Time for a robust defence of truth in science? (philosophy of science)


Michela Massimi: (excerpt) . . . That truth matters to science is hardly news. For a long time, people have looked to science for truths about the world. The Scientific Revolution was nothing if not the triumph of Galileo’s scientific truth – hard-won through his telescopic observations – over centuries of dogma about the geocentric system. [...] Or consider the Chemical Revolution at the end of the 18th century. [...] Antoine Lavoisier’s scientific truth about oxygen prevailed over false beliefs about phlogiston.

The main actors of these scientific revolutions often fostered this way of thinking about science as an enquiry leading to the inevitable triumph of truth over past errors. [...] Auguste Comte saw the evolution of human knowledge in three main stages: ‘the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive’. In the ‘positive’, the third and last stage, ‘an explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts, the number of which continually diminishes with the progress of science’.

Comte’s positivism was soon decontextualised from its political and social context [...] By the end of the 19th century (and in its early 20th-century reappearance, which I do not have the space to discuss here), the word ‘positivism’ had become – to the ears of many – synonymous with an unfailing optimism in the power of science and technology, and their steady progress toward truth.

In some scientific quarters, this Comtean notion of how science evolves and progresses remains common currency. But philosophers of science, over the past half-century, have turned against the representation of science as a ceaseless forward march toward truth. It is just not how science works, how it moves through history. It flies in the face of the wonderful and subtle historical nuances of how scientific revolutions have in fact occurred. It does not accommodate how some of the greatest scientific minds held dearly to some false beliefs. It wilfully ignores the many voices, disagreements and controversies through which scientific knowledge has often advanced and progressed over time. Simple faith in the ‘Whiggish’ narrative of science naively presumes that progress is marked by some cumulative acquisition of ‘more true beliefs’.

However, many (and legitimate in their own right) criticisms against this naive view of science have committed a similar mistake. They have offered a portrait of science purged of any commitment to truth. They see truth as an inconvenient and disposable feature of science. Fraught as the ideal and pursuit of truth is with tendencies to petty doctrinairism, it is nonetheless a mistake to try to purge it....

[...] This decades-long, multi-pronged, disenchantment-with-truth trend in philosophy of science starts by rejecting the idea that there are facts about nature that make our scientific claims true or false. Fact-constructivism is only one aspect of this multi-pronged disenchantment-with-truth trend. Outlandish as this might sound, its defenders claim that there is not a single, objective way that the world is; there are rather many different and ‘equally true descriptions of the world, and their truth is the only standard of their faithfulness’, in the words of the philosopher Nelson Goodman.

[...] Fact-constructivism sounds too radical to many philosophers, and alienating to most scientists. So here is another approach against factual truth, well-known among philosophers of science. Over the past 40 years, they have produced an extraordinary amount of work on models in science. The role of abstractions and idealisations in scientific models, they maintain, is to select and to distort aspects of the relevant target system. The billiard-ball model of Brownian motion, for example, represents the motion of molecules by idealising them as perfectly spherical billiard balls. Moreover, the model abstracts, or removes, molecules from their actual environment, which is of course where collisions among molecules take place. Studying modelling practices in science has led some to argue that science does not tell the truth but it does provide important non-factive understanding.

[...] To summarise, the history of science, the practice of science, and science policy all provide reasons for disenchantment with truth in science. That is why, in our time, philosophers of science who call themselves realists tend to add some qualifying adjective to the word ‘realism’ (be it ‘structural’, ‘selective’, ‘pragmatic’, ‘perspectival’ or ‘local’). The net result – the dethroning of truth – has left philosophical discussions about its nature to logicians, philosophers of language and metaphysicians, as opposed to philosophers of science.

[...] The time for a defence of truth in science has come. It begins with a commitment to get things right, which is at the heart of the realist programme, despite mounting Kuhnian challenges from the history of science, considerations about modelling, and values in contemporary scientific practice. In the simple-minded sense, getting things right means that things are as the relevant scientific theory says that they are. [...] For the sake of powerful economic interests, sociopolitical consequences or simply different economic principles, one can try to discount, mitigate, compensate for, disregard or ignore altogether the way that things are. But doing so is to forgo the normative nature of the realist commitment in science. The scientific world, we have seen, is too complex and messy to be represented by any quasi-Wittgensteinian picture of atomic facts. Nor can the naive image of Comte’s positive science render justice to it. But acknowledging complexity and historical nuances gives no reason (or justification) for forgoing truth altogether; much less for concluding that science trades in falsehoods of some kind. It is part of our social responsibility as philosophers of science to set the record straight on such matters.

We should expect science to tell us the truth because, by realist lights, this is what science ought to do. Truth – understood as getting things right – is not the aim of science, because it is not what science (or, better, scientists) should aspire to (assuming one has realist leanings). Instead, it is what science ought to do by realist lights. Thus, to judge a scientific theory or model as true is to judge it as one that ‘commands our assent’. Truth, ultimately, is not an aspiration; a desirable (but maybe unachievable) goal; a figment in the mind of the working scientist; or, worse, an insupportable and dispensable burden in scientific research. Truth is a normative commitment inherent in scientific knowledge.

Constructive empiricists, instrumentalists, Jamesian pragmatists, relativists and constructivists do not share the same commitment. They do not share with the realist a suitable notion of ‘rightness’.

MORE (details): https://aeon.co/essays/its-time-for-a-ro...in-science

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