The Pragmatic Dimension of Scientific Realism

There is a growing consensus that the debate between scientific realists and anti-realists has been argued to a stalemate; I accept the reality of this stalemate. Arthur Fine has argued that the debate between scientific realists and anti-realists is irreconcilable, summarizing his position quite forcefully: “Realism is dead” (1986, p.112).  What he meant was that continuing the debate was a waste of time, so we should stop engaging in it.  The debate has nevertheless continued.

Not much has changed since Fine called time of death on the scientific realism debate.  Many people are convinced that, ultimately, we’ll never be able to produce a compelling and non-circular reason for people to adopt scientific realism rather than anti-realism, or vice versa.  Insofar as some people are realists and others are anti-realists, they seem to hold these positions because they freely choose to, not because they are following the arguments and evidence (e.g. Chakravartty, 2007 and 2011; van Fraassen 2000 and 2002).  What this means is that people who accept scientific realism are acting rationally; at the same time, people who reject scientific realism are acting rationally.  So far as arguments and evidence are concerned, the scientific realism debate seems to have reached a stalemate in this sense: there are multiple, mutually exclusive positions that appear consistent with the evidence, and whose truth has not been established by the extant arguments.

In my analysis, this stalemate results from a narrow conception of how and why we evaluate and adopt intellectual attitudes like scientific realism or anti-realism.  Characteristically, philosophers are mainly considered with assessing people’s epistemic reasons for adopting a view, i.e. their reasons to think it’s true.  But we can also assess people’s pragmatic reasons for adopting a view, i.e. their reasons to think it’s useful.  While philosophers don’t usually consider pragmatic reasons for adopting an intellectual view to be valid, I argue that we can break the stalemate between scientific realists and anti-realists by paying attention to the pragmatic dimensions of philosophical commitment-making.

Not all areas of philosophy focus exclusively on the epistemic evaluation of intellectual commitment.  Pragmatic arguments for theistic commitments are quite common, Pascal’s Wager being the most famous example.  Pascal argued that we should believe that God exists, but not because we have evidence for that belief.  That is, we should work hard to accept the Catholic faith, because the cost-benefit analysis shows it’s the best bet for anyone who sees the Catholic faith as a “live option.”  Pragmatically, we should all be Catholics.

Pascal considers the unknown and otherworldly consequences of our intellectual commitments to Theism or atheism.  But William James, John Stuart Mill, and James Beattie offered pragmatic arguments for Theism that focused entirely on the practical consequences immanent to this world.  Beattie, for example, argued that atheism should be rejected not because it’s clearly false, but because it disturbs the tranquility of retirement, deepens the gloom of human distress, and aggravates the horrors of the grave (1776, 322-323).  Pragmatic arguments like Beattie’s are regularly made by theists during debates with atheists, but in most areas of philosophy pragmatic arguments are seen as unconvincing at best, or irrelevant at worst.  Philosophers, methodologically speaking, are interested in determining which view is true, not which view is most useful to accept.

Accordingly, philosophers of science have been reluctant to construct pragmatic arguments in favour of adopting scientific realism or anti-realism.  Bas van Fraassen once stated that investigating whether scientists benefit more from being realists or anti-realists raises “a totally false issue … for the interpretation of science, and the correct view of its methodology, are two separate topics” (1980, 93).   Whether working scientists have pragmatic reasons to adopt scientific realism (or anti-realism) simply isn’t an issue of concern for most philosophers of science, who want to know which view is true, correct, or rationally preferable per se, not which view is most useful some set of goals and values.  Philosophers are typically concerned with determining which view is true, correct, or rationally preferable per se, not which view tends to result in the most productive practices when adopted.

As it stands we have no good arguments for the truth of either realism or anti-realism.  If we only consider epistemic reasons for adopting one view over the other, we find we are unable to offer compelling reasons to adopt one view and reject the other.  This is why it seems to many philosophers that the scientific realism debate has reached a stalemate.   But if we consider pragmatic reasons to be a realist or an anti-realist, I argue, we can offer plenty of compelling reasons to maintain or alter our philosophical commitments viz. scientific realism or anti-realism.

I aim to overcome the stalemate between scientific realists and anti-realists by constructing pragmatic arguments for accepting one of their positions over the other.   People tend to practice science differently depending on whether they look at it from a realist or an anti-realist perspective, and in certain research contexts those practices tend to prove more fruitful.  My PhD research makes this clear through a detailed case study of three distinct approaches to electrodynamics research in Europe during the late 19th century.  Specifically, Helmholtz’s action-potential approach to laboratory work, Weber’s corpuscularian approach to explaining electrodynamic action, and the Cambridge physicists’ analytic approach to predicting electrodynamic  phenomena were each developed through a different philosophical outlook, and were characterized by distinctive research agendas as a result.  Helmholtz approached his research through a distinctly anti-realist empiricist outlook, Weber approached his as a committed realist, and the Cambridge physicists approached theirs as dogged pragmatists.  Despite their philosophical differences, each school contributed to the advancement of electrodynamics as a result of their distinctive approach, pursuing research agendas that the other two schools were largely unconcerned with carrying out.  So, I argue, their differing philosophical commitments led to different forms of scientific practice, which proved beneficial in specific research contexts.

If such patterns prove historically robust we’ll have empirical evidence that adopting different philosophies of science can lead to distinctive practical outcomes.  My hope is that further research of this type might allow us to construct pragmatic arguments for philosophical views such as scientific realism or anti-realism by showing that, in certain contexts, those who adopt one view rather than the other tend to be more successful in achieving their aims.  The basic argument for (and methodological details of) this project can be found in my piece “A Pragmatic, Existentialist Approach to the Scientific Realism Debate” (2016).

The next stage of my research will involved conducting additional historical investigations of how philosophical commitments have influenced scientific practice.  Following that I hope to use techniques from experimental philosophy and the sociology of science to evaluate how philosophical commitments influence the work of contemporary scientists, science-policy makers, and science educators.  In the long run I hope to use this pragmatic approach to compelling philosophical commitment to help resolve other philosophical debates that seem to have reached a stalemate.