Instrumentalism in the philosophy of science

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  • bella
    • Type: TiNe
    • Development: l--l
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    Hi again

    A few weeks ago I opened a thread about the evolutionary benefit of instrumental religious beliefs and you guys had some interesting thoughts to share. The discussion brought up evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein who holds that religions are a form of culture which has beliefs that are not factual, but that behaving as if they were factual results in an enhancement of our evolutionary fitness and serves our genetic interests. He regards these as ”literally false, metaphorically true beliefs”, as they serve an instrumental purpose of cultivating the cultural-linguistic framework needed for a specific form of life as necessary for our moral evolution and overall survival.

    This time I’d like to open a similar discussion about instrumentalism — but in the domain of science.

    Scientific theories aim to tell us what reality is actually like in the objective, mind-independent, world, and get better and better at making predictions that shows us that we’re on the right track, and are getting closer to the truth. However, theories need not be true in order to be successful.  Does the process of science always approach a singular, true conception that corresponds to reality as it is, or does it simply describe physical phenomena? Do the “unobservable” entities science describes really exist in the formats in which they are depicted?

    In a philosophical scientific context, instrumentalism holds that scientific concepts and theories are not necessarily literally true but help to make accurate empirical predictions or to resolve conceptual problems. Theoretical terms are often introduced into theories to make them more simple for understanding, but these do not indicate any ontological truth of the unobservable entities they are ‘referring’ to.

    For example, let’s say quantum mechanics makes a claim about the quantum state of a particular photon. What is the theory really telling us about the state of the photon? Is it giving us literal reality or is it merely saying that if we were to make this particular measurement, we would get these particular empirical results?

    The instrumentalist view would be that the terms “photon” and “quantum state” are not real features of the world. Rather, saying that the photon is in a particular state is just a more convenient way of saying that doing this particular experiment would get these particular results. Sometimes how our theories construct things is not separable from how we come to understand reality.

    This can even apply to classical physics, as some Newtonian equations are still used by NASA today to get to us to space even though they have later been disproven, yet they still work because the distance between us and space is still within the framework of them making precise calculations, despite not being accurate descriptions of reality.


    In my view instrumentalism isn’t necessarily solipsist or nonrealist.  Instrumentalism can hold to (philosophical) realism, whether that means the belief in a scientific and material objective reality independent of human phenomenology, or a metaphysical one –The Absolute Truth, The Infinite Godhead etc. Instrumentalism in this case is a symbolic representation of something more real or objectively true.

    This could mean holding a view that our subjective perceptions are a fallacy serving our path to getting closer to truth.  But it could also mean holding the view that our perceptions, however subjective, still hold some connection with their more authentic source of truth and are thus true under this definition.  In the case of scientific realism for example, theories are considered literally true partly because their concepts correspond to real properties that causally lead to empirical evidence.  But in my view, this understanding can coincide quite well with an instrumental or antirealist view of scientific theories as well.

    I wonder what your opinions of this matter are.  Do you hold to strict scientific realism, instrumental scientific antirealism, or something else altogether, and why? Also, how do your views on this matter shape your understanding of reality more broadly?

    • This topic was modified 2 weeks, 2 days ago by bella.
    • This topic was modified 2 weeks, 2 days ago by bella.
    • This topic was modified 2 weeks, 2 days ago by bella.
    • Type: NeFi
    • Development: ll-l
    • Attitude: Seelie

    I have no ability to truly judge where I am at the moment, my current issue has been finishing my thesis, and I did use a bit of philosophy in it, and within the limited scope available I used Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyrabend, more correctly Lakatos view on science as a series of competing programmes.

    In my case, it was not that much about sides, I just needed someone explaining how to research. I encountered something good, and something really, really bad for a thesis; the truth. As far I know, it is truth, since I observe it. Others can observe it, and it do fit in modern research.

    But within the research paradigm it were to fit, it did not fit at all. No good fit with current paradigm in a field, without progress, for more than 40 years. Where competing fields study same subject with different data. And it’s not within my my field, really; I borrowed an method, and it failed, sort of.  Part of my problem was, I saw most of the “Science” were “intuitive” and with that, I specify artistic exploration of Natural Science with production of artistic logic, feeling what is “right”, making models, testing them, etc.

    Worst of all; no scientist could ever find flaws, or tell if anything worked or not ever, without breaking the system. I think I managed to. Btw; Lakatos view of science, also includes Falsification. Nothing is ever Science if it cannot be tested (Popper), Lakatos is not that strict, however; he merely specify that the truth be testable. Having criteria for failing. CT/Vultology do, I think. And do not fail, since it’s an empirical programme of testing data, not an programme upholding an hypothesis. And have had several ideas falsified repeatedly. And I am used to Science with no ability of anyone, to falsify it’s science. And I am fine with it, since I must. I am limited by exposure, and exposure only, when it comes to philosophy of science.

    I have no exposure to it, and by this, I am literal here; for me it’s a lack, undeveloped potential, the current trend seem to be mishmash of French Sociology, STS or discourse as a means of bridging the gap. Borrow some idea from a Frenchman, since we can’t do without. I have to add, my professor is not trained here in this country; and it shows. My thesis is probably the only one proving anything as far I know, most is writing about the “philosophical heaviness of statues” or something similar, out of Bourdieu. Etc..

    In my case, I needed to go opposite direction, I used Lakatos and the Natural Science to explain to readers why instrumental truths still is science, since we need them to figure out something. Since some readers simply would assume “Kuhn’s falsification is definition of Natural Science”, and for a Physicist of Biologist reading my thesis, knowing Kuhn meant something quite different, would take an statement on my part, quite harsh… Since I tested an hypothesis never able to be tested, ever. And proved it wrong. Meaning I should have stated by Kuhn’s view, the original view were not just flawed, it was not a valid part of any Scientific research, at all. Period.  Which is a view, I cannot agree upon, mostly instrumentally, since nobody would expect it valid.


    • This reply was modified 1 week, 6 days ago by Starshade.
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