SDL's Scientific Realism Study Notes

Scientific Realism

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SDL's Scientific Realism Study Notes

Scientific Realism


Description of scientific realism

Video by Kane B:

What is scientific realism, in short?

Scientific realism supports three claims:

* Ontology: The world has many entities

* Semantics: Scientific theories describe these entities

* Epistemology: Scientific theories are mostly true

What do those terms mean?

* Ontology: The nature of reality, “what is real”

* Semantics: The nature of language, “what it means to say something”

* Epistemology: The nature of knowledge, “how we know what is true”

What are some common qualifications for scientific realism?

Most scientific realists hold that:

* We should be scientific realists only for mature theories

* Mature theories are theories that have generated novel predictions which have been tested and failed to be falsified

* Even mature theories are only approximately true

* However, as theories become more mature, they come closer to the truth (and are less “approximate”); or, older theories are “wronger than wrong”

What is scientific realism, in medium?

Scientific realism supports three claims:

* Ontology:

* A mind-independent world exists

* The mind-independent world contains entities

* Those entities are observables or unobservables

* Semantics:

* Scientific theories should be taken literally (they refer to the entities)

* Therefore, scientific theories can either be true or false

* Epistemology:

* Most scientific theories are approximately true

* Science provides knowledge of the mind-independent world

What are observables?

* Observables: Entities that can be perceived with unaided senses

* Unobservables: Entities that can be detected with special instruments

What are some common variants of scientific realism?

Entity realism holds that we should be:

* Realists about the entities described by scientific theories

* “We’re sure that entities we call electrons exist”

* Agnostics about the structure of said entities (what scientific theories say entities do)

* “We’re unsure about the properties of electrons”

Structural realism holds that we should be:

* Agnostics about the entities described by scientific theories

* “We’re not sure that electrons exist”

* Realists about the structure of said theories (the theoretical or mathematical models of the properties/behavior of entities)

* “We’re sure that the properties of the entities we call electrons are approximately true”

Competitors to scientific realism

Main competitors summary table



Mind-independent external reality


Scientific theories literally refer to reality


Scientific theories give us knowledge

Scientific realism




Philosophical skepticism




Crude instrumentalism

Yes or unknown

Observables: Yes

Unobservables: No

Observables: Yes

Unobservables: No

Logical Positivism




Constructive empiricism



Observables: Yes

Unobservables: No

What proportion of philosophers believe in a mind-independent external reality?

* Idealism: Hold that our senses, regardless of their reliability, don’t perceive “true” reality

* 4.3% of philosophers hold this view

* Skepticism: Hold that our senses are not generally reliable

* 4.8% of philosophers hold this view

* Naive realism holds that our senses are universally/always reliable

* Not asked

* Non-skeptical realism: Non-skeptical realism holds that our senses are usually/often reliable

* 81.6% of philosophers are non-skeptical realists

Most philosophers are non-skeptical realists about the external world:

Arguments for scientific realism

Video by Kane B:

What is the No Miracles Argument?

Type of argument used here: Inference to Best Explanation (IBE) -- used in science itself; scientific realism applies the same logic to science as science does to its subjects

Logical argument from Matheson 1998 (opponent of NMA):

* NMA1, science has progressed

* NMA2, scientific realism provides us with a better explanation for this progress than any other philosophy of science

* NMA3, all other things being equal, we should believe the philosophy of science that best explains facts about scientific practice

* NMA4, therefore, we should believe that scientific realism is true.

Logical argument from Kane B:

* P1: Science is extremely successful.

* P2: Scientific realism provides a better explanation for the success of science than any rival theory.

* P3: We should believe the philosophy of science that best explains the facts about science.

* C: We should believe scientific realism.

No Miracles: Quotes

Putnam 1979: <> The positive argument for realism is that it is the only philosophy that doesn't make the success of science a miracle.

van Fraassen 1980: I claim that the success of current scientific theories is no miracle. It is not even surprising to the scientific (Darwinist) mind. For any scientific theory is born into a life of fierce competition, a jungle red in tooth and claw. Only the successful theories survive—the ones which in fact latched onto the actual regularities in nature.

Gardner 1989: Realism is not a dirty word. If you wonder why all scientists, philosophers, and ordinary people, with rare exceptions, have been and are unabashed realists, let me tell you why. No scientific conjecture has been more overwhelmingly confirmed. No hypothesis offers a simpler explanation of why the Andromeda galaxy spirals in every photograph, why all electrons are identical, why the laws of physics are the same in Tokyo as in London or on Mars, why they were there before life evolved and will be there if all life perishes, why all persons can close their eyes and feel eight corners, six faces and twelve edges on a cube, and why your bedroom looks the same when you wake up in the morning.

No Miracles: Accurate Predictions

No Miracles: Surprising Predictions

Arguments against




Quine 1951:


Dawid 2017:

Psillos 1999:

Psillos 1996:


Wary 2007:

Mizrahi 2012:

Howson 2013:

Good summary of related theories:

SDL's Scientific Realism Study Notes
Tags Science
Type Google Doc
Published 03/12/2021, 03:52:40


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