van Fraassen’s Constructive Empiricism

Bas van Fraassen is not your typical scientific anti-realist. Against the positivists, van Fraassen doesn’t want to admit that two different theories which predict all the same observations and experiences, are semantically equivalent, and thus he rejects the positivist construal of science according to which science needs to be ‘properly’ understood because science is to be ‘properly’ construed (where properly means according to the positivist theory of semantics). Instead, he agrees with the realist that science is to be literally construed. He says that a good definition of scientific realism might go as follows:

Scientific Realism: Science aims to give us theories which are literally true, and the acceptance of a scientific theory commits one to it’s literal truth.

On this definition somebody could be a scientific realist without accepting all (or even any) modern/current scientific theories. However, it does mean that once a scientific theory is accepted, the one accepting the theory is committing herself to the literal truth of it’s story.  van Fraassen is concerned, however, about belief in unobservables being difficult to justify epistemically. Though we have empirical evidence for electrons, for instance, it is not the case that we have ‘access’ via the five senses to electrons. Some might suggest that if we have no access to some entities via the five senses then the entities are not, strictly, empirical, and to broaden empiricism beyond the realm of the five senses is to broaden empiricism, potentially, to everything metaphysical, so that even numbers, sets, or God, are empirical entities.

Thus, van Fraassen promotes a form of scientific anti-realism which he has called Constructive Empiricism. The best definition of it might go something like this:

Constructive Empiricism: Science, which should be literally construed, aims to give us theories which are empirically adequate, and acceptance of a scientific theory commits one only to that theory’s being empirically adequate.

Now, on the one hand, this is an attractive construal of science. It has the advantage of not being open to  error, such that no scientist who commits him or her self to some theory is, in so doing, erring, even if the theory turns out to be wrong. Science, instead of having a history of failure after failure, as one theory is superseded by another theory and so on apparently ad infinitum, has a history of creating more and more empirically adequate theories. The disadvantage is that none of these theories aim to be literally true, but perhaps van Fraassen could say that there is some terminus to how empirically adequate some theory can be: the terminus is exhaustive empirical adequacy. Science aims to terminate there, in a final scientific story which is exhaustively empirically adequate. Moreover, he could then say that he is a kind of realist if he only said that the exhaustively empirically adequate theory, literally construed, is literally true. He could also simply adopt the view that even the commitment to the most empirically adequate scientific theory, which should be literally construed, need not entail being committed to its truth qua scientific commitment or scientific practice.

I’m not sure if I accept anything like this Constructive Empiricism. I certainly don’t want to be a naive realist who thinks any or all the scientific theories of today are closed to reform, or are not tenuous. However, I also want to uphold a confident scientific realism which is optimistic about science. Perhaps I could say, then, that as theories become more and more empirically adequate, or perhaps to the degree that theories are empirically adequate, they approximate to the truth. For example, I myself have no trouble believing in unobservables, like electrons or angels, since I think we have good reasons for believing in both. However, perhaps my belief in the reality of unobservables like electrons is a commitment over and above my ‘scientific’ commitment to atomic theory. If my commitment to atomic theory involves no more than a commitment to it’s empirical adequacy then my commitment to the reality of the entities which the theory postulates becomes a philosophical commitment.

I rather like that.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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3 Responses to van Fraassen’s Constructive Empiricism

  1. Hang on, we have good reason to believe in angels…?

    • I think so, yes. The reasons are very speculative, however, and the plausibility they lend to the thesis that there are such beings is assessed differently by different people with different “plausibility filters.” One’s basic presuppositions and starting points will, in many ways, determine how plausible such arguments are. I won’t bother going into detail or make any elaborate case for their existence here, but I can offer you at least three general lines of argument for angels, and you can decide for yourself what plausibility they do or do not lend the metaphysical thesis that there are angels.

      First, there is a classical philosophical argument from Pseudo-Dionysus which goes something like this: first, God exists and created all things that aren’t identical to himself. Second, God’s creation involves different levels of beings (a very medieval presupposition), so that there are rocks, mosquitoes, dogs, whales and human beings – which can all be ordered in an ascending series insofar as each of them more or less perfectly represent or instantiate a certain ideal nature. There are perfectly material beings, beings which are material but also conscious in some sense, beings which are rational as well as conscious, and still material, and so on. The argument goes that if God created this kind of plenum, where there are creatures fitting all these different degrees of being (i.e., beings which intimate God to greater and lesser degrees), then there would be something rather strange about finding some conspicuous gap somewhere in that ascending ordering of beings. However, if beings are ordered all the way up to God, and God is an altogether immaterial personal mind, and human beings have immaterial souls (i.e., they have a consciousness and rationality which cannot be explained in terms of reductive materialism), then there would be a conspicuous gap in the order of beings if there were not also completely immaterial personal minds which were contingent. This, however, is just what everyone means by ‘angels’ – a creature which is personal, has free will, consciousness, intelligence and so forth, but which also isn’t circumscribed in space.

      This first argument’s plausibility depends on the plausibility of its three key assumptions – first, that God exists; second, that beings can be non-artificially ordered in some ascending pattern towards God; and finally that we can trust our speculative assumption that because the world would seem to be a queerly imperfect creation of God if it had some conspicuous gap, it probably does not have such a conspicuous gap. Many Theists find this argument compelling, many atheists do not, and many agnostics go either way. The best way to think of the argument is something like this: whatever the probability of God’s existence is (whether very high or very low), let’s ask the question conditionally: IF God existed, THEN wouldn’t it be likely that angels exist? If yes, then the argument is somewhat successful, and if no, then the argument is not successful.

      A second general line of argument comes from religious experience. So many sincere, non-superstitious and credulous persons have had experiences, or at least recount experiences, in which they thought the best explanation of what they were witness to was an explanation involving an angelic being, that it seems difficult to dismiss all such accounts out of hand. Moreover, what excuse/justification could we have to just dismiss all such accounts; what could give us leave to practice that kind of prejudice? It’s not an easy question to answer. Additionally, these ‘experiences’ obtain in a variety of cultures, often with entirely different religious backgrounds. Now, the probability that all such accounts are veridical is very, very low. However, the probability that not a single one of these accounts is veridical is, it may be argued, even lower! Thus, the probability that at least one such account is veridical seems high enough to afford it justified assent. There seems to be no other sensible way to explain the proliferate number of such accounts. It can’t just be due to superstitions, because superstitions are culturally relative, and such experiences, like explicitly ‘religious’ experiences (obviously experiencing an angel is not a religious experience, and strictly speaking even an Atheist can believe that there are angels without being compelled to believe that God exists; there is no logical entailment from the existence of Angels to the existence of God) are cross-cultural. It also can’t be due to religion, since religions also vary very widely, and many (perhaps even Buddhism) deny the existence of such beings in principle. The best explanation, therefore, seems to be that there are such beings in our world.

      The third argument I can think of will be based indirectly on religion. For example, a Christian may argue that Christianity is both true and plausible. However, clearly IF Christianity is true, THEN there are angels. Thus, all arguments for Christianity’s truth are, in effect, arguments by extension for the existence of angels. I won’t rehearse such arguments here, since I only mean to give general outlines of how such arguments go. Furthermore, this works for other religions as well, such as Islam, Judaism, et cetera. Thus, one can argue that if Christianity OR Islam OR Judaism OR et cetera are true (i.e., if even a single no of them is true) then angels exist. There are some complications here (I’m definitely over-simplifying), but in general this is another kind of argument.

      A fourth argument which I can think of may go like this: we have at least some reasons to believe in angels, however good or bad they are. However, we have no comparably good arguments against the existence of such beings – what arguments are there for A-angel-ism? Not many! Therefore, epistemic prudence seems to prescribe an at least tenuous acceptance of the existence of such beings; in the absence of some better argument against the existence of such beings, we ought to maintain at least a weak conviction that angels exist, or that it is more plausible that they do then that they do not.

      Who is not likely to be impressed by such arguments? The only people I can think of are either religious believers in some religions which deny the existence of angels, or people who hold world-views which are, even if not ‘religious,’ simply in principle opposed to the existence of such beings. For example, a materialist may think it doesn’t make any good sense to talk about immaterial persons, but that’s because they have a prior commitment to a philosophy called ‘Materialism.’ Here, the trouble is that if the Materialist isn’t to be just a secular dogmatist, she has to give us some good arguments to think her philosophy of materialism is true, and there just are no such arguments (at least by my reckoning – maybe you think there are some such arguments?).

      Well, I hope that helps give you an idea of what reasons there are for believing in angels, and why so many brilliant scientists and philosophers of science, like van Fraassen, believe in the existence of angels.

  2. Pingback: Scientific Apparati | The Leather Library

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