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Alternatives to a Realist Position

One alternative to a realist position (see critical realism in science and religion) is the claim made by what is referred to as the ‘strong programme’ of the sociology of science - that science is simply a social construction, rather than an attempt to describe a real world. Such a claim appears to suffer from major defects. For one thing it runs counter to what almost all practising scientists think they are doing. Its main problem, however, is that of reflexivity. If it were the case, then no human analysis could be more than a social construction, so the social scientists who made this claim would have to face up to the implication that their analyses and conclusions suffered from the same problem of being socially constructed. These analyses would not be saying anything true about how the world is or about what scientists are actually doing, but only reflecting the results of the sociologists’ own social conditioning.To reject the validity of a thorough-going relativism is not however to decry the importance of social and political factors in determining the course of science, not least in determining what research...

The most profound challenge to critical realism in science comes from views coming under headings such as ‘instrumentalism’ or ‘constructivism’. These focus on the impossibility, already mentioned, of detaching data from the instrumental and experimental design which produced it. Given that we can neither think nor speak nor engage with the world at all except through language, theory, and concept, there can be no way to step beyond our theoretical frameworks and assess directly how adequate any particular theory is to the complexity of reality. It should be noted moreover that science undergoes major periods of change in which old theories are discarded and radically new ones adopted. Consequently many philosophers of science have argued that it is better to make no realist claims at all, but merely to regard scientific data as, however successfully, a function of the instrumentation, and of the conceptual constructs, by which science functions. In the language of the metaphor of the maps, this view would hold that our map gets us about on the particular contrived journey that is science (just as a map of the London Underground gets us around the city) but we have no real idea what the streets are like which surround our path.

The major problems, then, for realists, even followers of critical realism, are the theory-ladenness of data, the underdetermination of theory by experiment, and in particular scientific revolutions in which supposed points of reference to reality have to be discarded because a radically new ‘paradigm’ takes over within a science.See God, Humanity and the Cosmos pp72-74 on ‘paradigm shift’.

The major problem for instrumentalists is the sheer success and apparent progressiveness of science. Its maps seem to work, in general, astonishingly well. It is hard to credit that an electron is an instrumental fiction, even though no-one has ever seen one directly, since so many phenomena have been observed in accordance with the behaviour and properties of electrons.

To follow this debate in more detail see in particular Laudan (1977)Laudan, Larry, Progress and its Problems (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977)and Banner (1990).Banner, Michael, The Justification of Science and the Rationality of Religious Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990)

Particularly important to critical realism is the concept of inference to the best explanation. Granted that we cannot be sure that data correspond in any simple way to reality, we can nevertheless consider a variety of explanations of the data, and elicit the one that best fits our criteria of comprehensiveness, consistency, and compactness. (See judging the fit between data and reality). For a recent defence of inference to the best explanation see Clayton (1997).Clayton, Philip, ‘Inference to the best explanation’, Zygon 32, (3) 377-91 (1997)

We can understand more about the similarities and differences between claims to realism in science and in theology by looking at the role played by model and metaphor in these two rationalities. Click on the role of model and metaphor to explore this.

Or investigate applying critical realism to theology.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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