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North American Philosophical Publications

Arguments for Scientific Realism: The Ascending Spiral


Author(s): Alison Wylie
Reviewed work(s):
Source: American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Jul., 1986), pp. 287-297
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of the North American Philosophical Publications
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American Philosophical Quarterly
Volume 23, Number 3, July 1986

ARGUMENTS FOR SCIENTIFIC REALISM:


THE ASCENDING SPIRAL
Alison Wylie

I. Introduction prise; most crudely, it defends the common sense


view that science is in the business of investigating
ALTHOUGH I have little sympathy for an independently existing reality and that its best
**> his "dictum" on the established claims about this reality (both observa?
Nagel's instrumentalism,
debates over scientific realism (as Boyd refers to tional and theoretical) are approximately true of it.
There are two ways of defending this theory to
it) is disconcertingly accurate; it does seem as if
"the already long controversy...can be prolonged which its proponents return again and again. The
first strategy is to eliminate rivals that challenge
indefinitely."1 The reason for this, however, is not
that realists and instrumentalists are divided by us to revise our intuitions by showing that they are

merely terminological differences in their "pre? just wrong in what they claim about science or that
ferred mode[s] of speech",2 indeed, this analysis they lead to absurdity if consistently developed.
This yields various forms of "default" argument
appeals only if you are already convinced that
realism of any robust sort is mistaken. The debates for realism; realism is endorsed as the only alterna?
tive that survives criticism. The second strategy is
persist, instead, because the most sophisticated pos?
itions on either side now incorporate self-justifying one of drawing out and substantiating the intuitions
of the aim of philosophy and of the that support realism so it is proven an especially
conceptions
standards of adequacy appropriate for judging phil? plausible (not just the only remaining) philosoph?
theories of science. Realism and anti ical account of science as actually practiced. This
osophical
realism thus confront one another as preferred and is typically achieved either by "indispensability"
incommensurable modes of philosoph? or "miracle" arguments. The former turn on the
essentially
ical practice; it is in this sense that they have demonstration that the acceptance of realist tenets
"dialectical resources for maintaining is essential to scientific practice, the latter on the
[their posi?
claim that the truth of these tenets is a necessary
tions] in face of [virtually any] criticism."3
condition for scientific practice or its success.
In what follows I first give an analysis of the
central forms of argument for realism and anti a) Default Arguments for Realism. Most contem?
realist responses to them that shows how the locus porary realists began by assuming the plausibility
of their views about science and concentrated on
of debate has shifted to metaphilosophical issues.
This is the basis for characterizing the development of default arguments; their point
and assessing
of departure was a critique of positivism, in particu?
the forms of philosophical practice that are now
lar, its criteria of demarcation. Where theory and
emerging; my thesis is that there are strong grounds
for preferring observation cannot be sharply segregated, they
realism if the competing positions
are judged as comprehensive insisted that there is no basis for adopting different
research programs.
epistemic attitudes toward theoretical as opposed
to observational claims. They urged, moreover,
II. Forms of Realism
that a realist construal is appropriate for all classes
of knowledge claims, including the theoretical,
Scientific realism is at once attractive and con? because the alternative of extending anti-realist sus?
troversial because it purports to preserve a good picions about theory to observational claims yields
many cherished intuitions about the scientific enter an untenable skepticism. As Churchland puts it,

287
288 AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

"we cannot adopt an instrumentalist or other non c)Miracle Arguments for Realism. Miracle argu?
realist attitude toward the doctrines and ontologies ments take claims about the indispensability of
of novel theoretical frameworks unless we are wil? realist assumptions as their point of departure, but
ling to give up truth, falsity and real existence they make the success of science, rather than the
across the board."4 Realism thus prevails by default nature of scientificpractice itself, their direct
so long as anti-realists are unprepared to embrace explanandum. Their proponents argue that, where
such skeptical consequences or are unable to formu? mature research is informed at all levels by theoret?
late a defensible criterion of demarcation. The criti? ical presuppositions about "the deep structure of
cisms brought against van Fraassen's new object reality," its dramatic success would be inexplicable
based criterion suggest that there may be no distinc? unless these presuppositions were, in fact, approx?
tion to draw between "theoretical" and "observa? imately true.
tional" claims that is sufficiently hard and fast to To secure this argument realists must respond to
do the work required of it by anti-realists.5 various forms of "methodological Darwinism" that
Nevertheless, the possibility does remain that a either deny the role of theory in research practice
viable alternative might be forthcoming, con? or deny it realist significance. Van Fraassen's ver?
sequently, these early default arguments must be sion of this objection is, of course, that there is no
considered inherently inconclusive. As the debates need to invoke realist conditions to account for the
have unfolded, attention has turned to arguments development of scientific knowledge because "any
that offer a constructive, rather than purely critical, theory is born into a life a fierce competition, a
defense of realist claims about science. jungle red in tooth and claw" in which those theories
b) Indispensability Arguments for Realism. The that survive are just the ones that "latch onto actual
simplest of the constructive arguments for realism regularities in nature"; the constraints imposed by
turns on the observation that researchers in the a demand for empirical adequacy are sufficient to
advanced sciences are very largely (and increas? account for success.10 Realists like Boyd and
ingly) preoccupied with "esoteric experiments" and Rescher have been at pains to point out that this
"esoteric searches"6 the explicit purpose of which sort of argument rests on a mistaken analogy.
is to find out about entities that exist beyond the Methodological Darwinism is falsified at precisely
range of our unaided senses, either as an end in the points where biological theories of evolution
itself or as a means of explaining observable were not and in precisely the ways that justify
Putnam goes so far as to declare, on appeal to some analog of the "teleological forces"
phenomena.7
this basis, that it is disingenuous?"incoherent" and rejected by biological Darwinists; the extent of sci?
"intellectually dishonest"?to follow the anti entific success is so great, and the rate and directed
realist in denying what we must believe in practice; ness of its development so rapid, it cannot have
it is just necessary to "take amethodological stand" been achieved by means of an "inductively blind"
concerning the existence and accessibility of some process of trial-and-error (Rescher11 in criticism of
such theoretical entities in order to get the research Popper12), or by means of selection for hypotheses
enterprise off the ground.8 The obvious difficulty that are (merely) adequate, as van Fraassen suggests
with this, however, is that indispensability does (Boyd13). Increasingly accurate theoretical under?
not guarantee truth. It is conceivable that we may standing of the subject reality must be recognized
suffer systematic delusion; indeed, such delusion to play an essential role at least in the selection of
may even have practical advantage to the point that hypotheses to test and in the design and evaluation
it is, itself, indispensable (as ideology, to the form of tests of them.14
of life it supports.9 In the end, indispensibility argu? Rescher takes up the case against Darwinist con
ments do little more than assert that realism is intui? struals of the initial selection process; he proposes
tively compelling; it is in the miracle arguments a "palatable" version of the Peircean thesis that we
that a strong constructive case is made for realism must have an inborn "cognitive instinct" for nar?
and it is in connection with them that meta-level rowing the field of all conceivable hypotheses to
considerations come into play. a few especially plausible candidates. The difficulty
ARGUMENTS FOR SCIENTIFIC REALISM: THE ASCENDING SPIRAL 289

is, however, that he characterizes this instinct in scientific knowledge.19 In addition, it is com?
purely methodological terms. It consists in monplace that background theory or theoretical
"heuristic principles of method...[that have] hunches about underlying causes determine which
emerged from a process of trial-and-error in variables to manipulate and which empirical reg?
inquiry,"15 which is just to say that it is strategies ularities, of the infinite number that might be pro?
for selecting theses, rather than individual theses, duced by experimental means, will be considered
on which the selective pressures of the cognitive genuine, "projectible" regularities rather than
enterprise operate.16 This simply pushes the miracle "mere" experimental artifacts; even when the aim
of success back one level and obscures the fact that is just to define constant conjunctions among
scientific "guessing" is systematic?the key to its observables, experiments are routinely designed to
success on Rescher's account?precisely because isolate a suspected (theoretically postulated) causal
it is informed guessing. A number of recent mechanism and regularities are documented as the
analyses of research practice, many developed (undisturbed, projectible) effects of its operation.
without any direct reference to the debates over Scientific success in establishing reliable empirical
realism, make it clear that researchers proceed generalizations would thus seem to depend directly
wherever possible by building on existing theories on the accuracy of orienting theoretical assumptions
about the subject domain and related or analogous about unobservable dimensions of the subject real?
phenomena.17 The implication is that the exponen? ity.
tial pattern of increase in scientific understanding Boyd makes a parallel case for the theory-depen?
must be attributed to progressive improvement in dence of esoteric research, specifically experi?
the accuracy (realistically construed) of the back? mental biology, where theoretical hunches are the
ground andcollateral theory that informs the direct object of inquiry.20 Here, again, researchers
development of new theories; Peirce's "faculty of are highly selective in the design and evaluation
divining the Ways of Nature"18 is best conceived of experiments. They control for alternative
as the use of accumulated theoretical knowledge mechanisms or complicating factors that are
to determine what sorts of entities or causal known, on background theory, to be capable of
mechanisms a candidate hypothesis may plausibly replicating or masking the operation of the
postulate for given sorts of phenomena.
to account mechanisms postulated by the test theory, and they
On realist analyses, this same sort of background assess the import of experimental results in light
knowledge determines how (initially plausible) of these same considerations (i.e., whether the test
hypotheses will be tested and how the resulting results arise from an experimental set-up that effec?
evidence will be evaluated even in the most nar? tively controls for all theory-anticipated artifacts.)
rowly empirical research. Realists frequently point Given this, Boyd argues that if the theories
out that constant, generalizable conjunctions of informing research were "replaced by others which
events are rarely manifest in the observed world; are empirically equivalent but theoretically diver?
they must be deliberately produced by closing down gent, quite different methodological practices
natural systems, limiting the range of variables that would be identified as appropriate,"21 and quite
interact and manipulating the conditions under different judgements would be made "regarding the
4 '"
which they interact. This engages two levels of degree of confirmation that test evidence affords
realist presupposition. Unless it can be assumed both claims about presumptive entities and
that the patterns of events observed under experi? "generalizations about observables."22 The scien?
mental conditions are the effects of independently tific process of selecting for "fit" hypotheses among
existing causal structures, they cannot be expected those deemed plausible is not, then, and could not
to "persist and operate outside the context of [ex? be a matter of selecting only for empirical adequ?
perimental] closure," hence, they cannot stand as acy. It "would be amiracle" that research so directly
evidence for any general systematization of informed by theoretical presuppositions about "the
phenomena or support the predictive, manipulative Ways of Nature" should consistently pay off as it
functions that constitute the instrumental value of does, even at a purely instrumental level, if these
290 AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

presuppositions were not in fact approximately, and realist understanding of scientific inquiry and
increasingly, true of an independently existing real? knowledge claims; they may serve certain philo?
ity. sophical ends but they leave the point and form of
d) Anti-Realist Skirmishing. This miracle argu? actual practice a mystery. Like the Craig and
ment sets a new challenge for anti-realists; they Ramsey "theory-demolition" strategies of the
must show that the features of science which seem 1950s, it is technically possible to reconstrue
to require realist explanation?its success, its con? theoretical claims in respectably empiricist terms
cern with theoretical understanding, and the theory but this requires significant distortion of practice
dependence of research practice?can perfectly which, on Craig's own account, does not afford
well be accounted for (i.e., explained away) in any obvious clarification of the reduced expres?
non-realist terms. To this end van Fraassen asks sions ,or of scientific reasoning and methodology.27
what purpose esoteric research serves if not ulti?
mately to increase (by however circuitous a route) III. The Escalation of Conflict
empirical adequacy and predictive, manipulative
power with regard to observable phenomena; he With this, the question arises why one would
insists that all apparent reference to unobservables seek an anti-realist reconstrual of research practice:
can be reformulated in sanitized empiricist terms why take such "heroic" measures28 to establish that
as indirect talk about empirical consequences and the scientific enterprise does not, in fact, investigate
the formal, structural resources of alternative and inform on an independently existing reality in
theories.23 Laudan argues this point in historical both its observable and unobservable dimensions?
terms. The junk-heap of science is replete, he The answer seems to be that, in the eyes of anti
insists, with theories that once enjoyed considerable realists, the use of abductive inference in both
empirical success despite the fact that, in retrospect, realist philosophy and science involves unsupport
the claims they made about unobservables were able epistemic risk. On Laudan's account, "critics
just false. Approximately true knowledge of the of epistemic realism have [ever since antiquity]
"deep structure" of reality cannot, therefore, be a based their skepticism upon a deep-rooted convic?
necessary or sufficient condition for the instru? tion that the fallacy of affirming the consequent is
mental success of science.24 indeed a fallacy."29 The principle of this objection,
The cases Laudan cites have been re-analyzed as suggested by van Fraassen's frequent compari?
in realist terms, showing that they are by no means sons of scientific realism to theism, is that insofar
as unambiguously anti-realist in import as he as we lack any context- or theory-transcendent
claims,25 and Boyd has reinforced his original standpoint from which to judge our theoretical
analysis with examples of research practice in claims, and history suggests (by "pessimistic induc?
which the principles guiding inquiry lack estab? tion") that all are subject to revision or rejection
lished empirical consequences so that they must be however indispensable they may seem, it is unav?
considered irreducibly theoretical.26 These oidable that we may be globally in error.
responses do deflect the new anti-realist offensive As a criterion for judging the plausibility of phil?
in the sense that they provide compelling reasons osophical theories, this principle of doubt counsels
for continuing to take realist accounts seriously, that the analysis of science ought not be governed
but their success is limited. The historical and by a principle of charity. Its meta-philosophical
methodological case for or against realism remains corollary, also due to van Fraassen, is that "making
inconclusive; certainly, an anti-realist of sufficient sense of a subject [philosophically] need not consist
ingenuity will always be able to reformulate in portraying it as telling a true story."30 Philoso?
theoretical claims and considerations as covert phers must be "disinterested in the right way,"
references to observables. What realists have which turns out tomean that they must be impartial
shown is, however, that non-realist accounts are not only with regard to the competing theories that
quite simple reformulations. They are parasitic and practitioners hold about their subject but also with
somewhat strained constructions on a primary regard to the reflective (meta-level) theories that
ARGUMENTS FOR SCIENTIFIC REALISM: THE ASCENDING SPIRAL 291

they hold about the aims and achievements of the lished scientific forms of reasoning and explana?
research enterprise. Where scientific realism is con? tion.33 It also means that a justification can be given
cerned, the moral is that the affirmation of for taking seriously precisely the entrenched beliefs
entrenched convictions (or implicit presupposi? and presuppositions that van Fraassen insists a phi?
tions) about the ontological conditions of practice losopher of science must bracket. If scientific
and the epistemic status of our best theories is "not abduction follows a principle of building on
the only option we [philosophers] have."31 "We" received knowledge, then philosophical abduction
are encouraged to adopt the critical, uninvested may, indeed should, take internal, common sense
stance of observers who have the freedom to ques? understandings of its subject (science) as its point
tion these convictions and to explore alternative, of departure.34
non-realist ways of conceptualizing the research All of this presumes, of course, that it is appro?
enterprise. priate for a philosopher to adopt the standpoint of
With this, the locus of debate about realism shifts a practitioner, at least as the starting point of
from differences over the details of rival theories analysis, and that philosophical inquiry cannot, or
about science to a more comprehensive meta-phil should not, be as sharply segregated from the prac?
osophical disagreement about the principles that tices it purports to investigate as van Fraassen
govern the formulation and evaluation of these insists. No doubt many anti-realists would reject
theories. If philosophical inquiry is governed by a this approach out of hand because it aims at a kind
general commitment to minimize epistemic risk, of analysis that they would consider a proper part
as recommended by anti-realists, then a non-realist of the subject of inquiry, not of its philosophical
reconstrual of practice will always be justified how? explication. Nevertheless itmust be admitted that,
ever strained or derivative itmight be. Realist alter? from the point of view of a realist who does not
natives necessarily indulge in, indeed, they share this conception of the philosophical enterprise
endorse, a "leap of faith" that is, on this view, both and who embraces a principle of charity in the
epistemologically unjustifiable (it involves an philosophical explication of scientific practice, it
insecurable meta-abduction) and methodologically is anti-realists who must justify their radical ques?
suspect (it embodies a lapse of the disinterest appro? tioning of practice. It is they who must give special
priate to philosophical inquiry). reasons for "going so far" as to adopt a comprehen?
Realists have been quick to respond that this sive principle of doubt according to which we are
shifting of the burden of proof to their shoulders, not justified in accepting the theoretical presuppos?
this demand that they give special justification for itions and conclusions of our most successful scien?
"going so far" as to endorse the presuppositions of tific practice as anything more than heuristic fic?
successful practice, requires its own justification tions. Realism and anti-realism are thus formulated
and is, indeed, illegitimate judged in realist terms. as self-sufficient research programs whose
Like anti-realists, their analyses of science and of orienting meta-philosophical rationale assures that
the history of science are informed by a meta-phil each holds what is, in their own terms, a "best"
osophical rationale. It is that philosophy (specifi? (or, fully adequate) and essentially unassailable
cally, philosophy of science) is best conducted as conception of science.
an extension of science itself; its central task should
be to provide a naturalistic, "a posteriori" explica? IV. Competing Philosophical Programs
tion of the theoretical knowledge and methodolog?
ical principles embodied in actual research prac? Given this assessment of the current debates, I
tice.32 This means that philosophy can do no better suggest that they turn on the question what, exactly,
than to adopt the strategies of inquiry that have realist as opposed to anti-realist approaches have
proven so successful in science, the paradigm of to offer as comprehensive philosophical research
empirical, a posteriori inquiry; abductive forms of programs. The realist does have one very strong
inference are especially recommended because they objection to bring against the anti-realist once this
replicate what are, on a realist account, long estab issue is made explicit. It is a strong version of the
292 AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

default argument. If anti-realists are consistent in There remain, however, good pragmatic reasons
their commitment to a meta-level principle of epis? for embracing realism and with them, the indispen?
temic caution, in particular, if they really believe sability argument for realism resurfaces. The
that the use of abductive inference must be called analyses of research methodology cited earlier do
into question across the board, they must recognize establish that successful practice presupposes the
that their challenge undermines not only realist independent existence of its subject and the approx?
claims about science and theoretical claims formu? imate truth of received theoretical knowledge about
lated within science, but also virtually all empirical it. Although these presuppositions may conceivably
generalizations, including the claim that science is be false, and the success of science a happy accident
instrumentally reliable. The identification of spe? (or worse, an illusion), the fact that they constitute
cific scientific practices as successful depends, as the actual (albeit, tentative and evolving) founda?
much as the identification of particular patterns of tion of a form of practice that has served us well
conjunction as regularities, on a theory-mediated suggests that they do warrant charitable explication.
inference that they are projectible. The presuppos? The argument supporting this is twofold; first, it
itions backing these inferences are, moreover, is worth seeking a philosophical account of scien?
irreducibly theoretical because, by regress, their tific inquiry that makes its presuppositions out to
justification is itself dependent on a selective, be largely true just as a matter of general
theory-informed constitution of data as evidence methodological principle and, second, this prin?
that supports them. Consequently, if anti-realists ciple of charity (in particular, its application to
continue to accept the Churchland premise that science) is warranted on independent pragmatic
robust talk of "truth, falsity and real existence" grounds because inquiry that embodies it stands to
must be preserved at least where empirical knowl? contribute to the research enterprise itself. It prom?
edge claims about observables and instrumental ises an explication and refinement of one compo?
success are concerned, their principled rejection of nent ofthe conceptual framework?the epis
realism leads directly to a wholesale skepticism temological and theoretical tradition?that actually
that they cannot accept; realism is vindicated by guides scientific research and is responsible, at least
default of the inherent inconsistency of anti in part, for its success. The approach of a pragmatic
realism.35 realist thus constitutes an extension of the self
If anti-realists were
prepared, however, to carry reflective turn taken by practitioners who recognize
through their commitment to a principle of doubt the need for an explicit, systematic understanding
and embrace the consequences of its consistent of how scientific inquiry actually proceeds that can
application (i.e., if they were prepared to abandon stand as a source of guidelines for building on past
the Churchland premise and with it, their residual or
parallel successes.37

realism), realists could not sustain the strong Really thorough-going, consistent anti-realists
miracle argument claim that realist conditions must could never provide such forward-looking "reg
obtain. However rewarding research practice is and ularization" of research practice because it depends
however fruitful its supporting theoretical tradition, on what are, for them, illegitimate generalizations
no analysis of history or practice could rule out the that science has been successful and that specific
possibility that the success of science is just a lucky conditions can be identified and projected as suc?
miracle, albeit a miracle on which we depend in cess-producing or success-enhancing. If anti
virtually all ourday today and
scientific realists are to follow through their commitment to
additivities.36 Thus, if anti-realists defuse the chal? a principle of doubt, their aim in analysis of the
lenge of the new default argument by making their history and practice of science must be the purely
objections to epistemic risk fully consistent, they critical one of demonstrating that "realist tenden?
have grounds for rejecting the abductive inferences cies" to engage abductive forms of inference are
on which strong constructive arguments for realism unjustifiable and dispensable; they are limited to
inevitably depend. In this case, miracle arguments piecemeal illustration of their conviction that
for realism fail as well. theoretical considerations can be reformulated in
ARGUMENTS FOR SCIENTIFIC REALISM: THE ASCENDING SPIRAL 293

observational terms, or are so unstable that their limited argument from indispensability does take
approximate truth cannot reasonably be postulated the skeptical point of thorough-going anti
as an explanation of the instrumental reliability of realism?it does acknowledge that the theoretical
scientific method. The only constructive claim they presuppositions of scientific practice can never be
can make about the theoretical component of sci? secured with certainty against the possibility of
ence is that it consists of heuristically valuable arti? global error?but it responds to this threat in the
cles of faith that researchers have fortuitously "fas? manner of a mitigated rather than nihilistic skepti?
tened on to" and believe (presumably, by an act cism. Given the presumption that there are good
of faith) to be fruitful in recursively improving the reasons (outlined above) to seek a charitable under?
empirical adequacy of the total system of scientific standing of the scientific enterprise, a realists' gen?
knowledge claims; from their perspective there can eral aim must be to disembed the methodological
38
be nothing more to say. and theoretical principles that underlie scientific
There is some suggestion in van Fraassen's meta research and to determine what pragmatic justifica?
philosophical comments and in Hesse's advocacy tion they warrant by reconstructing the details of
of intellectual pluralism39 that the anti-realists' pro? their genesis and fate in practical application. The
gram of radical questioning may, nonetheless, insight that research practice is theory-dependent
serve the important creative function of initiating suggests a further, more program of
specific,
(or, at least, of opening up the possibility of) an inquiry. Where methodology is concerned, it
exploration of alternatives to the existing tradition suggests that a central objective should be to specify
of scientific practice and understanding. This the quasi-formal principles of inference that govern
option has not been much exploited by anti-realists, appeals to collateral and background theory: prag?
however, and my suspicion is that this is because matic realists should undertake to give a systematic
it steers too close a course to the sort of mystery account of how abductive inferences (qua, judg?
mongering and speculation that they mean to ments about the relevance of disparate theoretical
repudiate as heirs to classical empiricism. In any resources to an enigmatic subject) are formulated
case, it is not open to a consistent anti-realist to in the process of building plausible hypotheses,
endorse any of the alternative modes of under? setting tests for them, and assessing their evidential
standing or inquiry that s/he might identify. The support.41 Where the theoretical presuppositions of
most congenial option thus remains the generation practice are concerned, the aim should be to deter?
of tropes and counter-examples that purport, in the mine whether or when research in various fields
style of traditional skepticism, to expose the dog? has become systematically successful enough to
matism inherent in scientific practice and realist infer the relative accuracy of the supporting theoret?
theories of science without propounding any dog? ical traditions42 and then give a conceptual analysis
matic commitments of its own.40 of the content of these traditions that shows which
I suggest, then, that anti-realism is a self-con? postulates warrant existential commitment and sus?
sciously limited program of philosophical inquiry. tained investigation or use as the basis for the
If it is consistent, its purposes are largely served development of new theory. The practical value of
when it has exposed the epistemic insecurities of this last is that it promises to delineate the intercon?
its realist competitors, that is, when it has carved nections and expose inconsistencies that hold
a niche for itself within the arena of among the (often fragmentary) theoretical commit?
philosophical
competition. This is not surprising. Given a ments that practitioners take for granted as the con?
defining ethic of professional disengagement, the ceptual foundation for their abductive inferences.
anti-realists' philosophical jungle could not be Taken as a whole, this program of analysis can
expected to select for substantive understanding of broaden the range of experience on
significantly
how we actually establish the knowledge we con? which reflective practitioners draw in assessing or
sider paradigmatically "reliable," however red it developing options for inquiry within their own
might be in tooth and claw. fields; it provides the basis for a systematic com?
By contrast, a pragmatic realism based on a parative assessment of the methods and theoretical
294 AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

initiatives that have paid off over time and in dif? research but the criticisms they produce will be
ferent disciplinary contexts. local, not global; the existing tradition will consti?
Although anti-realists will undoubtedly consider tute the standard and point of departure for their
such inquiry deeply partisan and object that it serves analysis. The significance of this is that, as a result,
just to perpetuate unjustifiable epistemic commit? realist analyses can have constructive content that,
ments, it should be obvious that realists are by no I have argued, is incompatible with the meta-phil
means constrained to provide an uncritical apologia osophical commitments of (consistent) anti
for the existing scientific status quo. The interest realism. They cannot only clarify difficulties but
of pragmatic realists do converge on those of reflec? also direct attention to potentially fruitful options
tive practitioners in the sense that both are con? for inquiry (e.g., as suggested by historical or com?
cerned to enhance the success?the scope, effi? and, in this, they can provide
parative analysis)
ciency, and precision?of scientific inquiry. On both the impetus and specific directives for con?
the account given above, however, this means that structive departures from the scientific norm. The
both have a special commitment to ongoing, rigor? realist program of inquiry is, then, one
pragmatic
ously critical analysis of research practice and its essential component of the scientific process of
presuppositions; both proceed on the understanding refining our Peircean instincts so as to obviate the
that it is crucially important to the success of the need to rely on blind trial and error in inquiry and
scientific enterprise to identify and correct mistaken
in action. It is an exercise in drawing lessons from
perceptions about the fruitfulness of particular
experience that will underwrite informed judgments
methods (viewed historically or by comparison with about how to proceed with inquiry and how or what
other fields), to recognize when these methods
to believe on the basis of its results.
depend on covert theoretical assumptions about the
To conclude, consistent anti-realism about sci?
nature of the subject that are incompatible with
ence has a good deal to offer in making clear the
collateral or emerging theoretical conceptions of
and tensions that
tenuousness of our epistemic situation. What is
it, and to expose discontinuities
more, its deconstructive criticism may well consti?
exist within the theoretical realm. The main differ?
ence between realists and anti-realists is not, then, tute a self-sufficient, indeed unassailable, philo?
that the former are limited to complacent sophical program. But if philosophy is to com?
accep?
tance of the scientific tradition where the latter can prehend the activities that we actually undertake
initiate criticism of it, rather, it lies in the scope despite the constraints and insecurities that anti
of the critical challenge that they articulate. Realist realists bring to our attention, a scientific realism
well be informed by anti-realist based on the pragmatic argument sketched here is
analyses may
insights about the general limitations of scientific indispensable.43

The University of Western Ontario Received September 9, 1985

NOTES

1. Ernest The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation (New York, 1961), p. 145.
Nagel,
2. Ibid., p. 141.

3. Ibid., p. 145.

4. Paul M. Churchland, Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind (Cambridge, 1979), p. 2.

5. Bas C. van Fraassen, The Scientific Image (Oxford, 1980). See, in particular, Jeff Foss's critical discussion, "On Accepting
van Fraassen's of Science," of Science, vol. 51 (1984), pp. 79-92; and reviews by Philip P. Hanson and Edwin
Image Philosophy
Levi in Philosophy of Science, vol. 49 (1982), pp. 290-291, Christopher Peacocke, in the Times Literary Supplement, January
Friedman in The Journal vol. 79 (1982), see especially pp. 278-279.
30,1980, pp. 121, and Michael of Philosophy, pp. 274-283,
6. Geoffrey Hellman, "Realist Principles," Philosophy of Science, vol. 50 (1983), p. 232.
ARGUMENTS FOR SCIENTIFIC REALISM: THE ASCENDING SPIRAL 295

7. As Putnam puts this point, researchers who concern themselves with "radio stars or genes or mesons" typically "do not want
theories to obtain predictions...[indeed, these] are often not the slightest interest in themselves, but are only of interest because

they tend to establish the truth or falsity of some theory"; Philosophy of Logic (New York, 1971), p. 72.
8. Ibid., p. 94.
9. Bas van Fraassen
makes this criticism in review of Putnam's Philosophy of Logic in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy,
vol. 4 (1975),pp. 733-740. The Scientific Image also contains discussion of indispensibility arguments, both in response to Putnam

(pp. 34-46) and, more generally, in discussion of the "phenomenology of scientific activity" (pp. 80-83). To drive his point home,
he invokes an analogy between the leap of faith that realists must make when they resort to indispensibility arguments and that

engaged by theists who infer the existence of God from the fact that, for them, it is unquestionable "that life is impossible without

faith, that the existence of God alone can ground morality and give meaning to life" (p. 734).

10. van Fraassen, The Scientific Image, op. cit., p. 41.


11. Nicholas Rescher, Methodological Pragmatism (New York, 1977), Chapter IX; and, Peirce's Philosophy of Science: Critical
Studies in His Theory of Induction and Scientific Method (Notre Dame, 1978), pp. 51-63.

12. Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (Oxford, 1972), pp. 242-247.

13. Richard N. Boyd, "Lex Orandi est Lex Credendi," in Images of Science: Essays on Realism and Empiricism (University of

Chicago Press [Chicago 1985]), ed. by Paul M. Churchland and Clifford A. Hooker; see especially the section "Darwinism and
the Methods of Science," pp. 23-30.

14. See James Robert Brown, "Explaining the Success of Science," for an assessment of what realist arguments against methodolog?
ical Darwinism come to; Ratio vol 27 (1985), pp. 49-66.
15. Rescher, Peirce's Philosophy of Science, op. cit., p. 61.
16. Rescher, Methodological Pragmatism, op. cit., Chapter IX. Rescher argues that this methodological amendment is sufficient
to account for the nature and rate of scientific success because methods are inherently general; they operate on whole classes of
these so that once researchers hit on a success-producing method, their capacity to formulate and evaluate scientific knowledge
claims increases exponentially in the manner manifested historically (pp. 72-74).
17. See, for example, Andrew Lugg, "Overdetermined Problems
Studies inHistory in Science,"
and Philosophy of Science, vol.
9 (1978), pp. 1-18, and "Theory Choice to
and Resistance
Change," Philosophy of Science, vol. 47 (1980), pp. 227-243; E. A.

MacKinnon, "Theoretical Entities and Metatheories,' Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 3 (1972), pp. 105-117;

Dudley Shapere, "The Concept of Observation in Science and Philosophy," Philosophy of Science 49 (1982), pp. 485-525; Richard
N. Boyd, "Realism, Underdetermination, and a Causal Theory of Evidence," Nous, vol. 7 (1973), pp. 1-12, "Scientific Realism
and naturalistic Epistemology" in PSA 1980:
Proceedings of the 1980 Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association,
Volume 2, ed. by P. D. Asquith and R. N. Giere (East Lansing 1981), and "On the Current State of Scientific Realism," Erkenntnis
19 (1983), pp. 45-90; and, Clyde L. Hardin and Alexander J. Rosenberg, "In Defense of Convergent Realism," Philosophy of
Science, vol. 49 (1982), pp. 604-615.
Rescher does accord metaphysical "presumptions" an important role in the development and of cognitive
justification
methodologies but these are very abstract assumptions about the active/responsive nature of humans and the uniformity of the
natural world that serve primarily to establish a philosophical rationale for treating pragmatic success as a criterion of "truthfulness"

(see Methodological Pragmatism, especially Chapters VI and VII). The studies cited above suggest that research methodology
depends on much richer, more detailed factual and theoretical presumptions. demonstrates that the formulation of new
Lugg
theories and debates over their plausibility, are very closely constrained
of consistency not
by requirements only with the evidence

they are meant to cover but also with what we presume to know about related, contributing, or analogous phenomena. Likewise,
MacKinnon and Shapere show how background theory underwrites finegrained and highly discriminating judgments about which

postulated entities warrant existential commitment and further investigation as real or, in an attenuated sense, "observable" (Shapere'
concern), and which will be as heuristically
admitted only valuable. Within the context of debates over realism, Hardin and

Rosenberg argue on the basis of historical analysis that researchers do typically select for theories that expand on or save (are
consistent with, incorporate, or correct and explain the limitations of) past theoretical successes. claims that it is, in fact,
Boyd
a general methodological in science that "new theories should, facie, resemble current theories with to
principle prima respect
their accounts of causal relations among theoretical entities" ("Underdetermination," op. cit., p. 8).
18. Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers, Volume V, ed. by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur Burks (Cambridge,
MA; 1931-1958), p. 107.

19. Roy Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science (Atlantic Highlands, NJ; 1978), p. 64.
296 AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY

20. Boyd, "Underdetermination," op. cit., and also subsequent discussions in "Scientific Realism and Naturalistic Epistemology,"
op. cit., and "Current State of Scientific Realism," op. cit.
21. Boyd, "Lex Orandi est Lex Credendi," op. cit., p. 9.
22. Ibid., p. 10.

23. van Fraassen, Scientific Image, op. cit., pp. 77-80. Presumably van Fraassen could extend his analysis to all "inter-theoretic"
assessments of plausibility. He might even agree that consistency with past the formulation and selection of new
theory guides
as Boyd but insists that this presumes no more than that theories more
theories, claims, are, perhaps statistically, likely to be
fruitful in "saving the phenomena" if they preserve and expand on the structural resources of instrumentally successful theories.

24. Larry Laudan, "A Confutation of Convergent Realism," Philosophy of Science vol. 48 (1981) pp. 19-49, p. 33.
25. Hardin and Rosenberg, op. cit.

26. Boyd cites cases in which rely on untested


researchers theoretical hunches or, more on conjunctions of independently
important,
established hypotheses testing without
these conjunctions themselves. This common practice could not be justified unless the
individual conjuncts were presumed approximately true of different aspects of a unitary "The Current State
subject reality; Boyd,
of Scientific Realism," op. cit., and "Lex Orandi est Lex Credendi," op. cit. There are important discussions of this "conjunction

objection" in two reviews of van Fraassen's Scientific Images, op. cit., Friedman's review, op. cit., pp. 280-281, and Demopoulos's
review in The Philosophical Review vol. 41 (1982), pp. 603-607, especially p. 605.
27. William Craig, "Auxilliary Expressions," The Philosophical Review, vol. 65 (1953), p. 54. See Friedman, op. cit., pp.
279-281, for a similar assessment of anti-realist treatments of science specifically as embodied in van Fraassen's "constructive

empiricism."
28. Hanson and Levi, op. cit., p. 192.

29. Laudan, op. cit., p. 45.


30. Bas C. van Fraassen, "Theory Construction and Experiment: An Empiricist View" PSA 1980: Proceedings of the 1980 Biennial
Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Volume 2, ed. by P. D. AsquithandR. N. Giere, (East Lansing, 1981) p. 665.
31. Ibid., p. 666.
32. This conception of the philosophical enterprise is supported by the science-based argument that the success of scientific practice
is a contingent matter; it depends on whether or not science has reached what Boyd calls a "take-off point" at which the theoretical
tradition backing practice incorporates enough approximately true claims about the subject domain to be an effective guide for
further investigation. Given this, Boyd argues that philosophy of science must be conducted as an "a posteriori study" of how
theoretical traditions have developed and of the dialetical relation of the beliefs in question to such reliable or unreliable features
of belief regulation as are relevant. (There will be nothing more to say.)"; Boyd, "Scientific Realism and Naturalistic Epistemology,"
op. cit., 639.

33. W. H. Newton-Smith, The Rationality of Science (Boston, 1981).


34. Boyd argues, in this connection, that realist theories of science
enjoy special plausibility because they "rest upon the common
sense, pre-philosophical, realistic understanding of the principles involved [in research practice], and of the reasons why they are
justified"; "The Current State of Scientific Realism," op. cit., p. 82.
35. Boyd takes this line in response to Fine in "Scientific Realism and Naturalistic Epistemology," op. cit., p. 659.
36. Realism is inevitably vulnerable to such skeptical challenge by definition of embracing a context- and theory-transcendent
concept of truth.

37. In an interesting discussion of the relationship between philosophy and practice, Jaegwon Kim identifies this reflective turn

specifically with sciences whose paradigms are sufficiently "mature and comprehensive" that it "becomes important for
the

self-knowledge of practitioners to undertake...intraparadigmatic inquiry [concerning the conceptual, foundational, and regulative

aspects of a given paradigm]" ("Rorty on the Possibility of Philosophy," The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 78 (1980), pp. 588-597,
p. 595). Such is also important to, and actively sought by, practitioners in sciences whose paradigms are immature
self-knowledge
or in crisis, so I propose to broaden Kim's insight to apply to them as well.
38. Certainly, it does not seem that much
explication can be given of the theory-dependent
useful judgements that actually inform
research practice if your mission that they are eliminable.
is to show There is, likewise, little ground or motivation for giving an

of the crucial distinctions that researchers make concerning the epistemic attitude appropriate to different theoretical
analysis
if you are already committed to the view that these propositions are to be treated as a class (defined
propositions philosophically
by contrast to observational claims) to which a single, limited epistemic attitude is appropriate.
ARGUMENTS FOR SCIENTIFIC REALISM: THE ASCENDING SPIRAL 297

39. van Fraassen, "Theory Construction," op. cit., and, Mary Hesse, Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science
(Brighton, 1980), especially Part IV, "Science and Religion."

40. Another option that may be open to consistent ant-realists is the elaboration of sociologically reductive accounts of science
like those proposed by the Edinburgh "strong school"
sociologists; these do, certainly, represent a concertedto develop
effort an
account of science that does not make it out to be a source of "true stories." This was suggested to me by John Collier. I would
add the caveat that it is not at all clear that anti-realists would embrace the challenge posed by such an approach (specifically, its

"principle of reflexivity") to the self-definition of philosophy as a purely cognitive enterprise.


41. I have in mind here that build on
the general account given by Gilbert Harman in "Inference to the
science-specific analyses
Best Explanation," Philosophical Review vol. 74 (1965) pp. 88-95, and by Paul R. Thagard in "The Best Explanation: Criteria
for Theory Choice," The Journal of Philosophy vol. 75 (1978) pp. 76-92. In addition to the studies of scientific methodology
cited earlier, this approach seems evident in some recent analyses of confirmation procedures, especially Glymour's bootstrapping
model as developed in Theory and Evidence (Princeton, 1980) and in the more substantive responses to it published in John
Earman's collection, Testing Scientific Theories (Minnesota, 1983).
42.See note 32 above. Hardin and Rosenberg op. cit., and Peter Smith (in Realism and the Progress of Science (Cambridge,
1981) have undertaken historical analyses that exemplify this approach.

43. Support for the research that resulted in this paper was provided by a University of Calgary Postdoctoral Fellowship (1984-85).
Versions of the paper were read at Washington University (May 1984) and at the Western Canadian Philosophy Association

meetings in Vancouver (October 1984); I benefited greatly from the discussion it generated in both contexts. In particular, I thank
Ed Levy, Richard Watson, John Collier, and Kathleen Okruhlik for comments on earlier drafts.