The ultimate argument for scientific realism

10 November, 2015 at 15:03 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments

No-miracle-640x426Realism and relativism stand opposed. This much is apparent if we consider no more than the realist aim for science. The aim of science, realists tell us, is to have true theories about the world, where ‘true’ is understood in the classical correspondence sense. And this seems immediately to presuppose that at least some forms of relativism are mistaken … If realism is correct, then relativism (or some versions of it) is incorrect …

Whether or not realism is correct depends crucially upon what we take realism to assert, over and above the minimal claim about the aim of science.

My way into these issues is through what has come to be called the ‘Ultimate Argument for Scientific Realism’.’ The slogan is Hilary Putnam’s: “Realism is the only philosophy that does not make the success of science a miracle” …

We can at last be clear about what the Ultimate Argument actually is. It is an example of a so-called inference to the best explanation. How, in general, do such inferences work?

The intellectual ancestor of inference to the best explanation is Peirce’s abduction. Abduction goes something like this:

F is a surprising fact.
If T were true, F would be a matter of course.
Hence, T is true.

The argument is patently invalid: it is the fallacy of affirming the consequent …

What we need is a principle to the effect that it is reasonable to accept a satisfactory explanation which is the best we have as true. And we need to amend the inference-scheme accordingly. What we finish up with goes like this:

It is reasonable to accept a satisfactory explanation of any fact, which is also the best available explanation of that fact, as true.
F is a fact.
Hypothesis H explains F.
Hypothesis H satisfactorily explains F.
No available competing hypothesis explains F as well as H does.
Therefore, it is reasonable to accept H as true …

To return to the Ultimate Argument for scientific realism. It is, I suggest, an inference to the best explanation. The fact to be explained is the (novel) predictive success of science. And the claim is that realism (more precisely, the conjecture that the realist aim for science has actually been achieved) explains this fact, explains it satisfactorily, and explains it better than any non-realist philosophy of science. And the conclusion is that it is reasonable to accept scientific realism (more precisely, the conjecture that the realist aim for science has actually been achieved) as true.

Alan Musgrave



  1. I could take this to be a good argument against IBE.

  2. Yes, this is a very good article by Musgrave. In essence, if there wasn’t an objective reality with objective truths, the astonishing success of science would be (bizarrely) wholly accidental or some kind of miracle.

    I also highly recommend his book:

    Musgrave, Alan. 1993. Common Sense, Science and Scepticism: Historical Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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