Saturday, December 16, 2006

Scientific realism

In my previous post on Anthropocentrism I may have left the impression that I think that our ideas are not connected to reality. That's not the case. (A simple argument against that position is that we evolved to be able to have thoughts presumably because having thoughts had survival value. It's unlikely that thoughts that aren't connected to reality have that sort of survival value.) My position is what is commonly referred to as Scientific Realism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes it a follows.
Scientific realists hold that the characteristic product of successful scientific research is knowledge of largely theory-independent phenomena and that such knowledge is possible (indeed actual) even in those cases in which the relevant phenomena are not, in any non-question-begging sense, observable. According to scientific realists, for example, if you obtain a good contemporary chemistry textbook you will have good reason to believe (because the scientists whose work the book reports had good scientific evidence for) the (approximate) truth of the claims it contains about the existence and properties of atoms, molecules, sub-atomic particles, energy levels, reaction mechanisms, etc. Moreover, you have good reason to think that such phenomena have the properties attributed to them in the textbook independently of our theoretical conceptions in chemistry. Scientific realism is thus the common sense (or common science) conception that, subject to a recognition that scientific methods are fallible and that most scientific knowledge is approximate, we are justified in accepting the most secure findings of scientists "at face value."
Given that, how can I also argue that our ideas are anthropocentric? Even though I would agree that electrons, dogs, cats, stars, etc. are real entities in Nature, I would also argue that they don't come with labels attached. You won't find an electron with a little tag that says electron. You won't find a star with a tag that says star. (Some cats and dogs may have attached labels, but that's because we put them there.)

So even though our ideas refer (perhaps very accurately) to reality, they are still ideas and are part of reality only to the extent that our brains and the subjective experience that those brains give rise to are also part of reality. Our ideas themselves do not appear in any free-standing way outside of our heads and as part of reality on their own — Plato notwithstanding.

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