describes reality”?”[1]

Arguably, there are a number of challenges to scientific realism. Some of the crucial challenges are as follows: knowledge empiricism and the underdetermination argument, Thomas Kuhn’s contributions to the history of science, postmodernism objections such as social constructivism, van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism and the notion of instability of scientific discoveries.

The knowledge empiricism and the underdetermination argument claims that; imagine for two theories being empirically equivalent, in order to arrive at the same conclusions about observable phenomena which can be deduced from each, Let T stand for any theory which assumes an unseenable phenomena. There will be many theories which are empirically equivalent to T yet each is distinct from T, and from the other theories, in what it asserts about unobservable phenomena. Therefore, evidence in support of T’s notion of unobservable phenomena would have to overcome the ideas which are suggested by each of those other theories.

However, since T is equivalent to each of them empirically, they all suggest precisely the same predictions about the outcomes of the experiments. Consequently, no evidence could benefit one over the others. Thus, at the foremost, one can have evidence in support of what all these theories share with respect to their consequences about observables. One is capable to confirm that they are all empirically sufficient, nevertheless, one could not hold any evidence considering T’s conception of unobservable theoretical objects. Due to the fact that T was any theory about unobsevables, knowledge of unobservable phenomena is not possible. As a result, choice between attempting empirically equivalent notions of theoretical entities is weakened by all possible empirical evidence.

Another important challenge to scientific realism is Thomas Kuhn’s contributions to the history of science in his book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. Kuhn argues that the success of research in normal science is exemplified in an important matter since scientists have, due to their knowledge of the paradigmatic theory, a quasi-metaphysical understanding of the fundamental causal issues which are indicated in the fields that they study. Therefore, according to Kuhn, one judges the quality of a theory by comparing it to a paradigmatic theory. Consequently, the basis of assessment are not permanent and thus theory-independent rules. They are not rules since they consider apprehended relations of similarity. They are not theory-independent because they concern comparison to a paradigm theory. They are not everlasting because the paradigm may alter in a scientific revolution.

An example of this could be the transition from Newtonian mechanics to special relativity. Although this change might look as a textbook case of rational progression from one scientific theory to a more coherent one. However, Kuhn claims that no such progressive resemblance happened because Newtonian mechanics and relativity theory do not possess a common subject matter regarding the notion that the latter is a better approximation than the former. This is because, for example, the term ‘mass’ as it is seen in Newtonian mechanics does not suggest to the same degree as does the term ‘mass’ in relativistic mechanics since “Newtonian mass is conserved; Einsteinian is convertible with energy. Only at low relative velocities may the two be measured in the same way, and even then they must not be conceived to be the same.”[2]

In putting forward this powerful argument, Kuhn is following Carnap’s notion of the referential semantics of scientific terms. This view is a version of the basic empiricist descriptivist conception that the referent of a term is suggested by a description which composes the analytic definition of the term in question. Kuhn depends on the analytic definition of a scientific term which is given by the most fundamental laws possessing the term. Therefore, as the ‘mass’ example explains, any alteration in the fundamental laws concerning a scientific term must imply a change in referent.

Further challenge to scientific realism is the quantum superposition of conceptions of social construction. This philosophical view has three versions. Firstly, the Neo-Kantian social constructivism which argues that the adoption of a scientific paradigm successfully puts forward a quasi-metaphysical causal structure on the phenomena that scientists study. Secondly, science-as-social-process social constructivism, which suggests the production of scientific discoveries is a social process depending on the same types of influences such as cultural, economic, political, sociological etc has an impact on any other social criteria. Finally, debunking social constructivism which claims that the enquiries of sciences are concluded entirely, or in large amount, not by the facts yet by relations of social consequence within the scientific field and the larger community within which scientific research is carried out.

It is arguable that these three views are absolutely distinctive. For example, the Neo-Kantian and the debunking do not suggest the same thing. Similarly, the second version is adaptable with either the first or the third version or with basic logical empiricist and scientific realist conceptions. However, in science and other subjects which are influenced by postmodernism are inclined to merge.

Another powerful objection to scientific realism is Bas van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism. This argument could be found in his book ‘The Scientific Image’ (1980). He explains this notion in the following way: “Science aims to give us theories which are empirically adequate; and acceptance of a theory involves as belief only that it is empirically adequate.”[3] However, constructive empiricism argues that although science seeks the truth about observable features of the world, yet it does not inquire the truth about unobservable aspects. It could be said that approval of a theory according to constructive empiricism, identically is distinct from acknowledgement of a theory on the scientific realist belief. This is because that the constructive empiricist claims that, as long as belief is considered, acceptance of a scientific theory concerns solely the belief that the theory is empirically adequate.

van Fraassen by introducing constructive empiricism is largely acknowledged with restoring scientific anti-realism. There has been an antagonistic argument between the philosophers of science on the issue of whether constructive empiricism is true or false. Moreover, there is some ambiguity regarding what van Fraassen’s claims for the doctrine truly are. Additionally, there are disputes about what constructive empiricism suggests. Although this view does not have many supporters, it is a very important argument in philosophy of science.

One more challenge to scientific realism is the instability of scientific discoveries. With regards to this idea, Popper writes: “From a rational point of view, we should not ‘rely’ on any (scientific) theory, for no theory has been shown to be true, or can be shown to be true…”[4]. When Popper says this, he claims for the whole tradition of modern science scholarship from Charles Sanders Pierce to Nancy Cartwright. Thus, one is entitled to conclude without any hesitation, as one is capable to progress one’s enquiries to deeper levels, then one will achieve a very distinct idea of the components of nature and their laws. Consequently, its changeability is a fact about science that is as inductively well-maintained as any theory of science itself. Science is not a static system yet a dynamic process.

Therefore, it is arguable to say that if the future is similar to the past and if historical events shows any type of guidance in such issues, then one is fully aware that all of human’s scientific principles will finally turn out to be unstable that none are true exactly as they claim to be. History of science exemplifies that there is no rational reason for observing human’s science as more than an inherently imperfect state within a continuous progress. As a result, not only one is not in a position to hold that scientific knowledge of reality is complete, but one is not also in a place to believe that it is correct. Consequently, such a position requires for the modest view that just as we think our ancestors of a hundred years ago had a totally false understanding about the world, so the next generation after us will have the same notion of our claimed knowledge of things.

Eventually, when one sees science in a historical perspective, it becomes obvious that there is no sufficient justification for holding that natural science as we understand is clearly true. With respect to this view, Rescher states:

If there is one thing we can learn from the history of science, it is that the scientific theorizing of one day is looked upon by the next as deficient. At every stage of its development, its practitioners, looking backwards with the wisdom of hindsight, will unquestionably view the work of their predecessors as seriously deficient and their theories as fundamentally inadequate in critical regards. There is no reason to see the posture of our successors as fundamentally different from our own in this respect.[5]

Yet, one might ask that ‘what about a weaker realism which argues that science is solely correct in part?’ It could be said even this proposal has its problems. This is because it instantly puts forward the question, ‘which part?’ In other words, how one can distinguish the correct from the incorrect in science as we have it, providing of our support of the whole picture?

Nevertheless, one is aware that science can be improved but at the same time one also understands that it cannot be perfected. With regards to the general principle and the history of science, they avoid us taking the step that the world is as science pictures it to be. This could be the current science or the science of the future. Therefore, it could be said that in the realism of natural science, gaining anything definitive and ultimate is no more than an idealisation. This is because it suggests an ideal which, like other absolutes, which are desirable for inquiry, despite the point that one should grasp that its complete fulfilment is beyond our awareness.

In conclusion, scientific realism holds that natural science puts forward descriptive, true information about physical reality in the manner that the objects of science exists as science claims them to be. This view argues the essential correctness of natural science as we have it. However, when science is viewed in historical perspective, it becomes obvious that there is no sufficient justification for believing that natural science as we now have it is truly correct. Nor does it look warranted to think that a future juncture will be arrived when the science of the day correctly explains physical reality. Consequently, scientific realism cannot adequately explain the predictive successes of scientific theories. This is because it argues for an optimistic dream and thus it is not a view that is realistically stable in any straightforward way.


Bird, A. Zalta, E. N. (ed.) 2008. “Thomas Kuhn”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. // (Accessed on 20th April 2009 at 16:15).

Boyd, R. Zalta, E. N. (ed.) 2008. “Scientific Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. // (Accessed on 10th April 2009 at 02:10).

Kuhn, T. S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Ladyman, J. Zalta, E. N. (ed.) 2009. “Structural Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. // (Accessed on 13th April 2009 at 23:27).

Leplin, J. (ed). 1984. Scientific Realism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Mackinnon, E (ed)1972. The Problem of Scientific Realism. New York: Meredith Corporation

Monton, B. & Chad, M. Zalta E. N. (ed.)2008. “Constructive Empiricism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. // (Accessed on 21st April 2009 at 14:30).

Pap, A., 1963. An Introduction to The Philosophy of Science. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode

Popper, K. 1972. Objective Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Psillos, S. 1999. Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth. Oxon: Routledge.

Rescher, N. 1987. Scientific Realism: A Critical Appraisal. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

van Fraassen, B. 1980. The Scientific Image. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] Rescher p.4

[2] Kuhn p.102

[3] van Fraassen p.12


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