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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  1. The Literalist Fallacy and the Free Energy Principle: Model-Building, Scientific Realism, and Instrumentalism.Michael David Kirchhoff, Julian Kiverstein & Ian Robertson - forthcoming - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.
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  2. From Unobservable to Observable: Scientific Realism and the Discovery of Radium.Simon Allzén - 2022 - Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 1:1-15.
    I explore the process of changes in the observability of entities and objects in science and how such changes impact two key issues in the scientific realism debate: the claim that predictively successful elements of past science are retained in current scientific theories, and the inductive defense of a specific version of inference to the best explanation with respect to unobservables. I provide a case-study of the discovery of radium by Marie Curie in order to show that the observability of (...)
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  3. Scientific Understanding and Representation: Modeling in the Physical Sciences.Kareem Khalifa, Insa Lawler & Elay Shech (eds.) - forthcoming - Routledge.
Varieties of Scientific Realism
  1. Different Ways to Be a Realist: A Response to Pincock.Angela Potochnik - forthcoming - In Kareem Khalifa, Insa Lawler & Elay Shech (eds.), Scientific Understanding and Representation: Modeling in the Physical Sciences.
    In his chapter in this volume, Christopher Pincock develops an argument for scientific realism based on scientific understanding, and he argues that Giere’s (2006) and my (2017, 2020) commitment to the context-dependence of scientific understanding or knowledge renders our views unable to account for an essential step in how scientists come to know. Meanwhile, in my chapter in this volume, I motivate a view that I call "causal pattern realism." In this response to Pincock's chapter, I will sketch a revised (...)
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  2. Against ‘Functional Gravitational Energy’: A Critical Note on Functionalism, Selective Realism, and Geometric Objects and Gravitational Energy.Patrick M. Duerr - 2019 - Synthese 199 (S2):299-333.
    The present paper revisits the debate between realists about gravitational energy in GR and anti-realists/eliminativists. I re-assess the arguments underpinning Hoefer’s seminal eliminativist stance, and those of their realist detractors’ responses. A more circumspect reading of the former is proffered that discloses where the so far not fully appreciated, real challenges lie for realism about gravitational energy. I subsequently turn to Lam and Read’s recent proposals for such a realism. Their arguments are critically examined. Special attention is devoted to the (...)
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  3. Embracing Scientific Realism.Seungbae Park - 2022 - Cham: Springer.
    This book provides philosophers of science with new theoretical resources for making their own contributions to the scientific realism debate. Readers will encounter old and new arguments for and against scientific realism. They will also be given useful tips for how to provide influential formulations of scientific realism and antirealism. Finally, they will see how scientific realism relates to scientific progress, scientific understanding, mathematical realism, and scientific practice.
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  4. Nature: Its Conceptual Architecture.Louis Caruana - 2014 - Bern: Peter Lang.
    Many philosophers adopt methods that emulate those of the natural sciences. For them, this position, which they call naturalism, defines the indispensable set of starting points for fruitful debate in various areas. In spite of this consensus, however, little is ever said about the way naturalism depends on the primary idea of nature. If we understand this dependency of naturalism on underlying accounts of nature, we would be in a better position to recognize and evaluate different kinds of naturalism. In (...)
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  5. What is Scientific Realism?Anjan Chakravartty & Bas C. Van - 2018 - Spontaneous Generations 9 (1):12-25.
    Decades of debate about scientific realism notwithstanding, we find ourselves bemused by what different philosophers appear to think it is, exactly. Does it require any sort of belief in relation to scientific theories and, if so, what sort? Is it rather typified by a certain understanding of the rationality of such beliefs? In the following dialogue we explore these questions in hopes of clarifying some convictions about what scientific realism is, and what it could or should be. En route, we (...)
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  6. Explanatory Elucidation and Scientific Realism.Alberto Cordero - 2012 - Epistemologia 1:59-70.
    Explanatory elucidation occurs when a theory has one or more of its assumptions explained by another independently successful theory. Because explanatory elucidation springs from independently supported theories, it improves the credibility of the assumptions it casts light on, hence its relevance for realists. But cases can be pointed to where explanatory elucidation has badly failed to identify truthful components. One way to address this challenge is by trying to find additional epistemic support for seemingly meritorious theory-parts. Resource in this regard, (...)
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  7. The Tenets of Hermeneutical Realism.Dimitri Ginev - 2012 - Epistemologia 2:264-280.
    This article explores and attempts to resolve some issues that arise when at stake is the need to harmonize philosophical hermeneutics with a kind of realist philosophy of science. The author takes issue with established position in the realism-antirealism controversy. Interventionism is criticized for a residual Cartesian dualism. Cognitive relativism is debated by developing a concept of situated transcendence in the constitution of objects of inquiry. Non-behaviorist arguments against scheme-content dualism are advanced that appeal to context- sensitive theory of meaning. (...)
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  8. 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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  9. Scientific Realism.Michael Devitt - 2005 - In Patrick Greenough & Michael P. Lynch (eds.), Truth and Realism. Clarendon Press.
  10. Scientific Realism as an Issue in Semantics.Christopher Gauker - 2006 - In Patrick Greenough & Michael P. Lynch (eds.), Truth and Realism. Clarendon Press.
  11. The Relativity of Theory by Moti Mizrahi: Pandemics and Pathogens: What’s at Stake in the Debate Over Scientific Realism? [REVIEW]Margaret Greta Turnbull - 2021 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 87:168-169.
    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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  12. Selective Scientific Realism and Truth-Transfer in Theories of Molecular Structure.Myron A. Penner - forthcoming - In Contemporary Scientific Realism: The Challenge from the History of Science. Oxford, UK: pp. 130-158.
    According to scientific realists, the predictive success of mature theories provides a strong epistemic basis for thinking that such theories are approximately true. However, we know that many theories once regarded as well-confirmed and predictively successful were eventually replaced with successor theories, and some claim this undermines the epistemic confidence we should have in the approximate truth of current science. Selective scientific realists in turn argue that if one can show that the predictive success of some rejected theory T is (...)
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  13. 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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  14. 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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  15. Against the “Working Posits” Version of Selective Realism.Dean Peters - 2018 - Proceedings of the XXIII World Congress of Philosophy 62:125-129.
    Most contemporary proponents of scientific realism advocate some form of selective realism. One of the most prominent variants is the working posits view, which claims that the essential propositions of a successful theory are those that are involved in the actual derivations of predictions. In this paper, I offer a systematic examination of this view, surveying no fewer than six competing interpretations of it. I argue, however, that none is satisfactory. A general reason to reject the working posits view is (...)
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  16. The Objectivity of Science.Howard Sankey - manuscript
    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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  17. 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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  18. Realism, Social Theory, and Theoretical Practice.Par Engholm - 2000 - Alethia 3 (2):14-20.
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  19. 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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  20. 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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  21. Ilkka Niiniluoto, Critical Scientific Realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press , Xiv + 341 Pp. [REVIEW]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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  22. Quo Vadis Selective Scientific Realism?Peter Vickers - 2018 - Spontaneous Generations 9 (1):118-121.
    My current opinion is that the selective realist is in a strong position vis-à-vis the historical challenges. Certainly the realist needs to invoke some careful criteria for realist commitment, and various nuances concerning the nature of her epistemic commitment, and this may raise the ‘death by a thousand qualifications’ question mark. But the concern is unfounded: the qualifications are all independently motivated, and indeed necessary given the philosophical complexity. Qualifications are to be welcomed here; often the truth is far from (...)
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  23. 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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  24. Mechanisms, Principles, and Lorentz's Cautious Realism.Mathias Frisch - 2002 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 36 (4):659-679.
  25. Blind Realism: An Essay on Human Knowledge and Natural Science.Mark T. Nelson - 1995 - Philosophical Quarterly 45 (178):127-129.
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  26. 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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  27. 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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  28. Justification, Truth, and the Development of Science.Stephen Gaukroger - 1998 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 29 (1):97-112.
  29. Hooker's Revolutionary Regulatory Realism.Harvey Siegel - 1998 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 29 (1):129-141.
  30. 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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  31. Realism and Other Philosophical Mantras.Robert C. Sutton - 1995 - Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines 14 (4):36-41.
  32. 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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  33. 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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  34. 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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  35. A Study in Realism.Alfred H. Jones - 1921 - Philosophical Review 30 (6):633.
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  36. 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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  37. 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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  38. Hidden Realism.Mutsuo M. Yanase - 1983 - Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 6 (3):129-138.
  39. Hidden Realism.Mutsuo M. Yanase - 1980 - Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 5 (5):225-244.
  40. Man in Scientific Age.Satyendra Nath Bose - 1964 - Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 2 (4):232-236.
  41. God in Postliberal Perspective: Between Realism and Non-Realism.Andrew Moore - 2010 - New Blackfriars 91 (1034):486-487.
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  42. 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.
  43. The Scientific Voice. Scott L. Montgomery.Carolyn R. Miller - 1996 - Isis 87 (4):707-708.
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  44. Is Science Progressive?Ilkka Niiniluoto.Ernan McMullin - 1987 - Isis 78 (2):260-261.
  45. 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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  46. 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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  47. 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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