From owner-bhaskar Wed Oct 16 11:41:50 1996 Date: Wed, 16 Oct 1996 09:36:50 -0600 Message-Id: <> From: Hans Ehrbar <> Subject: rts2-16 56 A Realist Theory of Science 6. A SKETCH OF A CRITIQUE OF EMPIRICAL REALISM I have argued that the causal structures and generative mechanisms of nature must exist and act independently of the conditions that allow men access to them, so that they must be assumed to be structured and intransitive, i.e. relatively independent of the patterns of events and the actions of men alike. Similarly I have argued that events must occur independently of the experiences in which they are apprehended. Structures and mechanisms then are real and distinct from the patterns of events that they generate; just as events are real and distinct >from the experiences in which they are apprehended. Mechanisms, events and experiences thus constitute three overlapping domains of reality, viz. the domains of the real, the actual and the empirical. This is represented in Table 1.1 below. The crux of my objection to the doctrine of empirical realism should now be clear. By constituting an ontology based on the category of experience, Table 1.1 --------------------------------------------------------- Domain of Domain of Domain of Real Actual Empirical Mechanisms X Events X X Experiences X X X --------------------------------------------------------- Note. for transcendental realism d_r>=d_a>=d_e . . . (i) where d_r, d_a, and d_e are the domains of the real, the actual and the empirical respectively. For empirical realism d_r=d_a=d_e . . . (ii). Comment: (ii) is a special case of (i), which depends in general upon antecedent social activity, and in which (a) for d_a=d_e the events are known under epistemically significant descriptions, which depends upon skilled perception (and thus a skilled perceiver); (b) for d_r=d_a an antecedent closure has been obtained, which depends upon skilled experimentation (and thus the planned disruption of nature). --------------------------------------------------------- Philosophy and Scientific Realism 57 as expressed in the concept of the empirical world and mediated by the ideas of the actuality of the causal laws and the ubiquity of constant conjunctions, three domains of reality are collapsed into one. This prevents the question of the conditions under which experience is in fact significant in science from being posed; and the ways in which these three levels are brought into harmony or phase with one another from being described. Now these three levels of reality are not naturally or normally in phase. It is the social activity of science which makes them so. Experiences, and the facts they ground, are social products; and the conjunctions of events, that, when apprehended in experience, provide the empirical grounds for causal laws, are, as we have seen, social products too. It can thus be seen that underlying and necessary for the implicit ontology of empirical realism is an implicit sociology in which facts and their conjunctions are seen as given by nature or spontaneously (voluntaristically) produced by men. In this chapter I have outlined an answer to the question `what must the world be like for science to be possible?'. In Chapter 3 I will ask `what must society be like for science to be possible ?'; i.e. I shall attempt a transcendental deduction of certain basic sociological categories from an investigation of the conditions for the possibility of science. The answer to these two questions will constitute the interwoven themes of this work. It is impossible to over-emphasize how closely they are connected. For once, for example, we reject the doctrine that there are everywhere in nature such things as spontaneously occurring parallel cases and see rather that in general they have to be assiduously worked for and artificially produced in the social activity of science, we are forced to constitute an ontology of structures distinct from events. For us, for the moment, it is sufficient merely to note that the most important feature of science neglected by the doctrine of empirical realism is that it is work; and hard work at that. Work consists, paradigmatically, in the transformation of given products. Scientific change is an integral feature of science, in which what is transformed is a part of the formally accredited stock of scientific knowledge. In a scientific training the object transformed is not knowledge but man himself. But in both cases what is transformed is itself already a social product. The 58 A Realist Theory of Science peculiar significance of experimental activity is that man qua material object (rather than simply thinker or perceiver) exercises his causal powers to transform the natural world itself, of which he is also a part. Now corresponding to the dissolution of ontology in philosophy, there has been a parallel denegation of the social character of science. In Chapter 3 I will set out to vindicate sociology in an attempt to render intelligible scientific change. This will enable me to reconstitute a transitive dimension, as complementary to the intransitive one established here. The concept of the empirical world is anthropocentric. The world is what men can experience. But the couple of this concept, and from a realist meta-perspective necessary to sustain it, is the absence of the concept of the antecedent social activity necessary to make experience significant in science. And this has the objectionable ideological consequence (from the point of view of the practice of science) that whatever men currently experience is unquestionably the world. Now it is central to the argument of this study that the concepts `empirical' and `sense-experience' belong quite unequivocally to the social world of science. Experiences are a part, and when set in the context of the social activity of science an epistemically critical part, of the world. But just because they are a part of the world they cannot be used to define it. An experience to be significant in science must normally be the result of a social process of production; in this sense it is the end, not the beginning of a journey. But only transcendental realism can explain why scientists are correct in regarding experience as in the last instance the test of theory. For it is by means of it that, under conditions which are artificially produced and controlled, skilled men can come to have access to those enduring and active structures, normally hidden or present to men only in distorted form, that generate the actual phenomena of our world. Empirical realism depends upon a reduction of the real to the actual and of the actual to the empirical. It thus presupposes the spontaneity of conjunctions and of facts. And in doing so presupposes a closed world and a completed science. It is important to stress that I am not saying that experiences are less real than events, or events less real than structures. This is the kind of mistake that is encouraged by the way in which Philosophy and Scientific Realism 59 Eddington formulated his problem of the relationship between the familiar and the scientific worlds; in which he described the situation as one in which there were `duplicates' of every object: two tables, two chairs, two pens, etc.43 Since then the problem has always seemed to be that of saying which object is real. For the ordinary language instrumentalist the scientific object is an artificial construct;44 for the scientistic super-realist the familiar object a mere illusion.45 For the transcendental realist however this formulation of the problem is bogus. For if there is a relationship between the worlds it is one of natural generation, not an interpretation of man. The relationship is not between a real and an imaginary object, but between two kinds of real object, one of which is very small. The relationship between electrons and tables has to be understood in terms of causal connections, not correspondence rules. Consequents are not less real, or the statements describing them less true, in virtue of their being effects; any more than causes, in virtue of being recondite, must be imaginary. In particular, the fact that the properties of everyday objects, at what has been picturesquely described as the zone of the middle dimensions,46 can be explained in terms of the very small (or the very large) does not render them less real than the entities that account for them; anymore than zinc and sulphuric acid cease to react in a certain way when we explain their reaction in terms of their atomic structure. For the transcendental realist laws, though not our knowledge of them, are categorically independent of men - as thinkers, causal agents and perceivers. Transcendental realism can thus accommodate both Locke's view that there are (or may be) laws which are unknowable;47 and Kneale's suggestion that 43 A. S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, p. xi. Stebbing substituted the idea of `counterparts' for that of `duplicates' in her rendering of the problem. See L. S. Stebbing, Philosophy and The Physicists, p. 60. 44 See e.g. L. S. Stebbing, op. cit., p. 66; and G. Ryle, Dilemmas, p. 80. 45 See e.g. W. Sellars, `The Language of Theories', Current Issues in the Philosophy of Science, ed. H. Feigl and G. Maxwell, p. 76; and P. K. Feyerabend, `Explanation, Reduction and Empiricism', Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. III, ed. H. Feigl and a. Maxwell, p. 83. 46 M. Capek, The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics, p. 294. 47 J. Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, esp. Bk. IV, Chap. III. 60 A Realist Theory of Science there are (or may be) laws whose instances are unperceivable.48 But it allows in addition the possibility of known laws, whose instances are perceivable, but which, when not instanced in closed systems, remain unmanifest to men. However, my interpretation of these possibilities is different from Locke's (and Kneale's). For the transcendental realist, our knowledge, perceptual skills and causal powers are set in the context of the ongoing social activity of science; and in the course of it they are continually being extended, to which process there can be no a priori limits. Thus though it may be necessary, to the extent that science is always incomplete, that at any moment of time some laws are unknowable; it is not necessary that any particular laws are. Locke's mistake in failing to appreciate the possibility that the `sad experience' of chemists who `sometimes in vain, search for the same qualities in one parcel of sulphur, antimony or vitriol, which they have found in others'49 might come to be transformed in the course of the development of science into a knowledge of the `constitution of their insensible parts, from which flow those sensible qualities, which serve us to distinguish one from another'50 was not a scientific mistake. It did not consist in his failure to foresee the development of the theory of atomic number and valency or to predict Mendeleyeev's predictions. His scepticism over the possibility of a scientific knowledge of real essences was a philosophical mistake, rooted in his theory of ideas. For if all our knowledge is acquired in perception and perception constitutes the world, there can be no place for an antecedent cause of knowledge (or of perception). But as only what is seen as socially produced can be seen as putatively socially transformable, this leads inevitably to an a-historical view of science. Locke's error was not therefore based on an inadequate 48 W. Kneale, Probability and Induction, pp. 97-103. Kneale's point could be strengthened by an argument to show that in the case of physical theories the basic entities must be unperceivable. For if they were perceivable it would seem possible to ask what caused them to manifest themselves to us as perceivable; in which case they could not be basic. This is a general argument in favour of a field-theoretic interpretation of basic entities in physics. Cf. Dingle's comment that if photons could be seen they would get in the way (J. J. C. Smart, op. cit., p. 38). 49 J. Locke, op. cit., Bk. III, Chap. 6.9. 50 J. Locke, op.cit. Bk. IV, Chap. 3.7. Philosophy and Scientific Realism 61 knowledge of chemistry. But on an inadequate concept of the transitive dimension of science, which prevented him >from seeing the current state of chemistry as what it was, viz. the current state of a science; and which thus allowed him to be influenced by it into propounding a general philosophical thesis about knowledge - and in particular of course about the impossibility of a certain kind of knowledge, viz. of real essences. Locke's case has a general moral. For without a concept of science as a process-in-motion and of knowledge as possessing (in the sense indicated in Section 1 above) a material cause, it is easy to argue from the current state of a science to a philosophical thesis about knowledge. Consider, for example, the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum theory. More important perhaps, the influence of Newtonian mechanics on 18th century philosophy led to a kind of stasis in thought from which the philosophy of science has still to recover. Action-by-contact as a paradigm of causality, the celestial closure as a model of knowledge, gravity as the template of our ignorance all had a disastrous effect. The underdevelopment of the sciences of substance in comparison with the science of motion (of the time), and the form that the latter took, thus had, at a decisive moment in the history of philosophy, through the generation of a static philosophical conception of knowledge, a permanent effect on all subsequent `philosophy of science'. It is in this sense that in philosophy we are still prisoners of the scientific thought of the past. The anthropocentric and epistemic biases of classical philosophy have resulted in the dominance, in philosophy, of what might be styled `idols' of a Baconian kind. These are false conceptions which cause men to see, in philosophy, everything in relation to themselves (cf. the concept of the empirical world) and their present knowledge. Six hundred years ago, Copernicus argued that the universe does not revolve around man. And yet in philosophy we still represent things as if it did. In the philosophy of science there must be two Copernican Revolutions. The first establishing a transitive dimension in which our knowledge is seen to be socially produced, and as such neither an epiphenomenon of nature nor a convention of man. The second establishing an intransitive dimension, based on the reconstitution of a philosophical ontology, in which the world of which, 62 A Realist Theory of Science in the social activity of science, knowledge is obtained is seen to be in general quite independent of man. These Copernican Revolutions must be given a Copernican interpretation (for philosophy has its Osianders too); which is why we need the metaphysics of transcendental realism, which will be vindicated by its capacity to render intelligible the underanalysed phenomenon of science. Corresponding to the two criteria advanced on page 24 above two acid tests for a philosophy of science may be developed: (1) is knowledge regarded as socially produced, i.e. as having a material cause of its own kind? or is it read straight onto the natural world or out of the human mind? (2) are the objects of knowledge regarded as existing and acting independently of men? or do they depend implicitly or explicitly upon men for their existence and/or activity? Scientists try to discover the reasons for things and events, patterns and processes, sequences and structures. To understand how they do so one needs both a concept of the transitive process of knowledge-production and a concept of the intransitive objects of the knowledge they produce: the real mechanisms that generate the actual phenomena of the world, including as a special case our perceptions of them. .