Ph.D graduate student: Dept. of History and Philosophy of Science & Dept. of Statistics
University of Pittsburgh
Some Thoughts on the O&M 2013 Conference
I was struck by how little speakers at the Ontology and Methodology conference engaged with the realism/antirealism debate. Laura Ruetsche defended a version of Arthur Fine’s Natural Ontological Attitude (NOA) in the first talk of the conference, but none of the speakers after her addressed the debate directly. David Danks and Jim Woodward made it particularly clear that they were deliberately avoiding questions about realism in favor of questions about what kinds of ontologies our theories should have in order to best serve the various purposes for which we develop them.
I am not criticizing the speakers! I am inclined to agree with Clark Glymour that the kinds of questions Danks and Woodward addressed are more interesting and important than questions about “what’s really real.” On the other hand, I worry that we lose something when we focus only on the use of science toward such ends as prediction and control. During the discussion period at the end of the conference, Peter Godfrey-Smith argued that science has some value simply for telling us what really is the case. For instance, science tells us that all living things on earth have a common ancestor, and that fact is a good thing to know regardless of whether or not it helps us predict or control anything.
One feature of the realism/antirealism debate that has long bothered me is that it treats all of “our best sciences” as if they had roughly the same epistemic status. In fact, realism about quantum field theory, for instance, is much harder to defend than realism about evolutionary biology. I am inclined to dismiss the realism debate as ill-formed insofar as it presumes that the question of scientific realism is a single question that spans all of the sciences. I am also suspicious of the debate in its bread-and-butter domain of fundamental physics. It is not clear to me that there is such a thing as fundamental physics; that if there is such a thing as fundamental physics, then it is converging toward a unified ontology; that if it is converging toward a unified ontology, then we can make sense of the question whether or not that ontology is correct; or that if we can make sense of the question whether or not that ontology is correct, then we have the means to give a justified answer to that question.
Nevertheless, as Glymour pointed out during the open discussion period, there are still good and open questions to address about whether and how we are justified in believing that science tells us the truth in other domains (such as evolutionary theory) where the realism question seems relatively well-formed and answerable. We can dismiss questions about “what’s really real” at a “fundamental level” while still thinking that philosophers of science should have a story to tell the 46% of Americans who believe that human beings were created in more or less their current form within the last 10,000 years—not a story about how science serves purposes of prediction and control, but a story about how science can help us find the truth.