Scientific Realism

Edited by Howard Sankey (University of Melbourne)
Assistant editor: Zili Dong (University of Western Ontario)
About this topic
Summary Scientific realism is primarily a view about theoretical science.  According to a classic (or "standard") form of scientific realism, the unobservable "theoretical" entities postulated by scientific theories (e.g. atoms, electrons) are real and theoretical claims about those entities are true or approximately true.  Scientific realism contrasts with commonsense realism, which is realism about the observable entities of the ordinary, everyday world.  Scientific realism may be combined with commonsense realism, though some philosophers take there to be a conflict between science and common sense, which may make it difficult to reconcile the two doctrines.  Some scientific realists ("entity realists") emphasise the reality of theoretical entities while downplaying or avoiding altogether talk of the truth of theories.  Some scientific realists (e.g. "structural realists") downplay or reject the reality of theoretical entities while emphasising structural aspects of theory or reality. Some anti-realists (e.g. "constructive empiricists") admit commonsense realism while rejecting or withholding judgment about scientific realism.  The classic opponent of scientific realism ("instrumentalism") denies that theoretical discourse about theoretical entities is to be interpreted in literal fashion, instead taking the latter to be fictitious entities which play at most a role in prediction at the observational level.  The major argument for scientific realism is the "success argument" (also known as the "no miracles argument" and the "ultimate argument") that scientific realism is the best explanation of the success of science.  Scientific realists who emphasize truth in their formulation of the view require an account of approximate truth or verisimilitude because they tend to see science as progressing toward truth rather than having already reached the final truth about the world (this view is sometimes known as "convergent realism").  The main arguments against scientific realism are that the truth of theory is radically underdetermined by empirical data and the so-called "pessimistic induction" from the falsity of past theories to the likely falsity of current theories.  An important response to the latter objection is that scientific realists should only take specific parts of theories to be true or approximately true rather than take the entirety of a theory to be true or approximately true (so-called "deployment realism"). 
Key works Ian Hacking's book, Representing and Intervening Hacking 1983, provides general discussion of the issues relating to scientific realism, emphasising entity realism.  Stathis Psillos's book, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth Psillos 1999, also provides general coverage, while developing a deployment realist approach. Two important collections are Jarrett Leplin (ed.) Scientific Realism Leplin 1984, and the more recent Routledge Handbook of Scientific Realism edited by Juha Saatsi Saatsi 2017.  Larry Laudan's paper, 'A Confutation of Convergent Realism', presents criticism of scientific realism that is sometimes understood as a pessimistic induction Laudan 1981.  Bas van Fraassen's book, The Scientific Image Van Fraassen Bas 1980, presents criticism of scientific realism and articulates the constructive empiricist form of anti-realism.  For development of structural realism, see John Worrall, 'Structural Realism: The Best of Both Worlds?' Worrall 1989 and James Ladyman 'What is Structural Realism?' Ladyman 1998.
Introductions See Michael Devitt's entry on scientific realism in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary PhilosophyDevitt 2005 and Anjan Chakravartty's entry on scientific realism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Chakravartty 2013.  For a quite basic introduction to scientific realism, see Howard Sankey, 'What is Scientific Realism?' Sankey 2000, which is also available in French translation Sankey 2002.
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Varieties of Scientific Realism
  1. Giere's Scientific Perspectivism as Carte Blanche Realism.Mario Gensollen & Marc Jiménez-Rolland - 2021 - ArtefaCToS. Revista de Estudios de la Ciencia y la Tecnología 10 (1):61-74.
    In this paper we explore Ronald N. Giere’s contributions to the scientific realism debate. After outlining some of his general views on the philosophy of science, we locate his contributions within the traditional scientific realism debate. We argue that Giere’s scientific perspectivism is best seen as a form of carte blanche realism, that is: a view according to which science is a practice aiming at truth, and can warrantably claim to have attained it, to a certain degree; however, it does (...)
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  2. The Relativity of Theory by Moti Mizrahi: Pandemics and Pathogens: What’s at Stake in the Debate Over Scientific Realism? [REVIEW]Margaret Greta Turnbull - forthcoming - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A.
    I provide a critical review of Moti Mizrahi's The Relativity of Theory, expounding on the book's strengths and then providing an extended argument that Mizrahi mischaracterizes the epistemic attitude of concern to antirealism about science as well as the practical stakes involved in adopting the antirealist position.
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  3. Internal Perspectivalism: The Solution to Generality Problems About Proper Function and Natural Norms.Jason Winning - 2020 - Biology and Philosophy 35 (33):1-22.
    In this paper, I argue that what counts as the proper function of a trait is a matter of the de facto perspective that the biological system, itself, possesses on what counts as proper functioning for that trait. Unlike non-perspectival accounts, internal perspectivalism does not succumb to generality problems. But unlike external perspectivalism, internal perspectivalism can provide a fully naturalistic, mind-independent grounding of proper function and natural norms. The attribution of perspectives to biological systems is intended to be neither metaphorical (...)
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  4. Vérité partielle et réalisme scientifique: une approche bungéenne.Jean-Pierre Marquis - 2020 - Mεtascience 1:293-314.
    Le réalisme scientifique occupe une place centrale dans le système philosophique de Mario Bunge. Au cœur de cette thèse, on trouve l’affirmation selon laquelle nous pouvons connaître le monde partiellement. Il s’ensuit que les théories scientifiques ne sont pas totalement vraies ou totalement fausses, mais plutôt partiellement vraies et partiellement fausses. Ces énoncés sur la connaissance scientifique, à première vue plausible pour quiconque est familier avec la pratique scientifique, demandent néanmoins à être clarifiés, précisés et, ultimement, à être inclus dans (...)
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  5. The Objectivity of Science.Howard Sankey - forthcoming - In Juan Carlos Aguirre-Garcia (ed.), Objectivity in Human Sciences.
    The notion of objectivity is ambiguous. A distinction is made between three primary notions of objectivity: ontological objectivity, the objectivity of truth and epistemic objectivity. It is suggested that a realist may explain the relationship between the three notions by saying that use of epistemically objective methods stands the best chance of leading to the objective truth about the objective world.
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  6. Juha Saatsi, Ed., "The Routledge Handbook of Scientific Realism.". [REVIEW]Jan Arreman - 2019 - Philosophy in Review 39 (2):103-104.
    Review of The Routledge Handbook of Scientific Realism by Juha Saatsi (ed.).
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  7. Realism, Social Theory, and Theoretical Practice.Par Engholm - 2000 - Alethia 3 (2):14-20.
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  8. Comment on Scientific Objectivity with a Human Face by Professor Holm Tetens.Howard Sankey - 2004 - In Martin Carrier, J. Roggenhoffer, G. Kuppers & Ph Blanchard (eds.), Knowledge and the World: Challenges Beyond the Science Wars. Berlin Heidelberg New York: Springer-Verlag. pp. 95-98.
    This is a comment on Professor Holm Tetens' paper, 'Scientific Objectivity with a Human Face'.
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  9. A Less Than Direct Connection Indeed: Reply to Jakowljewitsch.Howard Sankey - 2006 - Divinatio 24:157-168.
    This is a response to Dragan Jakowljewitsch's 'The Successes of Science and Scientific-Theoretical Realism: A Less Than Direct Connection'.
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  10. Ilkka Niiniluoto, Critical Scientific Realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press , Xiv + 341 Pp.Ioannis Votsis - 2003 - Philosophy of Science 70 (2):444-447.
    This is certainly true. Simulationists and experimentalists face equally relevant challenges when it comes to establishing that the results of their simulation or experiment are informative about the real world. But it is one thing to point this fact out, and it is another to understand how those challenges are overcome, under differing circumstances, and in varying contexts. It is here that Marcel Boumans’ contribution becomes especially valuable. He presents an example from economics in which a mathematical model performs the (...)
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  11. Mind-Dependent Kinds.Khalidi Muhammad Ali - 2016 - Journal of Social Ontology 2 (2):223-246.
    Many philosophers take mind-independence to be criterial for realism about kinds. This is problematic when it comes to psychological and social kinds, which are unavoidably mind-dependent. But reflection on the case of artificial or synthetic kinds shows that the criterion of mind-independence needs to be qualified in certain ways. However, I argue that none of the usual variants on the criterion of mind-dependence is capable of distinguishing real or natural kinds from non-real kinds. Although there is a way of modifying (...)
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  12. Mechanisms, Principles, and Lorentz's Cautious Realism.Mathias Frisch - 2002 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 36 (4):659-679.
  13. Blind Realism: An Essay on Human Knowledge and Natural Science.Mark T. Nelson - 1995 - Philosophical Quarterly 45 (178):127-129.
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  14. Eclectic Realism—a Cake Less Filling.Jacob Busch - 2008 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 39 (2):270-272.
    In a recent volume of this journal Saatsi [Saatsi, J.. Reconsidering the Fresnel–Maxwell theory shift: How the realist can have her cake and EAT it too. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 36, 509–536.] suggests that we adopt an approach where we explain phenomena reductively, by properties that are described via their nomological roles. These properties are conceived of as higher-order multiply realisable properties. Such properties are however not causally efficacious independent of their causal basis. Therefore Saatsi has left (...)
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  15. The Electrons of the Dinosaurs and the Center of the Earth: Comments on D.D. Turner’s ‘The Past Vs. The Tiny: Historical Science and the Abductive Arguments for Realism’. [REVIEW]Christián C. Carman - 2005 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 36 (1):171-173.
    Turner [The past vs. the tiny: Historical science and the abductive arguments for realism. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 35A 1] claims that the arguments in favor of realism do not support with the same force both classes of realism, since they supply stronger reasons for experimental realism than for historical realism. I would like to make two comments, which should be seen as amplifications inspired by his proposal, rather than as a criticism. First, it is important to (...)
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  16. Justification, Truth, and the Development of Science.Stephen Gaukroger - 1998 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 29 (1):97-112.
  17. Hooker's Revolutionary Regulatory Realism.Harvey Siegel - 1998 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 29 (1):129-141.
  18. A Realist Theory of Science. [REVIEW]J. B. R. - 1980 - Review of Metaphysics 33 (3):619-620.
    First published in 1975 by Leeds Books Ltd., this second, revised edition adds only a short, twelve page Postscript and an Index. The former replies to reviews of the original edition by clarifying the use of two key terms, by commenting on its principal weaknesses, and by indicating the direction of further work required by the position advocated.
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  19. Realism and Other Philosophical Mantras.Robert C. Sutton - 1995 - Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines 14 (4):36-41.
  20. Tuukka Kaidesoja on Critical Realist Transcendental Realism.Ruth Groff - 2015 - Journal of Social Ontology 1 (2):341-348.
    I argue that critical realists think pretty much what Tukka Kaidesoja says that he himself thinks, but also that Kaidesoja’s objections to the views that he attributes to critical realists are not persuasive.
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  21. Abduction, Realism and Ethics.Eleonora Orlando - 2001 - Theoria: Revista de Teoría, Historia y Fundamentos de la Ciencia 16 (2):331-352.
    In this paper, I am concerned with the possibility of applying an abductive strategy in founding ethical realism. First, I criticize Harman’s position, according to which abduction, though useful for founding scientific realism, does not serve to found ethical realism. Secondly, I examine Sturgeon’s critique, according to which distinctively moral facts do constitute the best explanations of the moral evidence. Finally,I conclude that Sturgeon is right in as far as the ontological status of moral properties is concerned but his answer (...)
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  22. Methodological Perspectivism and Scheme-Interpretationism in Science and Elsewhere.Hans Lenk - 2016 - Axiomathes 26 (4):383-399.
    The paper discusses Giere’s perspectivism in philosophy of science. Giere is certainly right in judging that, even within perspectives, the strongest possible conclusion is that some model provides a good but never perfect fit to aspects of the world, but its agency-laden “modelism” and realistic instrumentalism should be extended to a comprehensive general perspectivist and “indirect” realistic epistemology and embed it in an anthropology proper of the man as “flexible multiple human being”. Scheme-interpretations and specific perspectives are necessary for any (...)
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  23. A Study in Realism.Alfred H. Jones - 1921 - Philosophical Review 30 (6):633.
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  24. Scientific Virtues.Doren A. Recker - unknown
    Chapter I describes diachronic realism and shows why it is a version of what is called 'metaphysical realism'. Consequently, I argue that recent claims that 'metaphysical realism' is incoherent are unfounded. Chapter II argues that certain anti-realist positions involve an insufficient treatment of 'meaning' and 'reference' for theoretical terms. I review much of the current work on theories of reference and show that these incommensurability positions are bankrupt given either of the two most promising theories of reference. Chapter III argues (...)
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  25. Réalisme scientifique.Pierre-Yves Rochefort - 2016 - L'Encyclopédie Philosophique.
    L’attitude réaliste constitue de prime abord la posture du sens commun vis-à-vis de la science. Elle consiste à attribuer à la science l’objectif de décrire littéralement la réalité tout en lui reconnaissant la capacité, en vertu de ses méthodes, d’atteindre ce but. Si le réalisme scientifique apparait comme représentant le sens commun, il a dû, au courant du siècle dernier, s’ériger en véritable posture philosophique argumentée devant l’influence grandissante des différentes formes d’antiréalismes. Dans la mesure où la posture qu’un philosophe (...)
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  26. Hidden Realism.Mutsuo M. Yanase - 1983 - Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 6 (3):129-138.
  27. Hidden Realism.Mutsuo M. Yanase - 1980 - Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 5 (5):225-244.
  28. Man in Scientific Age.Satyendra Nath Bose - 1964 - Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 2 (4):232-236.
  29. God in Postliberal Perspective: Between Realism and Non-Realism.Andrew Moore - 2010 - New Blackfriars 91 (1034):486-487.
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  30. Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries Molecular Reality. A Perspective on the Scientific Work of Jean Perrin. By Mary Jo Nye. New York: Elsevier, and London: Macdonald, 1972. Pp. Xii + 201. £5. [REVIEW]S. B. Sinclair - 1974 - British Journal for the History of Science 7 (3):300-301.
  31. The Scientific Voice. Scott L. Montgomery.Carolyn R. Miller - 1996 - Isis 87 (4):707-708.
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  32. Is Science Progressive?Ilkka Niiniluoto.Ernan McMullin - 1987 - Isis 78 (2):260-261.
  33. Pan-Perspectival Realism Explained and Defended.Paul Teller - unknown
    Conventional scientific realism is just the doctrine that our theoretical terms refer. Conventional antirealism denies, for various reasons, theoretical reference and takes theory to give us only information about the word of the perceptual where reference, it would appear, is secure. But reference fails for the perceptual every bit as much for the perceptual as for the theoretical, and for the same reason: the world is too complicated for us to succeed in attaching specific referents to our terms. That would (...)
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  34. Role-Player Realism.Paul Teller - manuscript
    In practice theoretical terms are open-ended in not being attached to anything completely specific. This raises a problem for scientific realism: If there is no one completely specific kind of thing that might be in the extension of “atom”, what is it to claim that atoms exist? A realist’s solution is to say that in theoretical contexts of mature atom-theories there are things that play the role of atoms as characterized in that theory-context. The paper closes with a laundry list (...)
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  35. Role-Player Realism.Paul Teller - 2016
    In practice theoretical terms are open-ended in not being attached to anything completely specific. This raises a problem for scientific realism: If there is no one completely specific kind of thing that might be in the extension of “atom”, what is it to claim that atoms exist? A realist’s solution is to say that in theoretical contexts of mature atom-theories there are things that play the role of atoms as characterized in that theory-context. The paper closes with a laundry list (...)
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  36. Philosophy and Scientific Realism.J. J. C. Smart - 1963 - Routledge.
    Originally published in 1963. In an introductory chapter the author argues that philosophy ought to be more than the art of clarifying thought and that it should concern itself with outlining a scientifically plausible world view. Early chapters deal with phenomenalism and the reality of theoretical entities, and with the relation between the physical and biological sciences. Free will, issues of time and space and man’s place in nature are covered in later chapters.
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  37. Abiogenesis as a Theoretical Challenge: Chance and Directionality Through the Lens of Scientific Realism.Loris Serafino - unknown
    In this paper I intend to reflect on the intellectual rationale underlying the origin of life scientific research efforts by reconsidering some of its conceptual premises and difficulties.
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  38. Evandro Agazzi on Scientific Objectivity: Evandro Agazzi: Scientific Objectivity and its Contexts. Berlin: Springer, 2014, XVII+482p, €138 HB.Michel Ghins - 2016 - Metascience 25 (1):151-157.
  39. Defending Realism: Reflections on Karl Rogers’ *Metaphysics of Experimental Physics.John Spencer - 2007 - Journal of Critical Realism 6 (1):126-147.
    The main goal of this paper is to argue against Karl Rogers's attacks on realism in physics. Rogers argues that electrons do not exist independently of the relevant socio-technological process, but I show that such an assumption would make our best scientific theories incomprehensible. While the paper supports Rogers's attempts to refute positivism, it demonstrates that his own position is positivistic, and it corrects his overemphasis on the roles of technology and the experimenter. Rogers assumes that the founders of modern (...)
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  40. Bayesianism V. Scientific Realism.P. Milne - 2003 - Analysis 63 (4):281-288.
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  41. Underdetermination and Realism.Michael Devitt - 2002 - Philosophical Issues 12 (1):26-50.
  42. Metaphysics of Axiological Realism.Dariusz Łukasiewicz - 2008 - Philosophia Scientae 12:57-74.
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  43. Realism and the Aim of Science: From the Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery.Iii Bartley (ed.) - 1992 - Routledge.
    _Realism and the Aim of Science_ is one of the three volumes of Karl Popper’s _Postscript_ to the Logic of scientific Discovery. The _Postscript_ is the culmination of Popper’s work in the philosophy of physics and a new famous attack on subjectivist approaches to philosophy of science. _Realism and the Aim of Science_ is the first volume of the _Postcript_. Popper here formulates and explains his non-justificationist theory of knowledge: science aims at true explanatory theories, yet it can never prove, (...)
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  44. Goal-Dependence in Ontology.David Danks - 2015 - Synthese 192 (11):3601-3616.
    Our best sciences are frequently held to be one way, perhaps the optimal way, to learn about the world’s higher-level ontology and structure. I first argue that which scientific theory is “best” depends in part on our goals or purposes. As a result, it is theoretically possible to have two scientific theories of the same domain, where each theory is best for some goal, but where the two theories posit incompatible ontologies. That is, it is possible for us to have (...)
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  45. Science and Necessity.John Bigelow & Robert Pargetter - 1991 - Cambridge University Press.
    This book espouses a theory of scientific realism in which due weight is given to mathematics and logic. The authors argue that mathematics can be understood realistically if it is seen to be the study of universals, of properties and relations, of patterns and structures, the kinds of things which can be in several places at once. Taking this kind of scientific platonism as their point of departure, they show how the theory of universals can account for probability, laws of (...)
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  46. Knowledge and Reference in Empirical Science.Jody Azzouni - 2000 - Routledge.
    _Knowledge and Reference in Empirical Science_ is a fascinating study of the bounds between science and language: in what sense, and of what, does science provide knowledge? Is science an instrument only distantly related to what's real? Can the language of science be used to adequately describe the truth? In this book, Jody Azziouni investigates the technology of science - the actual forging and exploiting of causal links, between ourselves and what we endeavor to know and understand.
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  47. On Scientific Realism and Naturalism.Alberto Cordero - 2015 - Journal of Philosophical Research 40 (Supplement):31-43.
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  48. Retail Realism and Wholesale Treatments of Theoretical Entities.Jonathon Hricko - manuscript
    According to retail realism, we ought to abandon wholesale arguments, which purport to demonstrate realism or anti-realism about theoretical entities in general, and embrace retail arguments, which purport to demonstrate realism or anti-realism about specific kinds of theoretical entities. My aim is to argue that there is a further wholesale element that retail realism must avoid in order to qualify as a viable position. In order to do so, I distinguish between what I call wholesale and retail treatments of theoretical (...)
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  49. Science and Reality.Jan Faye - unknown
    Scientific realism is the view that the aim of science is to produce true or approximately true theories about nature. It is a view which not only is shared by many philosophers but also by scientists themselves. Regarding Kuhn’s rejection of scientific progress, Steven Weinberg once declared: “All this is wormwood to scientists like myself, who think the task of science is to bring us closer and closer to objective truth.” But such a realist view on scientific theories is not (...)
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