Is the scientific realism debate a philosophical “pseudo” problem?

I will be presenting some problems for the scientific realism debate to demonstrate a possible reason as to why the question of whether the debate is a philosophical “pseudo” problem has been raised so frequently, which will lead to a conclusion as to why this could be a valid claim. Problems relating to our language, and as I get into that, I will look into something I call subjective truths. The degree to which these interrelating problems make themselves noticed could be the symptom of the “disease” so to speak (pseudo), this is my main argument. Subjective truths is about how the truth or better yet the conception of any phrased argument, theory, statement or anything else can be subjective to individuals because each individual is unique and in possession of unique past experiences and knowledge. I will be explaining in more detail about this. I will also be using one of the theories within the debate to demonstrate the problem with language. Namely the ontic structural realism theory. In addition to a few arguments that have been raised throughout the debate and some general insight into the nature of the debate to further demonstrate the conclusion. But first we must ask ourselves, what is the scientific realism debate and what is a pseudo problem?

About understanding the debate. (Paul Dicken, 2016, 2) “The contemporary scientific realism debate is primarily framed around two competing considerations. On the one hand, the success of our scientific theories gives us reasons to suppose that they are approximately true; whereas on the other hand, the history of our scientific theories gives us reason to suppose that they will eventually turn out to be false.” This quote by Dicken shows us how the debate is centred around the problem of how our scientific theories, though successful, are not always accurate. The following is a paraphrase of another one of Dicken’s quotes explaining in more detail. (Paul Dicken, 2016, 1) Scientific realism states that our scientific theories are approximately true. This seems sensible because our scientific theories are successful, but in philosophy there is no need to consider common sense. The aim is a meaningful philosophical evaluation of our scientific practice and if we suppose that we can have reliable knowledge about the external world, the question of the debate is not whether our scientific theories can correctly represent reality, but how they’re able to. Given our limitations as human beings and as scientists, which I will attempt to outline. The debate asks whether we can believe in the unobservable entities described by our theories and whether the success of our theories need to be explained.

Next is a paraphrase about the word “pseudo” seen in context with the scientific realism debate. (Paul Dicken, 2016, 3) It is unique to this debate how often the complaint has been raised that this philosophy is nothing more than a confusion over the use of language, a misunderstanding of the concept of truth, a failed attempt to stand outside of our own selves, bad theories and the like. In this context, “pseudo” could include instances like the use of obscure language, useless speculations or people talking past one another.

Because I’m going to be using the theory called ontic structural realism as an example when demonstrating my argument about language within the scientific realism debate, I want to begin by looking at mathematics. The reason I want to do that is because math is a different kind of language that forms an important part of science that has it’s foundation on a lot of structure, and ontic structural realism (as the name implies) also has to do with structure. Participants of the scientific realism debate want to figure out whether the success of science needs to be explained and it’s interesting (and possibly troubling) that this is a subject that… Once you get deep into it, can “talk” about absurd concepts of space, for instance, that don't even seem capable of relating to our world. Some aspects of mathematics alone could drive people slightly mad just by looking at it, it can also be terribly beautiful in a way that begs to be explained and how do we explain these aspects of… reality? Are these dizzying concepts of mathematics true within the physical reality as well, and not only in theory? If so, how does this correspond with that which we already assume to have knowledge of? How does this relate to the scientific realism debate?

This is an example of questions that can make the scientific realism debate seem like an interesting debate even if the participants have not yet come to any agreement and even if there is a possibility that they never will. The kind of questions that seem to make people inclined to participate in it. Yet, while questions like these may be interesting, the initial questions raised by the debate that we have been looking at above, are they the right questions to be asking? I will get back to this as I reach the conclusion, but first I will look more closely at ontic structural realism and the nature of the debate.

This is a paraphrase of one of Dicken’s quotes. (Paul Dicken, 2016, 158) Ontic structural realism says that the reason why we should only believe what our scientific theories say about structure is because structure is the only thing that actually exists – structure is primitive and ontologically subsistent – and thus that is all that our scientific theories talk about anyway. (Paul Dicken, 2016, 159) “On it’s more radical reading, this is the idea that structure is the only thing that exists, and that there are no such things as objects or individuals in the traditional sense at all. Slightly less radical would be the claim that structures are the only things that exist, but that objects and individuals can be said to somehow supervene on these structures in a derivative manner. The least radical proposal – and the one favoured by most ontic structural realists – would be to acknowledge the existence of both structures and objects, but to maintain that structures are the more basic and are therefore capable of existing independently of these objects.” To interpret this explanation, one must first interpret the word “structure” and that’s kind of my point. Ontic structural realism seems to me to tie in well with mathematics. Math is a rule-based subject where structures play a significant part. It is also possible to argue that structure is the key part in everything else or even, that it is the only thing that exists. I think that scientists will have a somewhat different idea about the word structure than someone who is unfamiliar with the scientific practice. Because being familiar with different things makes us interpret things differently. Most importantly, notice how these are all radically different interpretations of one single theory. I could list up more examples where interpretations throughout this debate vary, but this one example already demonstrates my argument about language which ties in with the concept of subjective truths.

Let me elaborate on this. Anyone is free to believe anything no matter how wrong it might seem and while it is true that science attempts to discover objective truths and that objective truths may exist, it does not follow that an objective truth will ever hold true for everyone. Or more importantly, that this objective truth will ever be phrased or conceptualized in the same way. No matter how much good evidence might make someone feel inclined towards realist arguments it is possible that the non-realist will never be happy. That there will always be some new way to phrase the same argument, a counter argument or a “what if?” So that even if one did possibly discover a final and singular objective truth, it wouldn’t be possible to tell, because there would still be people believing in their own subjective truths while making up false arguments. That’s only a hypothesis of mine, but this situation of subjective truths seems to be like a backdrop that’s following through many philosophical debates, and indeed life in general, but complications relating to language and subjective truths seem to be more noticeable in debates like this one. Individual interpretations are just that, individual and throughout this debate these are so diverse that it seems impossible for either side to convince the other.

Because subjective truths can apply to anything, including our language, this is causing a problem as people are talking past one another. Which is a symptom that could suggest that the scientific realism debate is a pseudo problem. Subjective truths and the problems with language are two sides of the same coin. Because since we can have different ideas of what’s true or false, we can also interpret words, terms, theories, arguments and anything else individually. Language is an imperfect tool that leads to conceptual confusion. Humans put different things into different words (such as the word structure) because we have lived different lives where we have acquired different perceptions relating to everything. Even to what we perceive as knowledge or to what we believe through intuition. Which is relevant because this debate is focusing on whether we can believe in unobservable entities among other questions.

Here is some more brief insight into the nature of the debate so as to outline it and our limitations as humans and as scientists. As seen with another philosophical debate called the epistemology debate, we suffer from a handicap because of our own flawed senses as they function more or less as a filter that in part is also seen as shield between us and the possible reality outside of our own selves. We can choose to believe that we have some knowledge that seems more certain (about the world) as seen from our own point of view, but how can we have knowledge of how other people perceive it? Any scientific instrument we use in attempt to acquire knowledge is also compromised because we built these tools through our senses. Even our scientific methods, as they have been developed by us can be viewed as unreliable. With all of this as the starting point for the debate, maybe the scientific realism debate is like Menon’s paradox?

The paradox is presented in a Socratic dialogue by the philosopher Plato and the following is a short paraphrase of the dialogue. (Plato, 2016, 145-166) In the dialogue Meno wants to know whether virtue is teachable, and Socrates explains to Meno that they have to understand the meaning of the word virtue before enabling themselves to find an answer to the question. There turns out to be no one concrete answer to this however and so, Meno arrives at a paradox. If you already know what you’re searching for, why search for it? If you don’t know, how will you find it?

This example is going to tie in with my conclusion at the end. Just like with Meno’s paradox, the scientific realism debate doesn’t seem to be moving in any fruitful direction. I will offer some reasons for the non-realist to still engage in the debate however and later look at why these reasons are lacking.

Other philosophical debates are more useful when faced with contemporary problems of society, like ethics. Fruitful or not though, we can’t stop people from asking questions. That would be like interrupting a child’s growth. Asking questions is the nature of science and being critical is usually a healthy attitude. When looking at the scientific realism debate, it speaks well of science if science is figuratively speaking opening itself up going "Alright go on and question it, science is all for curiosity." as opposed to religion. Where questioning God, for instance, would be intolerable. But this generosity doesn’t automatically lead to a conclusion where the scientific realism debate is not a pseudo philosophy. Realist or not, placing the scientist on a pedestal is no good because we’re only human and humans make mistakes. As mentioned previously, both our scientific methods and our tools were made by flawed humans (at least originally) and the non-realist likes to point this out. Another one of the problems that the realist is faced with is that many of the more general scientific theories that we once held high have later been found to be untrue, but the realist can defend both of these arguments.

(Paul Dicken, 2016, 103) “As our scientific methods improve, we revise our beliefs and come to offer better and more accurate descriptions of the world around us. But it is precisely because we are offering better and more accurate descriptions of the same things that the scientific realist can maintain that there exists a continuity between successful scientific theories.” The realist can argue that on the whole we’re still moving forward, that not all theories have been refuted and that we carry bits and pieces of old refuted theories with us on our journey forwards because they were still pretty good. (Paul Dicken, 2016, 134) “I know that what I see through the microscope is veridical because we made [the object in question] to be just that way … moreover, we can check the results with any kind of microscope, using any of a dozen unrelated physical processes to produce an image. Can we entertain the possibility that, all the same, this is some gigantic coincidence?” This argument first presented by Ian Hacking is illuminating as to why a realist can trust scientific instruments. Because though different microscopes and other instruments were made by flawed human beings the information that we gather from these different instruments correspond so well that the realist has got to assume that the information is correct.

What I’m gathering from this is that while science takes a tumble here and there the overall progress still appears to be valid and we believe in the unobservable entities of our scientific theories by dealing with those situations where mistakes are made by learning from our mistakes because the answer to the question of how our scientific theories are successful in representing reality lies within the question itself. The scientific realism debate already assumes that science is successful and if the aim of the debate is a meaningful philosophical evaluation of our scientific practice, we should look at what defines the scientific practice. A major part of what defines the scientific practice is about trial and error. Aiming for something by trying different approaches until a successful approach or solution is found. This approach of trial and error enables us to investigate something unknown or invisible. It seems to be an imperfect, but successful approach because it is founded on trial and error. The scientific realism debate on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be a successful approach in answering the questions raised by the debate. If you want to know how science works, isn’t the more correct question: “What is science?”, as with Meno’s paradox. Expressing different interpretations can be effective. If we already knew the answers, we wouldn’t be asking questions, but Paul Dicken, the author of “A critical introduction to scientific realism” which has been my main source of inspiration suggests that the questions raised by the scientific realism debate are simple and I disagree. I believe that the questions themselves, when seen in context with what I have presented throughout, might be causing the situation where so many are questioning whether the scientific realism debate is a philosophical pseudo problem.

Indeed, this answer to the questions raised by the scientific realism debate is logical enough that it can be phrased through a statistical model, (Ross, Sheldon M, 2019, 141-145) namely the Pólya urn model. Best illustrated with this thought experiment of mine; you’ve got a substantial pool of mostly blue and less red balls and you stick your hand in it blindly to pull them out one by one. Given a finite number of balls, it follows that you will eventually pull out some red balls simply by method of exhaustion. Maybe it will happen straight away, maybe it will take some time. Even with an infinite number of balls and an infinite number of draws, the same result will apply, given that there are an infinite number of both red and blue balls with some set ratio. If, however there are an infinite amount of blue balls, and only finite amount of red balls, the ratio, and thus the probability of pulling a red ball drops so low that it is counted as zero. The only thing we can know for sure is that this will be the result through this approach. (Jay L Devore, Kenneth N Berk, 2012, 147-149) The general proof is a Pólya’s Urn model, where the number of drawn red balls given by X follows a binominal distribution. Let n be the number of draws, and let p be the probability of drawing a red ball. Then (1-p) is the probability of drawing a blue ball. Let the number of draws go to infinity. Then one can show that the distribution of X follows a Poisson distribution with parameter m=np. The possibility that the universe could be eternal would mean infinite possibilities with infinite possibilities for mistakes and we cannot know if the universe is eternal, so we cannot know if we can trust in the success of science until we map out everything which is what we are trying to do through the scientific method of trial and error.

By Nina Titternes


Plato , 2016. ”Meno” in Readings in ancient Greek philosophy, From Thales to Aristotle, Fifth Edition. Edited. S. Marc Cohen, Patricia Curd and C.D.C. Reeve. 145-166. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company

Dicken Paul, 2016. A critical introduction to Scientific realism. London and New York: Bloomsbury

Hasan, Ali. 2017. A critical introduction to the epistemology of perception. New York and London: Bloomsbury.

Sheldon M. Ross. 2019. Introduction to Probability Models 12th Edition. Oxford UK: Academic press

Jay L Devore, Kenneth N Berk. 2012. Modern Mathematical Statistics with Applications 2nd Edition. New York: Springer Vehrlag