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The NOAer's Dilemma: Constructive Empiricism and the Natural Ontological Attitude

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Marc Alspector-Kelly
Affiliation:
Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, USA 49008-3899

Extract

Faced with interminable combat over some piece of philosophical terrain, someone will inevitably suggest that the contested ground is nothing more than a philosophically manufactured mirage that is therefore not worth fighting for. Arthur Fine has long advocated such a response — the ‘Natural Ontological Attitude,’ or NOA — to the realism debate in the philosophy of science. Notwithstanding the prima facie incompatibility between the realist's and anti-realist's positions, Fine suggests that there is in fact enough common ground for NOA to stand on its own as a minimal alternative, one that enjoys the advantage of being free of the philosophical burdens of its overweight contenders.

Notwithstanding Fine's claim to have identified a position that is neither realist nor anti-realist, critics charge that NOA, as Fine describes it, is a realist position. I endorse this criticism below, with attention to the relation between NOA and Bas van Fraassen's Constructive Empiricism (CE). I show that Fine's repudiation of the globalism he identifies in realism (and in anti-realism) does not insulate him from that charge.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Authors 2003

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References

1 For example, see Musgrave, A.NOA's Ark — Fine for Realism,’ The Philosophical Quarterly 39 (1989) 382-98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 See Fraassen, B. van The Scientific Image (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1980)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Fine, A.The Natural Ontological Attitude,’ in Fine, A. The Shakey Game: Einstein, Realism, and the Quantum Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1986), 128Google Scholar

4 Strictly speaking, van Fraassen does not present this alternative interpretation of IBE because he endorses this mode of inference; in fact, he does not. He presents the alternative only in order to argue that even if we accept IBE as a legitimate mode of inference, doing so does not force realism upon us. But this complication does not matter here. See Alspector-Kelly, M.Should the Empiricist be a Constructive Empiricist?Philosophy of Science 68 (2001) 413-31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 ‘Unnatural Attitudes: Realist and Instrumentalist Attachments to Science,’ Mina 95 (1986) 149-79, at 149

6 ‘And Not Antirealism Either,’ in The Shakey Game, 149.

7 Fine, A.Piecemeal Realism,’ Philosophical Studies 61 (1991) 79-96, at 94CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 An analogy: your mentor offers you a theological tome and directs you to believe all and only its teachings. But its language is obscure. You are certain it repudiates atheism. But you cannot tell whether it affirms theism or agnosticism. So you should not be a theist, since you are not convinced that the tome affirms God's existence, and you are determined to believe only its pronouncements. But to reserve judgment this way just is, you realize, agnosticism. And so you become an agnostic; not because that is the tome's teachings, but because you despair of determining what its teachings are, and this is the only way to obey your mentor that is open to you.

9 This difference between the constructive empiricist and the NOAer (under this interpretation) might be put this way: the constructive empiricist is agnostic concerning our knowledge of unobservables, whereas the NOAer is agnostic concerning whether science is agnostic about unobservables. I owe recognition that the difference can be expressed along these lines to an anonymous referee. The similarity that I identify between the NOAer and the constructive empiricist is in doxastic consequence, not in philosophical motive.

10 The Scientific Image, esp. eh. 5 and 6; and Laws and Symmetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1989)

11 See, for example, Musgrave, A.Realism versus Constructive Empiricism,’ in Churchland, P. and Hooker, C. eds., Images of Science: Essays on Realism and Empiricism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1985), 199.Google Scholar

12 Notice the assumption in Hilary Putnam's classic Statement of the indispensability argument: ‘So far I have been developing an argument for realism along roughly the following lines: quantification over mathematical entities is indispensable for science, both formal and physical; therefore we should accept such quantification; but this commits us to accepting the existence of the mathematical entities in question’ (Putnam, H.Philosophy of Logic,’ in Mathematics, Matter and Method: Philosophical Papers, Volume I [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1975], 347).Google Scholar

13 Field, H. Science Without Numbers: A Defense of Nominalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1980)Google Scholar

14 An exception is Paul Churchland's response to CE, which seems to represent a downstairs realist Standpoint: ‘Our best and most penetrating grasp of the real is still held to reside in the representations provided by our best theories. Global excellence of theory remains the fundamental measure of rational ontology. And that has always been the central claim of scientific realism.’(P. Churchland, ‘The Ontological Status of Observables: In Praise of the Superempirical Virtues,’ in Churchland and Hooker, 47).

15 See Boyd, R.Scientific Realism and Naturalistic Epistemology,’ in Asquith, P. Giere, P. and Giere, R. eds., Philosophy of Science Association Proceedings 1980 (East Lansing, MI: Philosophy of Science Association 1981)Google Scholar; ‘The Current Status of Scientific Realism,’ in Leplin, J. ed., Scientific Realism (Berkeley: University of California Press 1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and ‘Lex Orandi est Lex Credendi,’ in Churchland and Hooker, Images of Science.

16 Fine does present some arguments against realism's supposed externality. Musgrave derides Fine's arguments as far too idealistic to represent the natural ontological attitude. I agree. See Fine's discussion of the ‘problems’ of ‘reciprocity’ and ‘contamination’ in ‘Unnatural Attitudes,’ 150-2, and Musgrave's response in ‘NOA's Ark,’ 391-6.

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