Advanced Topics in Philosophy of Science: Scientific Realism

Advanced Topics in the Philosophy of Science



Course Description

This course is a detailed investigation of a favourite topic for philosophers of science: scientific realism. Scientific realism is the pervasive idea that our currently accepted scientific theories give an (at least) approximately true picture of reality. We will investigate the details, variations, and philosophical plausibility of this thesis by studying several arguments that have been proffered by its defenders and detractors.  In the process we will touch on a variety of historical and philosophical questions including the nature of truth, the nature of knowledge, the methodology of science, the notion of “progress” in science, and the influence of social factors on scientific theorizing.


Basic Course Structure

This course will be structured as a seminar.  For each class (after the first) there will be two required readings, along with a list of recommended (optional) readings.  At the beginning of each class two students will be selected at random, each giving a ten (10) minute verbal summary of one of the articles for that day.  After the presentations are over, students will discuss the issues raised in the readings, under guidance from the instructor.


Student evaluation will be based on:

  • In-Class Presentation (10%)
  • Non-Critical Reading Summary (5%)
  • Critical Reading Summary (15%)
  • For-and-Against Assignment (30%)
  • Final Essay (40%) 

    Presentation – 10%

    Each assigned reading will be introduced at the beginning of class through a verbal presentation by a randomly selected student.  This will ensure that every student is prepared to contribute to subsequent class discussions.  These presentations will not need to provide a perfect summary of the material in order for the student to get a perfect grade.  The goal will be to demonstrate that one has read and thought about the article by summarizing its main argument and discussing some confusions or objections.


    Non-Critical Reading Summary5%

    Students will be required to produce a one page (approximately 250 word) summary of an argument found in the readings.  The goal will be to concisely reconstruct the specified argument without providing any critique or assessment of that argument.


    Critical Reading Summary10%

    Students will be required to produce a two page (approximately 500 word) summary of one of the readings.  The goal will be to concisely summarize the relevant article by outlining its main argument and to then evaluate this argument.







For-and-Against Assignment30%

Students will be required to write two four page essays (approx. 1000 words each).  One essay will build the strongest case possible in favour of scientific realism.  The other essay will build the strongest case possible against scientific realism.  The essays do not need to address each other, but should attempt to capture the appeal of scientific realism and anti-realism, respectively.


Final Essay40%

Students will be required to write a final essay of eight to ten (8-10) pages in length (approximately 2000-2500 words) on a topic of their choosing related to the course material.  Topics must be discussed with and approved by the instructor in person at least three weeks prior to the due date.

Readings Schedule


Week 1 – Introduction

Required readings:


Recommended readings:



Week 2 – What is Scientific Realism and where does it come from?

Required readings:

1) Section 1 of Chakravartty, Anjan, “Scientific Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

2)  Ladyman, “Understanding Philosophy of Science,” Ch.5

Recommended readings:

1)  Psillos, “The Present State of the Scientific Realism Debate”

2)  McMullin, “A Case for Scientific Realism”


Week 3 – Arguments For Scientific Realism: The “No Miracle” Argument (NMA)

Required readings:

1) Section 2 of Chakravartty, Anjan, “Scientific Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

2)  Sankey, “Scientific Realism: An Elaboration and a Defense”

Recommended readings:

1)  Lyons, “Explaining the Success of a Scientific Theory”

2)  Psillos, “Thinking about the Ultimate Argument for Realism”


Week 4 – Arguments Against Scientific Realism: The Pessimistic Induction (PI), the Underdetermination of Theories by Evidence (UTE), and the Base Rate Fallacy

Required readings:

1) Section 3 of Chakravartty, Anjan, “Scientific Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

2)  Wray, “A Selectionist Explanation of the Success and Failures of Science”

Recommended readings:

1)  Lauden, “A Confutation of Convergent Realism”

2)  Ladyman, “Understanding Philosophy of Science,” Ch. 6;

3)  Magnus and Callender, 2004, “Realist Ennui and the Base Rate Fallacy”

4)  Votsis, “The Prospective Stance in Realism”


Week 5 – Varieties of Anti- Realism Part I: Constructive Empiricism

Required readings:

1)  van Fraassen, “The Scientific Image,” Introduction and Ch.1

2)  Foss, “On accepting Van Fraassen’s Image of Science”

Recommended readings:

1)  Maxwell, “The Ontological Status of Theoretical Entities”

2)  Bourgeois, “On Rejecting Foss’s Image of van Fraassen”

3)  Foss, “On Saving the Phenomena and the Mice: A Reply to Bourgeois concerning van Fraassen’s Image of Science”

4)  van Fraassen, “The Scientific Image,” Ch.2-4

5)  Rosen, “What is Constructive Empiricism?”

6)  van Fraassen, “Gideon Rosen on Constructive Empiricism”

7)  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Constructive Empiricism”

8)  Teller, “Wither Constructive Empiricism”

9) Ladyman, “What’s Really Wrong with Constructive Empiricism: van Fraassen and the Metaphysics of Modality”


Week 6 – Varieties of Realism Part I: Entity Realism and Structural Realism

Required readings:

1)  Worrall, “The Best of Both Worlds”

2)  Hacking, “Representing and Intervening,” Ch.1 and Ch.16

Recommended readings:

1)  Ladyman, “What is Structural Realism?”

2)  Hacking, “Extragalactic Reality: The Case of Gravitational Lensing”

3)  Psillos, “Is Structural Realism Possible?”


Week 7 – Varieties of Anti-Realism Part II: Pragmatism, Nominalism, Instrumentalism, and Social Constructivism

Required readings:

1) Section 4 of Chakravartty, Anjan, “Scientific Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

2)  Kukla, “Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Science”, Ch.1-4

Recommended readings:

1)  Rouse, “Vampires: Social Constructivism, Realism, and Other Philosophical Undead (Review Essay)”

2)  Hacking, The Social Construction of What?, preface and Ch.1

3)  Feyerabend, “How to Defend Society Against Science”


Week 8 – Varieties of Realism Part II: Semirealism and Whig Realism

Required readings:

1)  Chakravartty, “Semirealism”

2)  Solomon, “Social Empiricism,” Ch.3

Recommended readings:

1)  Giere, “Scientific Perspectivism”, Ch.1

2)  Barad, “Meeting the Universe Halfway”, Introduction and Ch.1


Week 9 – Arealism: The Natural Ontological Attitude

Required readings:

1)  Fine, “The Natural Ontological Attitude”

2)  Hendry, “Are Realism and Instrumentalism Methodologically Indifferent?”

Recommended readings:

1)  Psillos, “Agnostic Empiricism versus Scientific Realism: Belief in Truth Matters”

2)  Hendry, “Realism and Progress: Why Scientists Should be Realists”


Week 10 – Stance Realism and Stance Empiricism


Required readings:

1)  Chakravartty, “Stance Relativism: Empiricism versus Metaphysics”

2)  Lipton, “Epistemic Options”

Recommended readings:

1)  van Fraassen, The Empirical Stance, Ch.2

2)  Chakravartty, A Metaphysics for Scientific Realism, preface, Ch.1

3)  Chakravartty, “A Puzzle about Voluntarism about Epistemic Stances”

4)  van Fraassen, “Laws and Symmetry”, Ch.6


Week 11 – Meta-Epistemological Voluntarism

Required readings:

1)  Rowbottom and Bueno, “Stance and Rationality: A Perspective”

2)  Boucher, “What is a Philosophical Stance? Paradigms, Policies and Perspectives”

Recommended readings:

1)  Kukla, “Embodied Stances: Realism without Literalism”

2)  Wylie, “Arguments for Scientific Realism: The Ascending Spiral”

3)  Psillos, “Putting a Bridle on Irrationality: An Appraisal of van Fraassen’s New Epistemology”


Week 12 – Scientific Realism in the History of Scientific Practice

Required readings:

1) Lyons, “Epistemic Selectivity, Historical Threats, and the Non-Epistemic Tenets of Scientific Realism”

2) Wray, “The Methodological Defense of Scientific Realism Scrutinized”

Recommended readings:

1) Forbes, “A Pragmatic, Existentialist Approach to the Scientific Realism Debate”