The Scientific Image
Van Fraassen (Bas)
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Four Amazon Customer Reviews

  1. Although twenty years old, Van Fraassen's constructive empiricism is still one of the most appealing options in the realism/empiricism-debate. Van Fraassen holds a scientific realism for observable phenomena, but if two scientific theories are both adequate in explaining the observable, it's only a matter of pragmatic virtues to choose between them. This seems plausible. In science unobservable objects are postulated to explain the observable. As such, they can hardly be considered "real" in the same way as observable ones. Naturally the main problem in Van Fraassen's theory is explaining the difference between observable and unobservable phenomena. Surprisingly, he leaves the problem for empirical science and goes on explaining his philosophical standpoints as if the problem had been solved. This, of course, is far from the truth. For instance, evidence of many objects in astronomy can only be derived from other observations. Still, it doesn't seem to be just a pragmatic question whether there are, for example, planets outside of our solar system. Van Fraassen's main idea is to combine realistic and pragmatic viewpoints by the scientific object's empirical status. Being a realist for observable objects and a pragmaticist for unobservable objects, he names himself a constructive empiricist for scientific objects in general. As such, it's an intriguing crossover between epistemological positions ... and very much a common sense one as well. Also notable is Van Fraassen's ability to present complex philosophical viewpoints in an understandable manner. His introduction to scientific realism is one of the best I've read.
  2. Bas van Fraassen rejects the current trend in philosophy of science toward scientific realism. In this book, he advocates something he calls constructive empiricism as an alternative; his constructive empiricism has a neo-positivist feel to it, but the development of his own position is not the most interesting aspect of this book. His criticisms of scientific realism, which really form the heart of the work, are extremely detailed, forceful, and interesting; they present a challenge which, after a decade and a half, scientific realists have yet to meet.
  3. This is a must read for anyone wishing to sincerely engage in philosophy of science. It should change the way you think about science, but it does not deny anything essential to science. Just so you know, Van Fraassen is a Catholic, so he does seem to believe in unobservable entities, though he denies that empirical science as it is commonly understood can tell us anything about them directly.
  4. In this book, van Fraassen put forth a 'constructive empiricist' anti-realist account of science. The book contains many metaphors and even a short story. Yet it is often unclear whether he is prescribing norms for scientists, and merely describing their practice. (This may result from his counterfactual account, which strangely seems to warrant belief in propositions containing terms allegedly referring to unobservables that have nevertheless not been observed. At best, the account makes perfect agnosticism preferable to belief-formation with respect to propositions containing unobservable terms, where such prescriptions are justified on the basis of something other than facts.) The book represents what positivist philosophy might have become in the absence of thinkers who were more sensitive to the subtleties between the philosophy of language and ontology.

Preface (Full Text)
  1. The aim of this book is to develop a constructive alternative to scientific realism, a position which has lately been much discussed and advocated in philosophy of science. To this end, I shall present three theories, which need each other for mutual support. The first concerns the relation of a theory to the world, and especially what may be called its empirical import. The second is a theory of scientific explanation, in which the explanatory power of a theory is held to be a feature which does indeed go beyond its empirical import, but which is radically context-dependent. And the third is an explication of probability as it occurs within physical theory (as opposed to: in the evaluation of its evidential support). The first two chapters form a brief and relatively popular introduction to the debates concerning scientific realism, and will thereby explain the organization and strategy of the remainder. I have kept the exposition non-technical throughout, referring for technical details to journal articles where they seem to me more rightfully to belong.
  2. My debts are numerous; many of them will be clear from the notes. I would like to add here a few personal acknowledgements. My greatest debt in philosophy of science has always been to Adolf Grunbaum: this debt was renewed when I attended his lecture on Dirac's electrodynamics at Santa Margharita in 1976, a paradigm of philosophical exposition of science which I can scarcely hope to emulate. To Clark Glymour, Clifford A. Hooker, Hilary Putnam, Wesley Salmon, J.C.C. Smart, and Wilfrid Sellars. I owe the debt of the challenge of their philosophical positions and their willingness to discuss them with me, both on public occasions and in personal correspondence. The title of this book is a phrase of Wilfrid Sellars's, who contrasts the scientific image of the world with the manifest image, the way the world appears in human observation. While I would deny the suggestion of dichotomy, the phrase seemed apt. [… snip …]
  3. Many friends and colleagues helped at various stages during the writing of this book by reacting, at once sympathetically and ruthlessly, to my arguments, ideas, and didactic stories; Paul Benacerraf, Nancy Cartwright, Ronald de Sousa, Hartry Field, Yvon Gauthier, Ronald Giere, Karel Lambert, Edwin Levy, Margot Livesey, D.H. Mellor, Ben Rogers, Richmond Thomason, and Roger Woolhouse, to mention only a few. The main theses of this book were presented in lectures at a number of occasions, the last before press being three lectures at Princeton University in May 1979.
    [… snip …]

    §1. Scientific Realism and Constructive Empiricism – 6
    → §1.1 Statement of Scientific Realism – 6
    → §1.2 Alternatives to Realism – 9
    → §1.3 Constructive Empiricism
    §2. The Theory/Observation ‘Dichotomy' – 13
    §3. Inference to the Best Explanation – 19
    §4. Limits of the Demand for Explanation – 23
    §5. The Principle of the Common Cause – 25
    §6. Limits to Explanation: a Thought Experiment1 – 31
    §7. Demons and the Ultimate Argument – 34
    §1. Models – 41
    §2. Apparent Motion and Absolute Space – 44
    §3. Empirical Content of Newton's Theory – 46
    §4. Theories and their Extensions – 47
    §5. Extensions: Victory and Qualified Defeat – 50
    §6. Failure of the Syntactic Approach – 53
    §7. The Hermeneutic Circle – 56
    §8. Limits to Empirical Description – 59
    §9. A New Picture of Theories – 64
    §1. Empiricist Epistemology and Scepticism – 71
    §2. Methodology and Experimental Design – 73
    → §2.1 The Roles of Theory – 73
    → §2.2 Measuring the Charge of the Electron – 74
    → §2.3 Boyd on the Philosophical Explanation of Methodology – 77
    → §2.4 Phenomenology of Scientific Activity – 80
    §3. The Conjunction Objection – 83
    §4. Pragmatic Virtues and Explanation – 87
    → §4.1 The Other Virtues – 87
    → §4.2 The Incursion Pragmatics – 89
    → §4.3 Pursuit of Explanation – 92
    §1. The Language of Explanation – 97
    → §1.1 Truth and Grammar – 97
    → §1.2 Some Examples – 101
    §2. A Biased History – 103
    → §2.1 Hempel: Grounds for Belief – 103
    → §2.2 Salmon: Statistically Relevant Factors – 106
    → §2.3 Global Properties of Theories – 109
    → §2.4 The Difficulties: Asymmetries and Rejections – 111
    → §2.5 Causality2: the Conditio Sine Qua Non – 112
    → §2.6 Causality3: Salmon's Theory – 118
    → §2.7 The Clues of Causality4 – 123
    → §2.8 Why-questions – 126
    → §2.9 The Clues Elaborated – 129
    §3. Asymmetries of Explanation: A Short Story – 130
    → §3.1 Asymmetry and Context: the Aristotelian Sieve – 130
    → §3.2 ‘The Tower and the Shadow' – 132
    §4. A Model for Explanation – 134
    → §4.1 Contexts and Propositions – 134
    → §4.2 Questions – 137
    → §4.3 A Theory of Why-questions – 141
    → §4.4 Evaluation of Answers – 146
    → §4.5 Presupposition and Relevance Elaborated – 151
    §5. Conclusion – 153
    §1. Statistics in General Science – 159
    §2. Classical Statistical Mechanics – 161
    → §2.1 The Measure of Ignorance – 161
    → §2.2 Objective and Epistemic Probability Disentangled – 164
    → §2.3 The Intrusion of Infinity – 167
    §3. Probability in Quantum Mechanics6 – 169
    → §3.1 The Disanalogies with the Classical Case – 170
    → §3.2 Quantum Probabilities as Conditional – 175
    → §3.3 Virtual Ensembles of Measurements – 177
    §4. Towards an Empiricist Interpretation of Probability – 178
    → §4.1 Probability Spaces as Models of Experiments – 178
    → §4.2 The Strict Frequency Interpretation – 181
    → §4.3 Propensity and Virtual Sequences – 187
    → §4.4 A Modal7 Frequency Interpretation – 190
    → §4.5 Empirical Adequacy of Statistical Theories – 194
    §5. Modality8: Philosophical Retrenchment – 196
    → §5.1 Empiricism and Modality9 – 196
    → §5.2 The Language of Science – 198
    → §5.3 Modality10 without Metaphysics – 201
    NOTES – 216
    INDEX – 231

"Van Fraassen (Bas) - Arguments Concerning Scientific Realism"

Source: Curd & Cover - Philosophy of Science - The Central Issues
COMMENT: From "Van Fraassen (Bas) - The Scientific Image"

"Van Fraassen (Bas) - The Scientific Image"

Source: Van Fraassen - The Scientific Image

Introduction (Full1 Text)
  1. The opposition between empiricism and realism is old, and can be introduced by illustrations from many episodes in the history of philosophy. The most graphic of these is perhaps provided by the sense of philosophical superiority the participants in the early development of modern science felt toward the Aristotelian tradition. In that tradition, the realists held that regularities in the natural phenomena must have a reason (cause, explanation), and they sought this reason in the causal properties, constituting what they called the substantial forms or natures, of the substances involved in natural processes. The nominalists, who denied the reality of these properties, were in the position of having to reject such requests for explanation.
  2. The philosophers engaged in developing the philosophical foundations of modern science had apparently escaped this dilemma. Without postulating such causal properties, forms, or ‘occult qualities', they could still explain the regularities that are observed in nature. To give an account of such phenomena as heat or chemical reactions in terms only of mechanical attributes, they realized quite well, required at least an atomic theory of matter. But I suppose it is clear that they will face that same dilemma again for the regularities they postulate in the behaviour of the atomic parts. No mechanical explanations are possible there, since the atoms have no further parts. So either they must attribute specific powers, qualities, and causal properties to those atoms to explain why they act and react in the way they actually do; or else they must, like the nominalists before them, reject the request for explanation.
  3. In addition, they have gained a problem. Part of the motivation for the nominalist rejection of the Aristotelian realists' world of powers, properties, dispositions (made famous by Moliere's virtus dormitiva) was epistemological. The observation of the phenomena did not point unambiguously to the supposed causal connections behind them. This problem exists similarly for the atomic hypotheses: the phenomena do not decide their truth or falsity, though they are perhaps better explained by one hypothesis than by another. Subsequent scientists intent on clarifying the philosophical basis of their discipline found it ever more difficult to reconcile their professed empiricism and antipathy to metaphysics with an unqualified belief in hypotheses that describe a supposed world behind the phenomena.
  4. This led in the nineteenth century to the phenomenalism of Ernst Mach, the conventionalism of Henri Poincare, and the fictionalism2 of Pierre Duhem. In the twentieth, the logical empiricism of Hans Reichenbach and logical positivism of Rudolph Carnap were further developments in this radical turn to empiricism.
  5. Today, however, no one can adhere to any of these philosophical positions to any large extent. Logical positivism, especially, even if one is quite charitable about what counts as a development rather than a change of position, had a rather spectacular crash. So let us forget these labels which never do more than impose a momentary order on the shifting sands of philosophical fortune, and let us see what problems are faced by an aspirant empiricist today. What sort of philosophical account is possible of the aim and structure of science?
  6. Studies in philosophy of science divide roughly into two sorts. The first, which may be called foundational, concerns the content and structure of theories. The other sort of study deals with the relations of a theory on the one hand, to the world and to the theory-user on the other.
  7. There are deep-going philosophical disagreements about the general structure of scientific theories, and the general characterization of their content. A current view, not altogether uncontroversial but still generally accepted, is that theories account for the phenomena (which means, the observable processes and structures) by postulating other processes and structures not directly accessible to observation; and that a system of any sort is described by a theory in terms of its possible states. This is a view about the structure of theories shared by many philosophers who nevertheless disagree on the issues concerning a theory's relation to the world and to its users. Opponents of that view will at least say, I think, that this account of what science is like is true ‘on the face of it', or correct as a first approximation.
  8. One relation a theory may have to the world is that of being true, of giving a true account of the facts. It may at first seem trivial to assert that science aims to find true theories. But coupled with the preceding view of what theories are like, the triviality disappears. Together they imply that science aims to find a true description of unobservable processes that explain the observable ones, and also of what are possible states of affairs, not just of what is actual. Empiricism has always been a main philosophical guide in the study of nature. But empiricism requires theories only to give a true account of what is observable, counting further postulated structure as a means to that end. In addition empiricists have always eschewed the reification of possibility (or its dual, necessity). Possibility and necessity they relegate to relations among ideas, or among words, as devices to facilitate the description of what is actual. So from an empiricist point of view, to serve the aims of science, the postulates need not be true, except in what they say about what is actual and empirically attestable.
  9. When this empiricist point of view was represented by logical positivism, it had added to it a theory of meaning and language, and generally a linguistic orientation. Today that form of empiricism is opposed by scientific realism, which rejects not only the views on meaning of the positivists, but also those empiricist tenets which I outlined in the preceding paragraph. My own view is that empiricism is correct, but could not live in the linguistic form the positivists gave it. They were right to think in some cases that various philosophical perplexities, misconceived as problems in ontology and epistemology, were really at bottom problems about language. This opinion is correct especially, I think, about problems concerning possibility and necessity. The language of science, being a proper part of natural language, is clearly part of the subject of general philosophy of logic and language. But this only means that certain problems can be set aside when we are doing philosophy of science, and emphatically does not mean that philosophical concepts must be one and all linguistically explicated. The logical positivists, and their heirs, went much too far in this attempt to turn philosophical problems into problems about language. In some cases their linguistic orientation had disastrous effects in philosophy of science. Scientific realism, however, pursues the antithetical error of reifying whatever cannot be defined away.
  10. Correlative to discussions of the relation between a theory and the world, is the question what it is to accept a scientific theory. This question has an epistemic dimension (how much belief is involved in theory acceptance?) and also a pragmatic one (what else is involved besides belief?). On the view I shall develop, the belief involved in accepting a scientific theory is only that it ‘saves the phenomena', that is, correctly describes what is observable. But acceptance is not merely belief. We never have the option of accepting an all-encompassing theory, complete in every detail. So to accept one theory rather than another one involves also a commitment to a research programme, to continuing the dialogue with nature in the framework of one conceptual scheme rather than another. Even if two theories are empirically equivalent, and acceptance of a theory involves as belief only that it is empirically adequate, it may still make a great difference which one is accepted. The difference is pragmatic, and I shall argue that pragmatic virtues do not give us any reason over and above the evidence of the empirical data, for thinking that a theory is true.
  11. So I shall argue for an empiricist position, and against scientific realism. In some ways, philosophy is a subject of fashions — not more so than other intellectual disciplines, I suppose, but at least to the extent that almost any philosopher will begin by explaining that he opposes the ‘dominant' or ‘received' view, and present his own as revolutionary. It would be quite suspicious therefore if I were to say at this point that scientific realism has become dominant in philosophy of science. Others have certainly characterized it as the emerging victor: Isaac Levi recently wrote, ‘My own view is that the coffin of empiricism is already sealed tight.' There is therefore at least already considerable sentiment on the side of realists that they have replaced the ametaphysical empiricism of the positivists. The empiricist position I mean to advocate will be strongly dissociated from both. (See Chapter 2 §1.2 and Chapter 1 for some remarks on positivism.)
  12. In part my argument will be destructive, countering the arguments brought forward by scientific realists against the empiricist point of view. I shall give a momentary name, ‘constructive empiricism', to the specific philosophical position I shall advocate. The main part of that advocacy will be the development of a constructive alternative to scientific realism, on the main issues that divide us: the relation of theory to world, the analysis of scientific explanation, and the meaning of probability statements when they are part of a physical theory. I use the adjective 'constructive' to indicate my view that scientific activity is one of construction rather than discovery: construction of models that must be adequate to the phenomena, and not discovery of truth concerning the unobservable. The baptism of this philosophical position as a specific ‘ism' is not meant to imply the desire for a school of thought; only to reflect that scientific realists have appropriated a most persuasive name for themselves (aren't we all scientific, and realists, nowadays?), and that there is after all something in a name.

In-Page Footnotes ("Van Fraassen (Bas) - The Scientific Image")

Footnote 1: Longer quotations excised.

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