Seeing the unobservable: Van Fraassen and the limits of experience [Book Review]

Synthese 140 (3):331-353 (2004)
Abstract
I. Introduction “We can and do see the truth about many things: ourselves, others, trees and animals, clouds and rivers—in the immediacy of experience.”1 Absent from Bas van Fraassen’s list of those things we see are paramecia and mitochondria. We do not see such things, van Fraassen has long maintained, because they are unobservable, that is, they are undetectable by means of the unaided senses.2 But notice that these two notions—what we can see in the “immediacy” of experience and what is detectable by means of the unaided senses—are not the same. There is no incoherence in maintaining that the immediacy of experience is capable of disclosing to us truths concerning entities that are not detectable by the naked eye. And so, I claim, it does; science and technology provide us with the means to see things we have never seen before. Some of those things are van Fraassen’s unobservables. That suggestion is nothing new. Grover Maxwell long ago emphasized the continuity between seeing with and without instrumentation.3 Van Fraassen originally provided two responses to Maxwell’s arguments: some things that you can see with instruments you can also see without instruments (and those are the observables); and..
Keywords Experience  Information  Observation  Perception  Science  Van Fraassen, B
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