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On Laudan’s Argument

Science, as a discipline, is characterized by two essential traits: (1) The predictive ability of the discipline and (2) The instrumental ability of the discipline’s (Dieguez-Lucena, 2006, p. 393). The predictive ability of science may be traced to its ability to describe the patterns and regularities in nature which enables it to predict phenomena. The instrumental ability of the discipline, on the other hand, may be traced to its ability to introduce technological innovations.

Both the predictive and instrumental ability of science are important from an epistemological and practical perspective for the following reason: (1) The discipline’s predictive and instrumental ability transcends the spatiotemporal limitations of human beings and (2) The discipline stands as the only discipline that was able to go beyond the spatiotemporal limitations of human beings.

In order to account for the aforementioned characteristics of science, scientific realism, as an epistemological theory, “accounts for the predictive and instrumental success of science by means of the (approximate) truth or truthlikeness of scientific theories” (Dieguez-Lucena, 2006, pp. 393-394). Truthlikeness here refers to “the conjunction of approximate truth and…high-informative content” (Dieguez-Lucena, 2006, pp. 394).

The importance of the ‘truthlikeness’ of scientific theories is evident if one considers, in line with Wilfrid Sellars’ definition of scientific realism, that the ‘truth and high-informative content’ of the theory enables one “to have good reasons for holding that the entities postulated by the theory exists” (1962, p. 97). Larry Laudan (1981), in “A Confutation of Convergent Realism,” criticizes this conception of the discipline of science which is held by scientific realists. Laudan states,

There are potential hazards as well as advantages associated with the ‘scientizing’ of epistemology. Specifically, once one concedes that epistemic doctrines are to be tested in the court of experience, it is possible that one’s favorite epistemic theories may be refuted rather than confirmed (1981, p. 19) It is important to note at the onset that Laudan’s criticism is geared towards the versions of scientific realism which holds several variations of the same assumption. Laudan states, The form of realism I shall discuss involves variants of the following claims:

R1) Scientific theories (at least in the ‘mature’ sciences) are typically approximately true and more recent theories are closer to the truth than older theories in the same domain; R2) The observational and theoretical terms within the theories of a mature science genuinely refer (roughly, there are substances in the world that correspond to the ontologies presumed by our best theories); R3) Successive theories in any mature science will be such that they ‘preserve’ the theoretical relations and the apparent referents of earlier theories; and

R4) Acceptable new theories do and should explain why their predecessors were successful insofar as they were successful. (1981, p. 20-21) In addition to this, Laudan claims that the combination of all these variants of realism mentioned above (R1 to R4) leads to the thesis of ‘convergent realism,’ which states, (‘Mature’) scientific theories should be successful…if not the only, explanation for the success of science. The empirical success of science (in the sense of giving detailed explanations and accurate predictions) accordingly provides striking empirical confirmation for realism.

(1981, p. 21) Laudan’s convergent realism, in this sense, states that scientific realism utilizes the success of science (more specifically the success of scientific disciplines that may be said to possess ‘mature’ scientific theories) in order to posit the success of empirical confirmation in realists theories. In line with this, David Resnik (1992) claims that this is in accordance to the assumption of the majority of convergent realists who perceive “scientific realism… (as) the only view that does not portray the success of science as miraculous” (p.

421). Within this context, Laudan sets out to present his criticism of scientific realism and what he refers to as ‘convergent realism. ’ Laudan’s criticism is geared towards the following realist assumptions: (1) “(I)f a theory is approximately true, then it will be explanatorily successful” and (2) “(I)f a theory is explanatorily successful, then it is probably approximately true” (1981, p. 30). Laudan refers to the first assumption as “the downward path” and the later assumption as “the upward path” (1981, p.

29-31). He claims that when both claims are combined, they merely aim to reiterate the initial assumption (Laudan, 1981, p. 30). He states, “What the realist would like to be able to say, of course, is…if a theory is true, then it will be successful” (Laudan, 1981, p. 30). In addition to this, Laudan further claims that both assumptions (the downward path and the upward path) are false. The basis for Laudan’s claim that the initial assumption, the downward path, is false is based on the following argument.

Even if it is indeed the case that a true theory is necessarily a successful theory, it does not follow that an approximately true theory is necessarily a successful theory (Laudan, 1981, p. 30). The reason for this lies in possibility of inferring a false conclusion from an approximately true theory (Laudan, 1981, p. 30). Laudan states, (T)he realists evidently conjectures, we can find an epistemic account of that pragmatic success by assuming such theories to be ‘approximately true’. But we must be wary of this potential sleight of hand.

It may be that there is a connection between success and approximate truth; but if there is such a connection it must be independently argued for. (1981, p. 30) In other words, Laudan is claiming that “approximate truth does not ensure the predictive success” of a theory (Dieguez-Lucena, 2006, p. 395). On the other hand, the basis for Laudan’s claim that the later assumption, the upward path, is false is based on the following argument. He claims that ‘a realist will only claim that a theory is approximately true if and only if its central terms genuinely refer within the theory’ (Laudan, 1981, p.

24). According to Laudan, within the context of scientific realism, a central term genuinely refers within the theory “if many of the claims the theory makes about the entities to which it refers… (to are true) ” or “even if many of the claims the theory makes about entities to which it refers are false. Provided that there are entities which ‘approximately fit’ a theory’s description of them” (1981, p. 24). The problem with the aforementioned view, according to Laudan, is evident if one considers the past scientific theories (i.

e. phlogiston theory, optical theory etc) whose central terms are no longer referential to their theories. In line with this, Laudan states, To have a genuinely referring theory is to have a theory which “cuts the world at its joints”, a theory which postulates entities of a kind that really exist. But a genuinely referring theory need not be such at all…of the specific claims it makes about the properties of those entities and their modes of interaction are true. (1981, p. 24)

As can be seen in the aforementioned discussion, Laudan’s criticism of convergent realism stands as a criticism of scientific realists’ perceived correlation between the predictive and instrumental characteristics of the discipline of science and approximate truths. Laudan claims that approximate truth is not a sufficient condition for claiming that a theory is successful. This is particularly evident as he states, “The realists seems to be…short on either a semantics or an epistemology of approximate truth…(U)ntil we have a coherent account of what approximate truth is, central realist theses…are just so much mumbo jumbo” (1981, p.

32). According to Resnick, the main reason for sciences’ use of approximate truth may be traced to several reason: (1) “(T)he need to reconcile realist metaphysics with our epistemological predicament;” (2) “(T)he awareness of the role of approximations and idealizations in science;” and (3) “(T)he need to avoid having their doctrine refuted by false scientific theories or evidence from the history of science” (1992, p. 422). Resnick claims that ultimately these reasons merely point out that science’s utilization of approximate truth is due to the fact that it is a “less demanding and (a) more accommodating concept than truth” (1992, p.

423). The function of ‘approximate truth’ as a ‘surrogate of truth’ in science, according to Laudan will only be plausible if and only if scientific realists present a concise account of what approximate truth refers to. Since scientific realists are unable to do so, the concept itself along with the other concepts connected to it becomes unintelligible. Laudan’s argument, as it is mentioned above, seems to be appealing. The problem with his argument however may be traced to its strict conception of scientific realism (Hardin & Rosenberg, 1982, p. 394).

In line with this, Dieguez-Lucena claims that Laudan’s argument is only valid to strong forms of scientific realism. Such is the case since weaker versions of scientific realism allows ‘a less strict notion of explanation’ (Dieguez-Lucena, 2006, p. 401). According to Dieguez-Lucena, “A less strict notion of explanation would allow for the claim that approximate truth is the best explanation for such (scientific) success, even if it is accepted that there can be cases of unsuccessful approximately true theories and cases of successful false theories” (2006, p. 401). References

Dieguez-Lucena, A. (2006). Why Does Laudan’s Confutation of Convergent Realism Fail? Journal for General Philosophy of Science, 37, 393-403. Hardin, C. & Rosenberg, A. (1982). In Defense of Convergent Realism. Philosophy of Science, 49. 4, 604-615. Laudan, L. (1981). A Confutation of Convergent Realism. Philosophy of Science, 48. 1, 19-49. Resnick, D. (1992). Convergent Realism and Approximate Truth. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 1, 421-434. Sellars, W. (1962). Science, Perception and Reality. New York: Humanities P.

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