Signing on with Constructive Empiricism

Excerpt about this scientific outlook in Ladyman, James, Understanding Philosophy of Science, Routledge 2002.

"The constructive empiricism of van Fraassen has provoked renewed debate about scientific realism. Van Fraassen is happy to accept the semantic and metaphysical components of scientific realism...but he denies the epistemic component. He thinks that scientific theories about unobservables should be taken literally, and are true or false in the correspondence sense, depending on whether the entities they describe are part of the mind-independent world. However, he argues that acceptance of the best theories in modern science does not require belief in the entities postulated by them, and that the nature and success of modern science relative to its aims can be understood without invoking the existence of such entities.
"Van Fraassen defines scientific realism as follows: 'Science aims to give us, in its theories, a literally true story of what the world is like; and acceptance of a scientific theory involves the belief that it is true'. On the other hand, constructive empiricism is the view that: 'Science aims to give us theories which are empirically adequate'. To say that a theory is empirically adequate is to say: 'What it says about the observable things and events in this world, is true'. In other words: 'the belief involved in accepting scientific theory is only that it "saves the phenomena", that is that it correctly describes what is observable'...
"The scientific realist and the constructive empiricist disagree about the purpose of the scientific enterprise: the former thinks that it aims at truth wrt the unobservable processes and entities that explain the observable phenomena; the latter thinks that the aim is merely to tell the truth about what is observable, and rejects the demand for explanation of all regularities in what we observe. Van Fraassen says that explanatory power is not a 'rock bottom virtue' of scientific theories whereas consistency with the phenomena is. Hence, for the constructive empiricist, empirical adequacy is the internal criterion of success for scientific activity." (185)
Written on January 15, 2008