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Epistemic Principles

A Primer for the Theory of Knowledge

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Nicholas Rescher

Epistemic Principles: A Primer of the Theory of Knowledge presents a compact account of the basic principles of the theory of knowledge. In doing this, Nicholas Rescher aims to fill the current gap in contemporary philosophical theory of knowledge with a comprehensive analysis of epistemological fundamentals. The book is not a mere inventory of such rules and principles, but rather interweaves them into a continuous exposition of basic issues. Written at a user-friendly and accessible level, Epistemic Principles is an essential addition for both advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in epistemology.
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Chapter 22. Scientific Realism and Its Problems

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SCIENTIFIC REALISM AND ITS PROBLEMS

Scientific realism is the doctrine that science describes reality—that the world actually is as science takes it to be and that its furnishings are as science envisions them to be.1 Accordingly, the doctrine maintains that such theoretical entities as the quarks and electrons of contemporary science are perfectly real components of nature’s “real world,” every bit as real as acorns and grains of sand. The latter we observe with the naked eye, the former we detect by complex theoretical triangulation. But a scientific realism of theoretical entities maintains that this difference is incidental. In principle, those “unobservable” entities exist in just the way in which the scientific theories that project them maintain. On such a realistic construction of scientific theorizing, the declarations of science are factually true generalizations about the actual behavior of real physical objects existing in nature.

Scientific realism has its difficulties. After all, the theoretical entities envisioned by current science will exist as present-day science envisions them only insofar as current science is in fact correct—only insofar as it manages to get things just right. And the supposition that current science has got it altogether right clearly has its problems. For natural science is a thing in motion: it constantly changes its mind, not just with regard to incidental but even on very fundamental issues. The history of science is the story of the ← 126 | 127 → replacement of one defective,...

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