Posts Tagged ‘realism’

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.


Understanding Reality

In critical rationalism on 29/08/2011 at 6:39 am

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavour to understand reality, we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch … He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism, and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison. But he certainly believes that, as his knowledge increases, his picture of reality will become simpler and … explain a … wider range of his sensuous expressions. He may also believe in the existence of the ideal limit of knowledge and that it is approached by the human mind. He may call this limit the objective truth. (Albert Einstein, The Evolution of Physics Simon and Schuster, New York, 1938, 33)