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That's Not What I'm Saying

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Posted by Harvey on January 24, 2002 21:23:42 UTC


***H: Science is the most objective of what? The best we can say is that science is the most objective discipline at developing models that match predicted observables. This doesn't tell us anything about the nature of those models. In order for those models to have any significant meaning they must be enriched by philosophy. A:
Harwey, what do you mean by "nature" here? Say, what is the nature of electric current? Of magnetism? Or of such "act of god" as hurricane? Or of tornado?***

I'm not talking about the properties and mechanisms of nature as in how the model describes them. What I'm saying is that scientific models do not tell us the ontological status of those models. We have seen numerous examples in science where valid models were only approximately valid. They are good approximation, so good that as a realist I believe they there is something true about them. But, science does not say that the models are 'true' in a philosophical sense (i.e., ontological sense).

What I think science mainly tells us is a model's reliability at prediction as well giving us a human sense of explanation. This is human sense of explanation is explicitly human. For example, an alien species may be so vastly more intelligent that our species that they may pay no attention to a Newton's laws. For them, they might go directly to a quantum theory of gravity and compute everything in the world in terms of that fundamental theory. If we came into contact with this hypothetical civilization we might bring to their attention Newton's laws and they might laugh (in their alien way) and say that they never noticed that the laws could be simplified to a classical regime. All of their calculations have always been quantum theoretic.

In this example, are Newton's laws 'true'? They are true like the 'sun is setting' is true. It works to describe what we see, but the real fact of the matter is that something else is really the case and the approximation is just a crude means by which to classify certain phenomena.

So, the exact nature of the models of science are basically not determined by science. Science is mainly concerned with predictability and explanability. The explanability is often a rough approximation and prediction is also not exact.

Anti-realists of science have made a career of this situation and some are very vocal in pointing out that models of science are just human fictions - useful for our own purposes but in no way the 'true' nature of what reality is. I disagree, but only to an extent. I think in terms of science we cannot say that quarks really exist since if other models are eventually discovered that can explain the same natural behavior without these entities, then science would change tunes as far as what really exists. The mere possibility that these kind of changes are possible mean that science is not equipped to say with definiteness the ontological status of entities and theories.

Philosophically, this is a different issue. We can probe the tenets of anti-realism and see if it is consistent, etc. We might not be able to disprove anti-realism, but we can at least frame the kinds of things that would need to be true in order for anti-realism to be true (and the same applies to realism). By making progress along these lines within philosophy, certain philosophical perspectives have been gradually weeded out. It is a very slow process. Arguments come and go, but like science the philosophical literature is able to 'disprove' certain viewpoints enough so that we can feel a little unease supporting a particular viewpoint (e.g., positivism which until the mid-1950's was held almost by the whole scientific and philosophical community).

In any case, my point here is that the ontological nature of theories and the ontological nature of entities is a philosophical issue. On the other hand, science is focused on what it does best.

Warm regards, Harv

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