Sea of Faith, Yorkshire


Gods and Quarks

Notes from November 2007 Meeting - Gods and Quarks

"Making sense of a subject need not consist in portraying it as telling a true story"

Our November session was an exciting afternoon in York, when Helen Bellamy told us about van Fraassen's ABC in the philosophy of science (Acceptance, Belief, Commitment), and the striking parallels (not developed by van Fraassen himself) with views about religions. The main points were:-

1. Gods have roughly the same 'knowledge' status as unobserved (yet accepted) phenomena such as subatomic particles like quarks, known only through inference from observables.

2. Scientists take either a 'Laws of Nature'approach or a pragmatic approach to regular phenomena. In the 'Laws' approach, they assume that deviations from strict regularity are due to inaccurate observation. In the pragmatic approach, they assume that the regularity indicates how things work, more or less reliably, on current understanding of the phenomena.

3. When challenged as to the truth of their claims, 'Laws' - based scientists usually retreat to "the best-established claims of science are approximately true". But this begs the question of what underpins "best established", and it amounts to an incoherent claim of "nearly true" (incoherent in the same way as "a little bit pregnant").

4. The anti-realist (pragmatic, empirical) scientist asks not "Is it true?" but "Does it work?". Theories are seen as human constructs that are more or less successful in predicting practical outcomes.

5. Van Fraassen's 'Constructive Empiricism' says
- we can believe in the reality/truth of what we can see with our own eyes
- we cannot claim truth for what we construct in our own minds
- all our scientific claims must be empirically adequate

6. The following are the arguments for (and against) realism in science.

- We need theoretical objects in order to be able to do science (BUT indispensability is
no guarantee of truth)
- Realism is just common sense (BUT we are easily misled)
- 'It is the truth' is the best explanation for the success of science (BUT theories often turn
out to be wrong, eg Newtonian mechanics and the caloric theory of heat).

7. For much of the last three centuries scientists laboured to produce logico-deductive systems of propositions to represent the world, with correspondence rules linking theoretical to natural entities. Such systems were shown impossible to create and correspondence rules proved problematic to define. If not as a truth-bearing axiomatised system how does the theory represent the world? The possibilities are:-

1) partial isomorphism (like an artistic representation, it partly corresponds)
2) imagination (it is a fully fictional work of imagination)
3) a mixtureof the two

8. So where do we go from here? What is science based on, if not the search for truth? Van Fraassen's answer is:
- Doing science requires COMMITMENT to a theory. For the realist, this means
BELIEF that the theory is really true. If belief cannot be justified, commitment calls for
ACCEPTANCE that the theory is empirically adequate plus consistent, logically
coherent, and so on (these latter requirements constituting scientific values).
von Fraassen comments "Making sense of a subject need not
consist in portraying it as telling a true story" (1980 paper, Philosophy of Science Assosciation)

9. What happens, then, in a scientific revolution - when one theory is overturned by another, better one?
- The scientist makes a 'Leap of Faith'. This calls for emotional involvement. Reasoning,
as we know from other sources, is hardly ever truly free of emotional components. Van
Fraassen describes the scientist 'Taking a Stance' with respect to a theory.
'Stance' means standing someWHERE and someHOW. The WHERE is the theoretical base; the HOW is the emotional component - the values, goals, commitment of the individual scientist.
- A scientific revolution involves keeping the HOW, while changing the WHERE.

"For the materialist, science is what teaches us what to believe. For the empiricist, science is more nearly what teaches us how to give up our beliefs" (Van Fraassen 2002, pp62-63).

VAN FRAASSEN Bas C 2002 The Empirical Stance Yale University Press
1989 Laws and Symmetry Oxford University Press
1980 The Scientific Image Oxford University Press

CHURCHLAND Paul M & HOOKER Clifford A (Eds) 1985 Images of Science Chicago University Press (responses to Van Fraassen 1980)

FRENCH Steven 2007 Science - Key Concepts in Philosophy Continuum
(an accessible background text)