Scientific theories and prescriptive vs descriptive instrumentalism

Those of you who’ve known me a while may remember that I dislike accepting philosophical labels. For example, although the labels “materialist” or “physicalist” are more or less accurate descriptions of what I think, they often seem to imply an ideological rigidity I’m not comfortable with. My attitude toward these labels somewhat resonates with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s:

I’m not an “ism.” I just – I think for myself. The moment when someone attaches you to a philosophy or a movement, then they assign all the baggage and all the rest of the philosophy that goes with it to you, and when you want to have a conversation they will assert that they already know everything important there is to know about you because of that association. And that’s not the way to have a conversation.

I agree, but sometimes forget about that agreement.

A few years ago, I asked what scientific theories tell us about the world. That post called into question the distinction between scientific realism and instrumentalism. Realism asserts that a theory actually reflects reality. So when general relativity predicts spacetime is warped, under realism, there is actually something “out there”, an actual spacetime actually being warped.

Instrumentalism asserts that theories like general relativity are just prediction mechanisms. It’s possible there is actually a spacetime that is actually warping, but we can’t know that. All we can know for sure is how accurate the theory’s predictions are. The classic instrumentalist example is Ptolemy’s ancient model of the universe, with the Earth at the center and everything else revolving around it in concentric crystalline spheres. Ptolemy’s model accurately predicted naked-eye astronomical observations, but we now know it was completely wrong.

However, what we call “reality” is itself just another theory, a model we hold in our mind. Its most primal aspects might be constructed by and verified with the senses, but it’s a theory nonetheless, one that can often be wrong. There is value in reconciling scientific theories with our model of reality. It seems to increase the probability that the theory actually models something real. But we can never be sure we’re not just operating under a paradigm, a way of thinking about reality, that might itself eventually turn out to be instrumental, as an assumption of a stationary Earth did .

My goal in that post was really to show the distinction between the outlooks was actually meaningless. However, in subsequent conversations, I started to be convinced that view effectively made me an instrumentalist. Eventually I took it to heart and started calling myself one.

And then over time relearned why I dislike labels, as people started making assumptions about my attitude toward various propositions. I’m an instrumentalist, they would reason, therefore I don’t care about whether a theory reflects reality. I’m an instrumentalist, therefore it shouldn’t matter to me whether a theory fundamentally makes sense, or whether it can be reconciled with other theories. I’m an instrumentalist, therefore I don’t believe in an objective reality.

Well, no.

In truth, these things matter a great deal to me and I do believe in an objective reality. We can never be sure a theory actually reflects reality, but I don’t want scientists to lean on that. I want them to aim for realist accounts, ones that are logically complete, that make causal sense, and can be reconciled with as many other theories as possible.

Of course, sometimes scientists have to accept an explicitly instrumentalist account. The classic example is Isaac Newton and gravity. Newton worked out the mathematics of gravity, mathematics that provided accurate predictions, at least to the extent that people in the late 1600s could test. But he had to admit that he didn’t know what gravity fundamentally was. That situation would last until 1915 when Albert Einstein came along with a new theory, one that explained gravity as the warping of spacetime.

Philosophically, Einstein was a staunch realist. In fact, most scientists are realists. It’s hard to spend years of your life gathering data or working out theories if you don’t see yourself in pursuit of truth. Building complex experimental machinery or going on expeditions to dirty uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous locations to build a mere prediction mechanism doesn’t seem very inspiring. Although in reality scientists tend to be realists about some theories and instrumentalists about others. In some cases, they can regard different constituents of a particular theory as real or anti-real.

Einstein’s realism famously made him reluctant to accept quantum mechanics as a complete theory. Arguably what we now call the Copenhagen interpretation was in its beginnings an explicitly instrumentalist or anti-real account. Many of the founders of quantum theory, such Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, seemed satisfied with that instrumentalist account (perhaps under the influence of the then popular logical positivist movement). But Einstein couldn’t accept it.

My attitude is that Copenhagen (at least the weak epistemic version) was a good placeholder in the 1920s, and may still be. But it’s only a placeholder, just as Newton’s version of gravity was a placeholder. Of course, all scientific theories are provisional, subject to being replaced in the future with a better theory. But in the case of explicitly instrumentalist accounts, that replacement should arguably be more actively anticipated.

I think Einstein was right that investigations should have continued until we had a more complete account, or a more complete understanding of the existing one. But I can’t see that we’ll ever know whether we have a real account. All we can do is search for one that is causally complete and can be reconciled with other theories.

In that sense, I could be described as a descriptive instrumentalist, but not a prescriptive one. We should always strive for a realist account, just never get too comfortable that we have one.

All that said, I wonder if I shouldn’t avoid the instrumentalist label in the future. Although at least now I’ll have this entry to link to.

Are you a scientific realist, descriptive instrumentalist, prescriptive instrumentalist, or something else not mentioned? What led you to that position?

68 thoughts on “Scientific theories and prescriptive vs descriptive instrumentalism

  1. I’m pretty sure that nearly all scientists do believe in the existence of an objective reality. In fact, the primary purpose of the scientific method is to remove subjective aspects from our observations of the world, and embedded in this approach is the assumption that as objective universe exists, and that it was well-defined rules. So the implicit goal of science is to produce realistic theories. At present we do not have an ultimate realistic theory, but that must be the hope of most scientists. In fact, if we do eventually end up with a consistent theory of “everything” it would be hard to imagine that it didn’t match an objective reality.

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    1. I’d agree that most scientists believe in objective reality, although there are idealists in the scientific ranks. But I’m not sure how many are in the natural sciences. Most that I’ve seen, such as Donald Hoffman, tend to be in fields like psychology.

      I do think it’s important here to make a distinction between idealism and instrumentalism. They’re not the same thing. It’s probably fair to say all idealists are instrumentalists, but not the reverse. You can be an instrumentalist without being an idealist.

      I also agree that the goal of science is to produce realist theories. And as I noted in the post, I think that definitely should be the goal. If we ever do get a successful theory of everything, then I’d agree it would be hard not to see it as real. But short of that, we can’t be sure than any particular theory is real.

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      1. Mike,

        You really should be more careful how you characterize idealists. Technically speaking, idealism is a religion and there are many religious individuals whose profession is in the natural sciences. I wouldn’t necessarily call the metaphysical position of materialism a religion per se. Physicalism is more of a naive realism based ontology and likewise, instrumentalism is a discipline of that naive realism.

        “It’s probably fair to say all idealists are instrumentalists……”

        Not even close Mike. If you want to understand what makes an idealist tick, you really should spend some time on Kastrup’s blog intellectually mining those folks psyche. A first hand look and intellectually engaging with those folks is the only way to get a firm grasp on that metaphysical position.

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          1. No description that I could ever come up with would do their unique perspective justice Mike. One has to live the experience by engaging with the best, and I mean the best. Some of the brightest minds I’ve ever encountered on the internet were idealists on Kastrup’s blog. Who knows, if you could grasp their rationale, even you might swing over to the dark side.

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          2. Maybe so. But that’s the same thing I’ve historically heard from religious believers. Just spend time (a lot of time) at their church and you’ll see it differently. I did try that at one point in my life, but the results were pretty much the opposite of what they hoped for. I’ve listened and read Kastrup enough to get his basic pitch, and it isn’t drawing me in.


          3. Mike, Classic Idealists, like mathematician A.N.Whitehead, contend that The Process is more real than any temporary and perspective bound Product of that process. It is Idealism because the rules of the process are what is as real, more constant, than material products of that process.

            Idealists think that being “logically complete”, “reconcilable with other theories” (better to say other basic practices), and even simplicity, are not just good ideas for Our Theories, but what the universe is. Hence, Idealism.
            They are also always Holists, not Atomists. Society is more/as significant as the individual, the solar system as influential as its individual planets. Wholes are real.

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          4. Thanks Greg. I’ve only read summaries of Whitehead’s views, but I’m cautiously sympathetic with process philosophy. Although I don’t see it necessarily leading to idealism. The modern conception of an atom can be viewed as a process (actually a complex series of interacting processes). Even an elementary particle, under quantum field theory, is actually a pattern of field excitations.

            Put another way, I’m a descriptive instrumentalist, but one of the theories I find very predictive is the existence of an objective reality. I know we can work in other explanations for our experiences, but I perceive that one as the most straightforward. I’m not adamant about it, but I haven’t heard an argument for idealism I find compelling.


    2. Sorry to have joined so late! On science “removing the subjective”, sure, and then we can see all the places where the “subjective” is vital, true, and unavoidable.


  2. Interesting … and re “However, what we call “reality” is itself just another theory, a model we hold in our mind.” points up a common fallacy, confusing the idea of such a thing with the thing itself. Yes, we all carry a model of “reality” in our heads to make navigating it easier, but to assume that that model is 100% accurate is not correct. It is a provisional model, subject to revision, unless you happen to think you understand reality completely.

    The answer to the question “is there a physical reality” can be answered with a slight thought experiment. Imagine that for one day all of the people of the Earth disappeared (transported to another dimension … what ever that means … or whatever). Would the universe still exist? I think most people would say yes, otherwise the entire universe would have to be a massive shared delusion and I do not think we have the power to pull off something like that. Plus, the facts contradict such a thing.

    Again, I think we are struggling over absolutes that do not exist. In general we struggle to understand reality well enough and then we move on as the goal of understanding it all is, well, a fool’s errand (there being way too much to understand). So, all of us have an imperfect understanding of what reality is and can be surprised when new discoveries are made. Using such imperfect understandings of reality to cast doubt on its existence is thinking just a wee too much of ourselves, methinks.

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    1. I agree with your conclusion from the thought experiment, but I’m not sure an actual idealist would. They’d probably say that your scenario presupposed an objective reality, and that “moving” everyone on Earth would just move Earth, since it’s all a collective projection. Not a view I buy into, but one that isn’t so easy to dismiss.

      Myself, I’ve never understood a rational for idealism that wasn’t a slippery slope into full blown solipsism. If I’m going to doubt the objective world, then why shouldn’t I doubt other minds out there? But if there is only one mind, it seems subject to being surprised by events, so at best it’s a fractured thing. All in all, assuming an objective reality just seems like the simpler explanation.

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      1. Mike, Classic Idealists, like mathematician A.N.Whitehead, contend that The Process is more real than any temporary and perspective bound Product of that process. It is Idealism because the rules of the process are what is as real, more constant, than material products of that process.

        Idealists think that being “logically complete”, “reconcilable with other theories” (better to say other basic practices), and even simplicity, are not just good ideas for Our Theories, but what the universe is. Hence, Idealism.
        They are also always Holists, not Atomists. Society is more/as significant as the individual, the solar system as influential as its individual planets. Wholes are real, not just the subatomic pieces we analyze them into.

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    2. No classic idealist philosopher thinks the physical world is a “delusion”, shared or not.

      It’s like what Dennett now calls “free-floating rationales.” These are the rules and laws of a Process and they are insubstantial in the sense that they are not one of the parts/material pieces themselves but are the Organization of the parts in a process.

      Of course the physical world existed first in time, but then it needs to have a basis to evolve into some very differently Seeming (at least Seeming) things, like Belief, Experience, Feeling, Rationality…
      The logical structure of these kinds of things (Dennett, Quine, Putnam, Brentano call them “Intentional Idioms or language”) does not Reduce Well into the structure of hard science explanation.

      This gives the Idealist or even the Dualist an opening to try to describe what Science-talk, Empiricism, Atomistic approaches miss in their description of the universe And, importantly, our form of very complicated life in it.

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  3. Are you sure there is an “objective reality”?

    I have some comments on your previous post comparing it to Newton’s absolute space. It envisions a God-like being that sits outside spacetime and have all the information about everything happening instantaneously. Maybe “objective reality” is just like that. It is not something that exists that we can gradually get better theories about but really something that doesn’t exist. There are only relative views of reality but there is no single reality sitting behind all of the views. Isn’t this what some of the weirder QM experiments are telling us? Even MWI, every reality exists all of the time from some world perspective.

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    1. I’d say I’m as sure about objective reality as I could be about anything. Which is to say, I don’t have absolute certitude about it. But as I noted to Steve Ruis, it seems like the simplest model. The others all seem to require additional assumptions.

      That doesn’t mean our current model is necessarily accurate. Science seems to be leading us on an ongoing journey where actual reality seems farther and farther from what our naive conception of it implies.

      There are a lot of people who look at QM and draw those types of conclusions. In particular, you have people like Von Neumann and Wigner who thought consciousness might be what causes the wave function collapse. A lot of other people, like Kastrup, have built idealistic philosophies based on those ideas. But the MWI is definitely not in that camp. It has objective reality, way too much reality for most people’s comfort. (Kastrup in particular loathes it.)


      1. I’m not making a Kastrup or consciousness collapse argument. We fondly want to believe there is something out there that is consistent, constant, and behaves in a way we could understand it if only we knew enough. But what really is the evidence for it? More an article of faith than anything based on the fact that most things average out to appear predictable.


        1. Ultimately, all knowledge reduces to predictions of future conscious experiences. To the extent that knowledge enhances the accuracies of those predictions, we say they’re “right”. But ultimate reality always seems to be beyond us. All we can have are theories about it, theories that may always be missing aspects of the “true reality”, whatever that might mean.


          1. >All we can have are theories about it, theories that may always be missing aspects of the “true reality”, whatever that might mean.

            I agree. I’m just dropping the “true reality” part of it.

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          2. Mike, that is a really rash statement: “all knowledge reduces to predictions of future conscious experiences”. Sounds like you are the Idealist, There are many forms of knowledge, and you are belabored by a very traditional and harsh distinction between “the subjective” and “the objective”.

            This site suffers from a lack of awareness of intermediates, attempts to modify that extreme dichotomy.
            Whether it is John Dewey’s attempt to use the concept of “experiences” as the middle term, or later his attempt to ‘see’ history as the constantly moving, progressing, resolution of these poles.
            Dennett is trying to provide a mediating process and that is biological evolution. Our Bio Evol blows up the reasonable defenses of that extreme dichotomy. Never are our Ideas/theories/perceptions/feelings so far out of the bounds of “Reality”. At least not for long, or those who think them are not Selected. And, so far, we stumble forward, actually, race many remarkable ways!


          3. Greg,
            I spoke to this in my other reply. I think the theory of an objective reality, that is a reality independent of our minds, is the most predictive understanding with the fewest assumptions. So, no, not an idealist. Although I can see how people arrive at idealism, it’s not a view I find compelling, at least not currently.


  4. According to some philosophers, I am an instrumentalist. And, based on that, they quickly jump to false conclusions about what I believe. So I am sympathetic with your concerns.

    The trouble with the “prescriptive vs. descriptive” dichotomy, is that it doesn’t work.

    Yes, I see science as prescriptive. It prescribes to scientists, how they should go about their scientific work. It could not be otherwise. The theory is what binds scientists into a community working on a common project.

    On the other hand, scientific theories are not prescriptive to reality. The moon is not required to check back with astronomers before it moves or changes phase.

    The problem for philosophy, is this: description is impossible.

    Yes, we describe. We use language for our descriptions. But a language had to be invented before we could describe anything. We can perhaps see a language as a kind of instrument that is intended to make description possible.

    I see science along the same lines. Science invents ways that make description possible. The scientific theory is not the description. Rather, the data is the description. The theory is the way of describing.

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    1. Just to be clear on scope, when I refer to descriptive vs prescriptive in this context, I’m only referring to the instrumentalist philosophy about the scientific theories. So prescriptive instrumentalism would refer to an attitude that all we need is to predict observations in a particular domain. If we have that, under this view, then we’re done, even if the theory has causal holes, or can’t be reconciled with other theories.

      On the other hand, a descriptive stance only means that we observe that any particular theory might turn out to be an instrumental one. We have no way to know it isn’t. But there’s nothing prescriptive in that, nothing that holds that up as a standard. It allows us to continue seeing the pursuit of a real theory as a valid goal.

      Although maybe a more accurate way to describe it is instrumentalism that still prescribes reaching for realism.

      Writing this is making me increasingly reluctant to subscribe to the label.

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  5. There is no agreed-upon definitions of what is real, what is reality, what objective means, etc. For each of those terms, we have uncertainties. Moreover, those uncertainties for mentioned terms may not be on the same line or plane for all of them. If we do not address those uncertainties from the start – then we compounding them. It becomes really hard to get on the same page with everybody, or with just most people in the discussion.
    The other thing is that most of our “proofs”, or “disproofs” of scientific theories are circumstantial. It could not be otherwise in macro and micro worlds. Like in criminology, circumstantial evidence could never be 100% thing.
    In our “proofs” of what is “real,” we often are using tools, which themselves are “not real”. We are using math in precise sciences everywhere, but could you prove that numbers 2, 4, and 6 exists in reality? We are doing proofs of reality, based on something, which does not exist in reality. That could be a topic for a separate discussion.
    I’m a physicist by education. I worked as a physicist for years. Now I will tell you my secret. I still do not understand what “field” is (electromagnetic field, gravitational field, etc.). I do not know what is there. If anybody knows, please enlighten me. I’m off the typical understanding of the part of reality, which is already basic for many other people. Or is it? What is good to be a realist or instrumentalist, if basic terms, which used to describe reality, are not clear? I suspect, that I’m not the only one in that regard.

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    1. Excellent points. I don’t know that most people are aware of just how theory laden all observation is. Science where we directly observe something with our senses largely only exists in grade school experiments these days. Scientists are always looking at measurement results from instruments constructed based on numerous layers of preexisting theories about how things work. A lot of theory laden interpretation has to be applied to any data. It can’t be escaped.

      Your comments about fields, coming from someone with a physics background, actually makes me feel better. We get down to elementary particles and discover that they’re excitation patterns of fields. But what are fields? It’s tempting to think they’re fields of something, but we’ve supposedly dug down past all the somethings. If we did find some constituents, then what would they be made of? Particles? But then are they made out of yet more fields?!?

      It’s the same with energy. What the heck is energy? It’s hard not to see it as an accounting gimmick that just works, but it works so well that that seems implausible.

      So yeah, ultimately getting too hung up on the instrumentalist vs realist thing can be misleading.

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  6. “I’m not an ‘ism.’ I just – I think for myself.”

    Exactly. I’ve never been a joiner, but views that aren’t utterly incoherent or irrational often still have something of value.

    It’s always provisional and subject to new data, but I basically align with realism (opposed to idealism), and I think science is the process of trying to discover the nature of that reality. (I have some sympathy with instrumentalist views, but I take a more realist definition of instrumentalism.)

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    1. The labels can have value, primarily in situations where we want to quickly convey our position to someone. But yeah, saying “I’m an X” increasingly seems fraught. “I lean toward X,” seems to have been a little better, communicating that I don’t necessarily “drink the kool aid” of X, but it’s a starting point for understanding my views.

      I’m with you on the realism vs idealism divide. In that sense, I think realism is the simplest assumption. Of course, that is itself a theory that I hold an instrumentalist view toward. 🙂


      1. Yeah, labels are convenient shorthand, but it’s too easy to only see the label. A great phrase I picked up from Richard Brown is “sympathetic to” — one can say, “I’m sympathetic to X, but… and… etc!”

        Never drink the Kool-Aid! It’s cheap, tastes bad, usually isn’t a good idea, and is occasionally fatal. 😮


          1. Well, reading the Wikipedia link there are all sorts of realism and I suppose you mean the one about reality existing independent of mind.

            Is the “red” of a red apple real? Is it independent of mind?

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          2. The selection of frequencies of light that reflects from an apple certainly are. So are the interactions of those photons and a human visual system. The conscious experience and the label we give those are all secondary results.

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          3. So the secondary results are “real” but not independent of mind? Sorry, I can be a little dense sometimes when I’m expecting yes/no answers and get something that doesn’t quite say yes or no.

            But then are the photons “real” or is only thing “real” some measurement we make from which we infer in our mind of something like a photon? In other words, is the photon like a secondary result too?

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          4. I think maybe you’re over complicating this? Remove all intelligent beings, known and unknown, from reality, and what remains? The exact same physical universe as was there before: 93 billions light years across (that we can see; there’s presumably much more) and 13.77 billion years old (give or take a day or so; I’ve heard it all started on a Thursday). In particular, photons, and things that reflect “red” light, have nearly always existed.

            We had nothing to do with any of that. We are evolved products of this reality, with evolved instruments for photon detection (eyes) and evolved instruments (brains) for processing visual data and using it to build a 3D model of the environment. Part of that is making up common labels for objects in that environment. Otherwise we can’t think or talk about those objects. We’re late-comers to all this.

            The notion our minds are somehow the center of any of this is Ptolemaic.

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          5. That simple view misses that photons. 3d models, and objects in our environment are theories or conceptions, representations of reality as much or more than is the color red. That is not the same as saying mind is at the center of anything. It’s somewhat like the tree falling the forest. Yes, something happens in what we call the “air” but it isn’t sound unless there is somebody to hear it. The problem is there is no exact line of demarcation between our views and representations of reality and whatever is actually out there.


          6. You continue to put humans at the center of your universe. I don’t. I believe photons exist whether we have a theory about them or not. Whether we even know about them or not. Our theories have nothing to do with, and are just our feeble attempts to know, what photons actually are.

            A tree falling in the forest definitely makes a sound unless one is only able to define sound as “something a human hears.” I just don’t; I can’t. In my book, “sound” is just a type of mechanical vibration.


          7. If you want to put humans at the center of your philosophy, you certainly can, but I’ll never be on board with it. As I said at the beginning, as a realist I see that as delusional thinking.

            Under realism, something we label as “a photon” appears to exist and acts with with consistent lawful behavior. There is no “whether” about it to me.


  7. We need to package things, it would be massively inconvenient not to. But we should refrain from putting a bow on them. Sealing them up is the error here. Leave the packing tape off and allow the contents to get swapped out might be the goal.

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    1. That’s a good way of putting it. The problem is that I think it’s just human nature to take those packages, map them to what we already know, and go with it. As I noted to Wyrd, maybe my best tactic is to say I resemble the package, but not the full package.

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  8. Stanford encyclopedia describes scientific realism thusly – after admitting that the term is used variously:

    there is a common core of ideas [in scientific realism], typified by an epistemically positive attitude toward the outputs of scientific investigation, regarding both observable and unobservable aspects of the world. The distinction here between the observable and the unobservable reflects human sensory capabilities … The distinction itself has been problematized …. If it is problematic, this is arguably a concern primarily for certain forms of antirealism, which adopt an epistemically positive attitude only with respect to the observable.

    I would have said that scientific realists think that objective reality shapes scientific theories and theory change in a way that increases accuracy in the long run. So, close.

    But just plain “realism” in philosophy without “scientific” in front, simply asserts the existence of objective reality. (Well, as simply as “objective” can be, which is not simple at all!) And there’s much more discussion of that, overall. So if you start talking about “scientific realism” outside of a philosophy journal you’re really courting misunderstanding. Just saying.

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    1. Understood on courting misunderstanding. But that seems to be the case with any philosophical subject. It seems like 90% of philosophical debates amount to people yelling past each other with different definitions.

      But I probably should go through the SEP. Thanks for calling my attention to it!


  9. I think you’re right that most scientists are philosophical realists, but I don’t understand why they ought to continue to be. Maybe someone working in a lab will need lean on a realist framework because it doesn’t make sense to do otherwise, but at the end of the day, why not?

    “It’s hard to spend years of your life gathering data or working out theories if you don’t see yourself in pursuit of truth.”

    Hard, yes, but I don’t want scientists to be deluded about what it is they’re doing. They might have to redefine “pursuit of truth” in a way that’s more precise and explicit about what actually constitutes science. I’m okay with that.

    If you truly believe that we can’t access objective reality, then it seems to me we can’t know whether a theory reflects that reality either. But we can still insist that theories make sense and be reconciled with other theories, etc., and call that the goal of science.

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    1. A scientist (can’t remember who) once made a quip: everyone else’s theory is just an instrumental prediction mechanism, but his theory is sublimely real. I took his point to be it’s a lot easier to see everyone else’s work as instrumental.

      I think it comes down to the fact that scientists are human. Just as mathematicians tend to be mathematical platonists, and moral philosophers tend to be moral realists, just because it feels more right that they’re discovering something, I think it’s just easier for scientists to do their work if they assume they’re uncovering real stuff.

      But most of them are also pretty open that their theories could be supplanted at any point. They know the history of Ptolemy / Copernicus and Newton / Einstein. It’s just that emotionally they’re convinced that whatever they’re personally chasing is real, probably a motivational necessity.

      That said, there are instrumentalists in their ranks. Stephen Hawking was one. Contrasting his view with Roger Penrose’s:

      He’s a Platonist and I’m a positivist. He’s worried that Schrödinger’s cat is in a quantum state, where it is half alive and half dead. He feels that can’t correspond to reality. But that doesn’t bother me. I don’t demand that a theory correspond to reality because I don’t know what it is. Reality is not a quality you can test with litmus paper. All I’m concerned with is that the theory should predict the results of measurements. Quantum theory does this very successfully.

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  10. Interesting quote from Hawking, and a perceptive point about Penrose being worried about the quantum cat corresponding to reality. I think he’s hit on the appeal of instrumentalism, at least for me; once you take away the bit about corresponding to reality, the crazy counterintuitive stuff seems far less obnoxious.

    But yeah, I get that scientists are only human. I imagine in the more down to earth fields we’ll find more realists.

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    1. Definitely. Scientific realism is a lot easier to hold away from fundamental physics. Still, it’s worth remembering just how much theory is involved in something like dating archaeological artifacts, or, perhaps closer to home right now, assessing the efficacy of a drug or vaccine.

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  11. I’m not really a fan of labels either. There are a few labels that I’ve sort of accepted as “good enough” descriptions of myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m ideological about those things.

    So I guess I have a descriptive instrumentalist attitude toward science, but that’s because I’m not doing the work of a scientist. If you study reality (i.e. if you’re a scientist), I think a realist’s point of view would be more helpful. But if you’re studying how science works (i.e. the philosophy of science), instrumentalism is probably a better perspective to use.

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    1. Good point. Michael Strevens in his book on science argues that scientists often have to have an almost religious like fervor that what they’re pursuing is real. It’s the only thing that keeps them going in doing the tedious, difficult, sometimes dangerous work involved in testing or observing reality. It’s hard to have that kind of fervor about something if you’re an instrumentalist toward it.

      It’s probably not a coincidence that the scientists most likely to be instrumentalists are theorists.

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      1. “scientists often have to have an almost religious like fervor that what they’re pursuing is real”

        I really don’t think this is the case, Mike. Scientists are trained to remove bias and subjectivity from their observations and calculations. They don’t need faith or fervour, just care and diligence.

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        1. Steve,
          It’s a mistake to think of scientists as a bunch of Vulcans doing their work without subjective passion. Real scientists are human beings and often exhibit very human weaknesses. Consider this quote from Robert Oppenheimer:

          if we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him

          Oppenheimer was stating the then orthodox consensus about Bohm’s work. That is not a statement of someone who has removed all bias and subjectivity from his observations and calculations. If you read about the history of something like quantum mechanics, the similarities with theological disputes in early Christianity are striking. And that’s mild compared to the internecine warfare in evolutionary anthropology.

          In the case of science, the competition is a feature rather than a drawback, with reality as the ultimate arbiter.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. I get what you mean, Mike. I used to be a scientist. But I think we should differentiate between “religious like fervour” and self-promotional aggrandizement of one’s own work. The latter is certainly commonplace, and as you say, is a feature rather than a drawback 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

          2. I can definitely see “self-promotional aggrandizement” in a good bit of it. A case could be made that Einstein’s beef with quantum mechanics was due to his perception that it might undermine his relativity theories. Or Schrodinger’s because of the Copenhagen interpretation reducing his equation to a probability mechanism. Similarly, we could say that Bohr, Heisenberg, and others in later decades suppressed work in quantum foundations to preserve the legacy of what they’d worked out in 1927.

            On the other hand, a lot of scientists, whose legacies weren’t necessarily tied up with theirs, fell into camps around their views. Although even here I guess you could say that once someone falls into such a camp, over time they become invested in it and it does start to become tangled with their self worth. But I think you could say the same thing about a member of any religion.

            Maybe “ideological fervor” would be less objectionable?


          3. That definitely seems like it’s part of it. I think of Einstein’s strong preference for determinism, and Max Born “cringing” at the idea. Ultimately different metaphysical stances that affected their scientific positions. On the other hand, we have Schrodinger, who was okay with indeterminacy, until he had his own deterministic model to defend. A charitable take on Schrodinger’s change was that we has okay with indeterminacy, until he glimpsed an alternative. A less charitable take was that he now had a personal stake. The reality may have been a complex mix.


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