Lecture Seven: Scientific Realism
Although our scientific knowledge may be incomplete (we do not know everything about
the world around us), fallible (we are sometimes wrong), and perhaps approximate, still it
appears that scientific knowledge is reliable in terms of predicting the behavior of
Science provides us with more knowledge than just predictions.
reputed to make claims about what nature is actually like.
Thus, science is sometimes
regarded as a replacement for metaphysics.
It can discover the fundamental reality
Modern science offers us seemingly detailed pictures of reality--its composition, its
internal structure, and even the life-cycle of stars.
However, the problem with this claim
(about discovering the nature of ultimate reality) is that it makes claims about
Genetics, neuroscience, cosmology, theoretical physics and so on, all
postulate unobservables such as genes, viruses, atoms, black holes, electromagnetic
With respect to unobservables, scientific realism (the view that science actually describes
the ultimate nature of things) claims that we should believe in the existence of
unobservables postulated by our best scientific theories.
In other words, things like
atoms, electrons, genes and so on accurately depict what actually exists.
They are true
descriptions of the world.
Those who criticize scientific realism generally agree that science is a rational endeavor.
Over the years science has accumulated much empirical knowledge.
But the critics want
to limit what can be justified by science.
So it is not a disagreement over whether or not
science involves rational inquiry.
That is not the issue.
Rather the concern is over the
limits that ought to be imposed on what science can justifiably claim.
For some people, this may seem like an uninteresting question.
After all, scientists can
manipulate atoms and invisible radiation.
Does it really make sense to describe atoms as
Is it reasonable at this juncture to doubt the existence of atoms?
going further, should we doubt the existence of the particles that make-up the atom?
are told that an atom is composed of protons, neutrons and electrons.
neutrons are in turn composed of quarks that are held together by gluons.
of 2 up quarks and 1 down quark, and neutrons are composed of 1 up quark and 2 down
Particle physicists certainly seem to have a good handle on what exists within
Why should we doubt the existence of subatomic particles?
Another example of an unobservable is the hypothetical dark matter and dark energy
postulated by cosmologists.
The following is an article that illustrates the problematic
status of an “observable unobservable”:
Scientists Offer Proof of 'Dark Matter'
Analysis of Galactic Collision Said to Reveal Mysterious Substance
By Marc Kaufman