Thursday, April 10, 2014

Theism and scientific non-realism

One of the major arguments for scientific realism is that the best explanation for why our best scientific theories are predictively successful is that they are literally true or at least literally approximately true. After all, wouldn't it be incredible if things behaved observationally as if the theories were true, but the theories weren't true?

While this is a pretty good argument, it's worth noting that theists have an alternate explanation: In order that intelligent beings be able to make successful predictions of a sort that lets them exhibit appropriate stewardship over the world, God makes the world exhibit patterns of the sort that human science is capable of finding, patterns that can be subsumed under theories that are sufficiently simple for us to find. And one sort of pattern is of the as-if sort: things behave as if there were photons, which lets us organize the behavior of macroscopic things into patterns by supposing (in a way that need not carry ontological commitment) photons.

That said, there is a value to science over and beyond its helping us exercise stewardship over the world—understanding of the world is valuable for its own sake—so even given theism, a scientifically realist theistic explanation seems better than a scientifically non-realist one.

But even if realism is in general the right policy, maybe theism could provide a tenable Plan B if there turn out to be cases where scientific realism is not tenable. For instance, one might think (incorrectly, I suspect) that there is no metaphysically tenable and scientifically plausible version of quantum mechanics. Then, one might retreat to a theistic explanation of why the world behaves as if the metaphysically untenable theory were true. Or one might think (because of Zeno's paradoxes, say) that it is impossible for spacetime to be adequately modeled by a manifold of the sort that mathematics studies (one locally homeomorphic to a power of the real number line). But why do things behave as if spacetime were such a manifold? Maybe God made them behave so because this lets us organize the world in convenient ways.


MiloŇ° said...

I believe that there is more one line of reasoning attractive to theists to adopt scientific realisim: if God create man it is expected that finute human mind reflect (of course very slighty) unlimited Gods mind and to have capacity to understand how Creation works (including himself).

Naturalist affirmation of scientific realism seems to much pragmatic and, on my opinion, path from pragmatics to metaphysics is very unsecure.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Pruss

Would you say that the scenario you've outlined is analogous (or perhaps substantively the same) as the "God of the gaps" position? It seems to me that the theist ought to stay away from invoking God as explanatory for secondary causation because our knowledge if that is imperfect and in flux.

It seems that retreating away from realism is a similar move in that the theist invokes God as a stop-gap to explain the efficacy of applied science. If that's so, shouldn't the theist refrain from such a position?


MiloŇ° said...

I can not see how outlined position is similar to God of the gaps scenario? Scientific realism/anti-realism debate is epistemological and metaphysical issue, not scientific. So in articulating such positions all metaphysical aparatus can be helpful (including some kind of methodological theism - suppose some particular theological view because in make more sense than some another.

I am very uncertain about realism/anti-realism debate in philosophy of science (especially under influence of brilliant exposition of empiricism in Bas van Fraassen's writings).

I hope I have not misunderstand your objection.