'Courage not under fire': Realism, anti-realism, and the epistemological virtues

Inquiry 44 (3):269 – 290 (2001)
Abstract
This article offers a critical perspective on two lines of thought in recent epistemology and philosophy of science, namely Michael Dummett?s anti-realist approach to issues of truth, meaning, and knowledge and Bas van Fraassen?s influential programme of ?constructive empiricism?. While not denying the salient differences between them (the one a metaphysical doctrine premised on logicolinguistic considerations, the other a thesis primarily concerned with the scope and limits of empirical inquiry) it shows how they converge on a sceptical outlook concerning the realist claim that truth might always transcend the restrictions of some given (or indeed some future best-possible) state of knowledge. The author puts the case that such sceptical arguments, if followed through consistently, must involve giving up all claim to account for our knowledge of the growth of scientific knowledge. He also takes issue with Dummett?s idea of truth as nothing more than a matter of ?warranted assertibility? and with van Fraassen?s likewise verificationist conception of empirical warrant as the most we can have by way of epistemic justification. Thus it is wrong to suppose that the realist is merely indulging in a display of ?courage not under fire? when she assumes ontological commitments in excess of the observational data. This disavowal of realism in favour of a theory which ?saves the (empirical) appearances? has a less-than-distinguished prehistory in the range of compromise strategies adopted by upholders of a dominant metaphysics or world-view, starting out with the orthodox Catholic attempt to defuse the implications of the heliocentric hypothesis advanced by Copernicus and Galileo. Such theological motives are nowadays not so prominent although ? it is suggested fithey do emerge at certain points in Dummett?s writing. More constructively, this article presents a case for objectivism with regard to scientific truth and also for inference to the best causal explanation on both the micro- and the macrophysical scale as the only approach with an adequate claim to make sense of the history of advancements in scientific knowledge to date.
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