Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Realism vs. Instrumentalism

A long philosophical debate, which is perhaps my most favourite topic in philosophy, is the issue of realism vs. instrumentalism of science. I find this issue fascinating not only because my career is centred around science, but also because it effectively covers many essential principles of metaphysics and epistemology.

Realism is the view that the theories of science and the entities they introduce really describe what actually exists in nature. In other words, based on scientific realism, atoms, electromagnetic waves, quantum phenomena, fundamental particles, and all other such entities really exist (as long as the scientific theory is true of course). Opposite to realism, there is anti-realism, which suggests these theories and entities do not correspond to the objective reality of entities in nature.

On the contrary, scientific instrumentalism has a very different approach to the theories and entities introduced by science. Instrumentalism sees the focus of realism as irrelevant and instead suggests that science is an instrument and it should be evaluated based on how good it can produce predictions and usable results. This is the view that I have come to support after much thinking.

Before addressing the fundamental philosophical problem with realism, I want to explain a very concrete problem with the scientific method without going to existential and metaphysical discussions. Let’s just examine the scientific method. It is explained in many shapes and forms, but without going to too much detail, the scientific method consists of identifying some problem (observation, inquiring, gathering data), forming a hypothesis, deducing the logical consequences of the hypothesis, and empirically testing those predictions which then either confirm or disprove the hypothesis after many trials and ideally numerous predictions. It is immediately obvious that science inherently depends on logic and human reasoning. The connection between a testable prediction and a theory is entirely based on reasoning alone. For example, electromagnetic waves are a conceptual entity. One cannot test the existence of an abstract entity. Instead, human reasoning is used to connect that idea to a testable prediction. Even if one accepts that there is an objective reality, it is not determined whether our reasoning connects the “right theory” to the “right prediction”. But I must admit that I am not entirely confident on this issue because it can be argued that logic itself is an empirical science. But when was the last time you empirically tested a theorem in your mathematics class (whatever that means)? This issue of the origin of logic is an interesting one which I like to pursue further, but as far as I can tell mathematics does not seem empirical to me. Thus, the whole scientific method as a means of discovering some “objective reality of nature” breaks down.

However, I find a deeper problem with the realistic point of view, and this is more of a metaphysical approach. In other to attempt to find out whether science corresponds to reality, we must clearly define what we mean when we ask whether an entities “exists”? One can define existence based on perception or based on reasoning. In other words, I can define existence such that something exists if I perceive it, or it exists if I think it. So let’s backtrack a little and see what it is we are trying to answer and thus come up with a good definition. I want to find out whether scientific entities correspond to the outer world that I experience around me. So what is the outer world? Let’s start from what I know. I know that I am some conscious agent. That is all I know. Next, I observe a world around me. Of course what I observer does not necessarily exist in the sense that I do as a conscious agent. All of this world, including other seemingly conscious agents, are all in my perception and can be anything… an illusion, a dream, a virtual reality, etc. Now, I do not have access to anything outside of my perception and so I define knowledge within my perception. So at first it seems that a good definition for existence is direct perception. However, it quickly becomes obvious that the world around me is not what I directly observe it to be. For example, 5 years ago something funny happened. The universe got fuzzy and so I started wearing glasses so I can operate better in the transformed, fuzzy universe. But my reasoning tells me that the universe did not change, but it was my eyes, my perception, that changed and that belief shapes my reality. Another example is what we call optical illusions. In the case of optical illusions, such as holograms, my reality does not come from direct observation but again from reasoning and observation together. The point is that in constructing my reality, perception and reasoning are inseparable. So ultimately I am a conscious agent and the reality around me is a reality constructed in my mind through my perception and reasoning. With this definition of reality, how does science correspond to reality? The answer is that science creates reality. When I see the effects of atoms under the microscope, my perception and reasoning create a new reality. This is exactly analogous to the examples I gave earlier. Therefore, any scientific theory becomes a new reality, and the realism/anti-realism debate becomes completely meaningless. Instead, the focus of science becomes the evaluation of different versions of reality based on their usefulness. The new realities of atoms, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics (along with all other successful theories) are indeed more superior to their alternatives (so far at least) in the sense that they have been the most useful in making a consistent, predictable, and harvestable reality for the reasoning and perception that created them.


  1. I first I have to admit that making any valid comment on this sort of complicated arguments requires a solid knowledge of the literature that I am lacking. Yet, I cannot help sharing my thoughts on this, where it is based on nothing but my common sense, which has been wrong before.
    I see a big fallacy in Yara's argument. Yara is right that we are confined to our perception and reasoning for describing and explainig our surroundings. He is also right that our perception could be nowhere close to the true nature of the phenomenon we observe. Nonetheless, he ignores the fact that it is exactly where scientific methodology steps in. Our perception is made of data gathered thorough different senses which have been extended to a great deal, thanks to the modern technology. As a very primitive example: we see the illusion of water on the pavement. If we stop there and rely only on our visual perception we are gonna make the wrong conclusion. We use our palpation and realize that there is no water. The first conclusion was just an illusion created by our visual sense which was cross examined and excluded. The history of science is abundant with complicated versions of the example I made. That is exactly the whole point of science and scientific methodology. We use our very far extended senses to cross examine our observations, then we make a conclusion, then we put that conclusion into test by observing how the application (technology) made based on that conclusions works in outside world. what Yara is describing as science, which might not be necessarily the legitimate proof and true description of the existence of the the world outside us and the principles based on which that world is operating- could be better called bad science. In summary, If I can touch and see and hear and smell something at the same time I will call its existence. Otherwise, my own existence is questioned, in which case this argument does not exist, in which case one does not have worry about realism vs instrumentalism

  2. In the example you gave, you just compare two different senses and thus you are still bound to your perception. Furthermore, you use your reasoning to decide which of the senses is valid. At the end it is your mind (perception, reasoning, etc.) that is creating the reality, and that is exactly my point. Science does not "extend" our senses because ultimately we must perceive whatever our technology manages to produce.
    " In summary, If I can touch and see and hear and smell something at the same time I will call its existence." Yes, your perception (all the senses mentioned) and reasoning ('all at the same time so must be true') create the reality, which corresponds to nothing but the mind of the observer.
    "Otherwise, my own existence is questioned, in which case this argument does not exist [...]". That is only partially true. I know I exist because I'm the observer who's doing all the thinking. ("I think therefore I am.") So I know I exit, but my existence AS A HUMAN is a product of my mind. So in my reality I'm a human but outside of that I don't know what I am; I just know that I am an intelligent agent.

  3. While I still stand behind all my arguments, I have changed sides on the realism vs. instrumentalism debate.
    As I mentioned in the article, in creating my reality, my perception and mind (by which I mean reasoning, memory, ...) are inseparable. Not all essential components of my reality are perceivable. For example, time is a product of my mind which is not directly perceivable. Similarly, the products of science such as elementary particles and electromagnetic waves, which are the result of my perception and reasoning and memory and all other components of my mind, are just as real as my immediate reality such as time and space. Thus science is not really an instrument for technology (it's hard to imagine the field of cosmology as an instrument) but it reveals the reality of the universe that's the product of my mind.

  4. I know this is a late submission but i am writing a paper on realism vs antirealism and just found this debate. I would just like to comment on your criteria for your assumptions. As i have found, both realism and instrumentalism consider reality seperate from the mind, which has and will exist beyond our existence. you mentioned one your last post "the product of my mind." I am not sure if i misinterpreted your word choice but i take this as meaning that you have partially based your conclusion around the idea that the universe you experience is unique to only you and changes as you gain additional knowledge about it. but in both of these ideologies, the reality you experience is a constant and does not change. what does change is the conclusions you draw about it. For instance, "the illusion of water by sight" we conclude that the pavement is wet due to our sight, but as we recieve more information about the pavement through touch, we then conclude that it is not wet. the reality of the pavement has not changed, only our conclusion about it has