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Scientific realism

Scientific realism is, at the most general level, the view that the world described by science is the real world, as it is, independent of what it might be taken to be.

QuotesEdit

  • "The physical world is real." That is supposed to be the fundamental hypothesis. What does "hypothesis" mean here? For me, a hypothesis is a statement, whose truth must be assumed for the moment, but whose meaning must be raised above all ambiguity. The above statement appears to me, however, to be, in itself, meaningless, as if one said: "The physical world is cock-a-doodle-do." It appears to me that the "real" is an intrinsically empty, meaningless category (pigeon hole), whose monstrous importance lies only in the fact that I can do certain things in it and not certain others.
    • Albert Einstein, Letter to Eduard Study, 25 Sept. 1918, in the Einstein Archive, Hebrew U., Jerusalem; translation in D. Howard, Perspectives on Science 1, 225 (1993).
  • I believe that the first step in the setting of a “real external world” is the formation of the concept of bodily objects and of bodily objects of various kinds. Out of the multitude of our sense experiences we take, mentally and arbitrarily, certain repeatedly occurring complexes of sense impression (partly in conjunction with sense impressions which are interpreted as signs for sense experiences of others), and we attribute to them a meaning—the meaning of the bodily object. Considered logically this concept is not identical with the totality of sense impressions referred to; but it is an arbitrary creation of the human (or animal) mind. On the other hand, the concept owes its meaning and its justification exclusively to the totality of the sense impressions which we associate with it.
  • Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison. But he certainly believes that, as his knowledge increases, his picture of reality will become simpler and simpler and will explain a wider and wider range of his sensuous impressions. He may also believe in the existence of the ideal limit of knowledge and that it is approached by the human mind. He may call this ideal limit the objective truth.
  • It will be difficult. But the difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself, 'But how can it be like that?' which is a reflection of uncontrolled but utterly vain desire to see it in terms of something familiar. I will not describe it in terms of an analogy with something familiar; I will simply describe it. There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe there ever was such a time. There might have been a time when only one man did, because he was the only guy who caught on, before he wrote his paper. But after people read the paper a lot of people understood the theory of relativity in some way or other, certainly more than twelve. On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. So do not take the lecture too seriously, feeling that you really have to understand in terms of some model what I am going to describe, but just relax and enjoy it. I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, 'But how can it be like that?' because you will get 'down the drain', into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.
  • 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.
  • The most common misunderstanding about science is that scientists seek and find truth. They don't — they make and test models.
  • These lectures have shown very clearly the difference between Roger and me. 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. It predicts that the result of an observation is either that the cat is alive or that it is dead. It is like you can't be slightly pregnant: you either are or you aren't.
  • A scientific theory is usually felt to be better than its predecessors not only in the sense that it is a better instrument for discovering and solving puzzles but also because it is somehow a better representation of what nature is really like. One often hears that successive theories grow ever closer to, or approximate more and more closely to, the truth. Apparently generalizations like that refer not to the puzzle-solutions and the concrete predictions derived from a theory but rather to its ontology, to the match, that is, between the entities with which the theory populates nature and what is “really there.”
    Perhaps there is some other way of salvaging the notion of ‘truth’ for application to whole theories, but this one will not do. There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like ‘really there’; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its “real” counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle. Besides, as a historian, I am impressed with the implausability of the view. I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s.
    • Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (1996), Postscript—1969
  • Origin of knowledge. - Through immense periods of time, the intellect produced nothing but errors; some of them turned out to be useful and species-preserving; those who hit upon or inherited them fought their fight for themselves and their progeny with greater luck. Such erroneous articles of faith, which were passed on by inheritance further and further, and finally almost became part of the basic endowment of the species, are for example: that there are enduring things; that there are identical things; that there are things, kinds of material, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in and for itself. Only very late did the deniers and doubters of such propositions emerge; only very late did truth emerge as the weakest form of knowledge. It seemed that one was unable to live with it; that our organism was geared for its opposite: all its higher functions, the perceptions of sense and generally every kind of sensation, worked with those basic errors that had been incorporated since time immemorial. Further, even in the realm of knowledge those propositions became the norms according to which one determined 'true' and 'untrue' - down to the most remote areas of pure logic. Thus the strength of knowledge lies not in its degree of truth, but in its age, its embeddedness, its character as a condition of life.
  • From among the various conceptual schemes best suited to these various pursuits, one—the phenomenalistic—claims epistemological priority. Viewed from within the phenomenalistic conceptual scheme, the ontologies of physical objects and mathematical objects are myths. The quality of myth, however, is relative; relative, in this case, to the epistemological point of view. This point of view is one among various, corresponding to one among our various interests and purposes.
  • There is a strange and wonderful reality out there, but until we devise an experiment that teaches us more than we presently know, it's better to embrace reality as we can measure it than to impose an additional structure driven by our own biases. Until we do that, we're superficially philosophizing about a matter where scientific intervention is required. Until we devise that key experiment, we'll all remain in the dark.
    • Ethan Siegel, "Quantum Physics Is Fine, Human Bias About Reality Is The Real Problem", Forbes (Sep 11, 2019)
  • The debate between scientific realists and anti-realists is one of the classics of philosophy of science, comparable to a soccer match between Brazil and Argentina.
    • Jan Sprenger, "The probabilistic no miracles argument", European journal for philosophy of science (2016)
  • Hawking gives a good description of how scientists come to the conclusion that something is real: we construct intellectual models that, within some range of phenomena, and to some degree of approximation, agree with observation. But he calls this “model-dependent reality,” and suggests that this is all there is to reality.
    Questions about the nature of reality have puzzled scientists and philosophers for millennia. Like most people, I think that there is something real out there, entirely independent of us and our models, as the Earth is independent of our maps. But this is because I can’t help believing in an objective reality, not because I have good arguments for it. I am in no position to argue that Hawking’s antirealism is wrong. But I do insist that neither quantum mechanics nor anything else in physics settles the question.
    • Steven Weinberg, "The Universe We Still Don’t Know", The New York Review of Books (Feb 10, 2011)

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