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Van Fraassen on Technology

In van fraassen on 07/09/2011 at 6:10 am

Note to self…

There’s one huge problem I have with Bas Van Fraassen’s argument against realism of scientific entities: I have myopia, and have to wear glasses all the time. What clear distinction can I make between using glasses to fix my myopia and using a magnifying glass to see cells? In both cases, I would use a piece of theory-laden technology to improve upon my evolved senses. It might be said that my myopia is, at least in this case, an outlier, as would someone that is born deaf requiring a cochlear implant. The general senses of a community is what matters, not any particular individual. This looks like, at least to me, to be an ad hoc solution: we’re dealing with things in middle-world that are, I should hope, deserving of a stronger epistemological status than atoms. The use of glasses is a technological fix, rather than a widening of my epistemological horizons. But then we return to the problem: where is the hard distinction between a pair of glasses and a magnifying glass?

Imagine that the human race had instead evolved a set of eyes that were far more exact than an eagle’s. The veil surrounding the atom would be pierced. But would it? Our senses are designed only for adequacy, and frequently do not track the truth. The difference between the eagle-eyed race of humans and our own would be what, exactly? Their ‘technology’ has undergone a process of conjecture and refutation on the species-level, refining particular tools over billions of years. Our technology has undergone the same process, but on a different level, the theoretical level. While the differences are superficial, since one is to a large extent innate and the other manufactured, this difference does not extend to the level of epistemological warrant. Why should innate senses be elevated over acquired senses?

Here is the rub: I think Van Fraassen’s argument doesn’t just apply only to the very small, but to any and all possible objects. All sensory experience is theory-laden, not just technological ‘experience’. While there is an extra step between seeing a read-out on a Geiger counter and seeing an apple, none of the two are on surer epistemological footing (think of Plantinga). Van Fraassen’s argument then, if we wish to be conservative in the properties, relations between properties, and objects in our epistemological bag, applies not just to theoretical scientific entities, but to theoretical everyday entities. We ought to be as strongly against realism of the everyday.

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  1. While I agree that the observable-unobservable link is a tenuous one and is rightly criticized on multiple fronts, I think that there’s a misinterpretation of van Fraassen going on here. van Fraassen doesn’t deny that observation is theory laden, in fact he embraces it. What he does deny is that measurement devices other than humans can provide epistemic access to things that cannot be observed. So he isn’t endorsing a global skepticism. He also replies that the observable-unobservable is a construct of the class of current humans, so even if some have myopia, the general public does not and it is that group that defines observability.

    Also, in later correspondence, he does in fact bite the bullet on humans evolving better eyes which would change the limits of perception and what is observable. But that doesn’t undermine his argument since he’s making an epistemic point not an ontological point. And just because epistemic access can change, that doesn’t mean that one is justified in applying a sorites argument to the situation.

    One can think of it in a different way in terms of measurement in general. Measurement is two parts traditionally, with a macro state X and a micro state Y. Whenever Y is in state 1, so X is in state 1, and if Y is in state 2, then so is X, and so on. But at no point do we have direct access to Y, we have only the changes in X. And X might be responding to two states in Y, or to two different substances. This appears to be less of a problem for direct observation where there seems to be some direct access to the world, unless we are total skeptics.

    However, van Fraassen is quite vulnerable, in my opinion, to the strength of empirical adequacy entailing a version of realism. I’m currently writing on a way to establish just such an entailment which would mean that unobservables are confirmable and there is no over and above reason to adopt the shaky concept of the observable-unobservable distinction and thus no reason to adopt empirical adequacy.

    • James,

      You said, “What he does deny is that measurement devices other than humans can provide epistemic access to things that cannot be observed.”

      I agree that is what he said, and there is that distinction to be made, but it is far more a distinction of origins than of epistemic access. Perhaps I should have been clearer on this point.

      You said, “in later correspondence, he does in fact bite the bullet on humans evolving better eyes which would change the limits of perception and what is observable. But that doesn’t undermine his argument since he’s making an epistemic point not an ontological point.”

      I agree with you on this point as well, and had it in mind when I wrote the post, but this seemed, at least to me, to be ad hoc: after all, I don’t have access to my neighbor’s eyes or ears in the same way I have access to my own qualia. Wittgenstein’s ‘beetles’ in boxes and whatnot.

      You said, “This appears to be less of a problem for direct observation where there seems to be some direct access to the world, unless we are total skeptics.” But … this assumes that direct access to the world takes place, something that Van Fraassen has, at least in my understanding, denied. I’m all for denying a distinction, or at least a hard-and-fast distinction, between observables and unobservables. As someone that dislikes empiricism, it suits my own interests. His argument, whether or not he likes it, begins to bleed over into the assumed realism of the everyday unless direct access is obtainable in principle. After Kant, I don’t know if this is possible.

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