Realism in the age of string theory

String theory currently is the only viable candidate for a unified description of all known natural forces. This article tries to demonstrate that the fundamental structural and methodological differences that set string theory apart from other physical theories have important philosophical consequences. Focussing on implications for the realism debate in philosophy of science, it is argued that both poles of that debate become untenable in the context of string theory. On one side the claim of underdetermination of scientific theories, which represents a pivotal element of empiricism, looses its appeal. On the other side the dissolution of any meaningful notion of an external ontological object destroys the basis for conventional versions of scientific realism. String theory seems to suggest an intermediate position akin to Structural Realism that is based on a newly emerging principle, to be called the principle of theoretical uniqueness. An appreciation of string theory’s considerable impact on basic conceptions of philosophy of science can also contribute to a clearer picture of string theory’s status and relevance in a scientific context.
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