Necromancer wrote:Bas van Fraasen comes close and Peter Lipton may be on. I'm with Scientific Realism. Van Fraasen is a closet sceptic? Just old?
In a way, the development of western philosophy (epistemology and metaphysics, at any rate) has been motivated by the friction between realists and anti-realists from the very start. Thales kick-started the whole enterprise by taking an anti-realist view of the gods and insisting that natural causes should be sought for the things that happen. (If you're interested in the ancient stuff, I wrote an article for the magazine a while ago: https://philosophynow.org/issues/104/Ph ... d_Branches
) Plato and Aristotle came along and totally dominated western philosophy for almost two millennia. Both were realists, in that they each thought that we could know 'the truth' about reality, but Plato believed that reality was very different to what we actually see (allegory of the cave), so we had to work out the truth rationally. Whereas Aristotle based his models on observation. They weren't quite a rationalist and empiricist in the modern sense, but the basic division is there.
Anyway, the Romans came along and usurped the Greeks, flattening Corinth to make the point, and for them the important thing about philosophy was the role it could play in politics, as it had been for Plato. So the Roman Catholic Church reinstated the realist interpretation of god, and a great deal of European medieval philosophy was devoted to making Platonism compatible with a middle eastern creation myth, and proving that god is real. Meanwhile, muslim scholars were trying to make Aristotelianism compatible with the Koran. Muslims conquered much of Spain, Christians went on Crusades, the ideas started to mix and Hey Presto! Renaissance. As with Thales' revolution, the key was rejection of received religious orthodoxy; the refusal to accept certain things as real. Galileo used the observations he made with his telescope to show that the official picture of the universe was untrue and was placed under house arrest by the Pope for his troubles. Shortly before this, on a small European outpost, Henry VIII had broken ranks with the Catholic Church, because the Pope wouldn't allow him a divorce, and made himself head of the Church of England. Freed from the dogma of Rome, Galileo's contemporary, Francis Bacon, could argue that truth was not to be found in books, but rather by studying nature. Inspired by his example, a group of British scientists formed an association with the motto Nullius in verba
, take no one's word for it. King Charles II approved, gave them a charter and the association became the Royal Society, the aim of which was to establish the truth about reality by looking at it.
On the continent, Rene Descartes created the template for rationalism by discovering the one thing we do know with absolute certainty: there are experiences. He hoped that he could use this to logically deduce the truth about the world, and even though he was careful to include god in his argument, the idea that truth could be discovered independently of scripture was enough to upset the loonies in the Vatican and Descartes fled to Holland.
Without droning on too much, the Royal Society published Newton's Principia Mathematica. The continental's, Leibniz in particular, complained that there was no explanation for how gravity works. Newton published a second edition in which he said I know and I don't care (hypotheses non fingo, to be precise). Newton's brutal empiricism worked very well, and eventually most scientists accepted the basic premise that what matters is not what is 'real', but what works. In philosophical terms, this has been endorsed by pragmatists, positivists, instrumentalists and probably some other ists I can't remember off the top of my head. It doesn't follow that anyone subscribing to those is an anti-realist, but it's a one size fits all that they can all comfortably wear.
Lipton and Van Fraasen are just following in that tradition. Essentially Lipton is defending rationalism, the idea that the models we use in science relate to something real. For example, the idea of four dimensional spacetime that underpins general relativity, can be thought of as actually existing. Van Fraasen would argue, not that it is or isn't real, but we can't know whether it is, because, as per Duhem-Quine, any number of explanations could be true. As it happens, there are several rival hypotheses to 4D spacetime for the cause of gravity, notably string theory, loop-quantum gravity and modified Newtonian gravity. In a way, the battle is over (or at least a stalemate), because Lipton concedes that all we can infer is the the best, not only explanation. Even so, the fact that we might not know that our theories are true doesn't mean that they are false.
Well done if you have made it this far, and thank you for the compliments.