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Candidate No: B00527

Degree: BA Psychology & Philosophy

Module Code & Title: PP302/3

Essay Title: Is the anti-realist position on whether belief in

unobservable entities is justified in reality an
expression of our inability to attribute knowledge to
such beliefs?

Word Count: 3,791

Heythrop College, University of London

May 2008

Is the anti-realist position on whether belief in unobservable entities is

Candidate No: B00527

justified in reality an expression of our inability to attribute knowledge to such


The term ‘realism’ has come to be used in many different ways to

describe a huge range of schools of philosophical thought, schools that vary
greatly both in terms of subject and of validity (Laudan, 1998). Thus, it is
important to first define exactly what is meant by realism in terms of this
particular question. That is ‘epistemological realism’ (henceforth simply
‘realism’), essentially the argument that we are justified in believing that the
unobservable entities that our scientific theories argue to exist do exist in
reality, that they are not merely theoretical entities that fit the data well. To
put it into more descriptive and formal terms, I shall borrow a set of four
generalised realist claims from Laudan (1998; pp.1115):

‘R1: Scientific theories (at least in ‘mature’ sciences) are typically

approximately true and more recent theories are closer to the
truth than older theories of the same domain.

R2: The observational and theoretical terms within the theories of a

mature science genuinely refer (roughly, there are substances in
the world that correspond to the ontologies presumed by our
best theories)

R3: Successive theories in any mature science will be such that they
‘preserve’ the theoretical relations and the apparent referents of
earlier theories (i.e., earlier theories will be limiting cases of later

R4: Acceptable new theories do and should explain why their

predecessors were successful insofar as they were successful.’

These four claims together argue that the success of science has occurred
because scientific theories describe real entities, and the continued
development of such theories results in a convergence towards absolute

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truth, well described by Laudan as ‘convergent epistemological realism’

(1998; pp.1116). This essay shall first attempt to defend this specific type of
realism, and then discuss further arguments in favour of such realism in more
general terms. It is important to note here that this type of realism by
definition has a strong epistemological element, this essay shall not attempt
to deny this; however, the argument is that, in postulating that we are not
justified in believing in the existence of unobservables, the anti-realist is
merely highlighting the difficulty of determining which of these entities we
can say that we know exist, rather than actually providing arguments against
the justification for such beliefs. During the defence of realism, it is hoped that
it shall become apparent that anti-realism, in terms of the justification of
belief in unobservable entities, is in reality an epistemological concern of
whether we can attribute knowledge to such beliefs, rather than the
methodological concern whether the unobservables that scientific theory
postulate exist in reality.
Laudan, himself an anti-realist, argues that in light of R2 the realist is
forced to ascribe to four claims, here reprinted in full:

‘S1: The theories in the advanced or mature sciences are successful.

S2: A theory whose central terms genuinely refer will be a successful
S3: If a theory is successful, we can reasonably infer that its central
terms genuinely refer.
S4: All the central terms in theories in the mature sciences do refer.’

And further: ‘(S2) and (S4) explain (S1), while (S1) and (S3) provide the
warrant for (S4)’.
(1998; pp.1117)

Laudan bases his argument against realism on the fact that (S2) is obviously
false. However, there is no need for the realist to claim (S2); S1 is supported
by empirical evidence in the form of observation of many successful theories
in mature sciences. Whilst it is true that a strict inductive logician or
Popperian would argue that science has been largely unsuccessful because it

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does not have high confirmation (Laudan, 1998), this is a philosophical

technicality; the incredible usefulness of the combined scientific discoveries of
mankind are a clear indication of the practical success of the endeavour. This
philosophical generality can be taken into account without damaging the
realist’s argument by re-phrasing (S1):

(S’1): Many of the theories in the advanced or mature sciences have

been confirmed as being successful, by new observations4 or by their

Laudan again bases his argument against (S3) in the fact that it is not
true of all cases. He takes aetherial theories of the 1830s as his main
example, and argues that as the theories invoked unobservable entities that
were later discovered not to refer, (S3) must not hold. However, the fact that
we cannot as yet attribute a certain truth-value to the theories we currently
hold has no bearing upon whether or not we are justified in believing it to be
true. The term ‘reasonably’ surely makes it impossible for specific examples
to refute the claim, just because the aetherial theories turned out to be
incorrect does not mean that those who believed in them were unjustified in
doing so.
Thus, the obvious fallacy of (S2) is not detrimental to the realist
argument, as (S2) does not actually seem to be part of it. Neither are the
problems in (S3) detrimental, because justification does not require that the
justified beliefs are true, only that we have good reason for believing them to
be. These points, combined with the re-phrased (S1), then suggest that (S1)
and (S3) together do provide a reasonable justification for (S4); that the
central terms in the theories in the mature sciences do refer. Thus, by
extension, they also suggest that we are justified in believing that the
unobservable entities found in such theories do exist.
The convergence argument can also be used to refute another
important counter-argument to realism, the argument from pessimistic
induction, which observes that many scientific theories of the past that were
once highly compelling have turned out to be false; inferring that as it is
highly likely that all current theories will turn out to be false we are not

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justified in believing them (Lange, 2002). However, if we assume on the back

of the arguments in the section above that science is converging towards
truth, we must assume that science will eventually achieve theories that will
not be refuted. Therefore the argument from pessimistic induction does not
affect the justification of belief, rather it entails that we must be cautious in
postulating that we ‘know’ that the theories we currently hold are true and, by
extension, that the unobservable entities postulated within them do exist.
Again the anti-realist position appears to be an epistemological concern. We
can be cautious in this manner without being any less justified in our belief
that they do, the belief manifests itself in the degree of confidence we hold in
our current theories. Furthermore, the argument from pessimistic induction
can also be turned as an argument in favour of realism; As discussed above,
drawing a line between observable and unobservable is highly problematic,
and it is clear that what is unobservable today may be observable tomorrow.
Thus, the anti-realist definition of what is unobservable is surely a theory, and
so whilst the anti-realists may remain justified in their beliefs about what is
and what isn’t observable, their concurrence with such an argument serves to
weaken their position rather than strengthen it.
Having attempted to refute Laudan’s anti-realist arguments against his
own conception of convergent realism, some arguments in favour of realism
shall be considered. In his 1998 G. Maxwell provides a thorough analysis of
the ‘observational-theoretical dichotomy’ argument in favour of realism, parts
of which shall be discussed here. The argument points out that observation
runs along a continuous series, beginning with looking through a vacuum, and
running through such situations as looking through a windowpane, looking
through glasses, looking through a microscope and so on1. In the first case, it
is clear that objects can be directly observed in the purest sense, with nothing
obscuring the path of vision. However, the further down the list of situations
that the observation takes place, the less direct2 it becomes. The continuous
and expanding nature of this list suggests that any line drawn between
‘observable’ and ‘unobservable’ will be arbitrary.
Moreover, if such a line is drawn, the continuous nature of the list also
suggests that the ‘observableness’ of objects viewed by each method also fits
along a continuous spectrum, rather than into two distinct categories. This

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suggestion is well supported by contemporary valency theory, which states

that there is a continuous transition between very small molecules through
large molecules to large physical objects (Maxwell, 1998). As such a
continuous spectrum exists in such objects and in the methods of observing
such objects, to say that unobservable objects are not real implies such reality
must occur along a continuous spectrum also. But this leads to problems for
the instrumentalist, as they are forced to concede that this entails that
objects that can only be viewed through a microscope must be ‘less real’ than
objects viewed through glasses, which in turn must be ‘less real’ than objects
viewed through unobstructed sight. It is clear that people who look through
glasses don’t describe mere ‘shadows’ (Maxwell, 1998; pp.1055), as the
objects they describe are the same as someone who views them clearly
without glasses.
The standard anti-realist response to this argument is that there is no ‘a
priori’ (Maxwell, 1998; pp.1057) way of differentiating between what is
observable and unobservable, we are only unjustified in believing in the
actual existence of entities that are unobservable in principle. Therefore it
must be the theory, ‘science itself’ (Maxwell, 1998; pp.1058), that decided
whether the entity in question is unobservable. However, taking example of
electrons, there are many theoretical arguments that claim that they are
unobservable (Maxwell, 1998) but they all seem to turn on the simple fact
that as yet we have no method or apparatus for their observation. There is a
strong possibility that there will be new inventions in the future that allow us
to observe things that are currently unobservable, and, to use a seemingly
far-fetched but ontologically valid argument, we may discover or be
discovered by extra-terrestrial organisms that are able to directly observe
things that we cant. This strongly suggests that the ascription of the term
‘unobservable’ to entities is not a description of the properties of that entity
merely a description of our observational shortcomings, and thus has no
ontological significance, no bearing on whether such entities actually exist or
Furthermore, there is evidence from the way in which we observe that
also suggests that anti-realism does not hold. In cases of external perception3,
such as seeing, hearing and so on, we do not directly observe the ‘sense

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contents,’ and as such are not really aware of them when we observe physical
objects in the world around us. For example, when viewing a painting, an
individual would not normally observe each individual piece of sense data
they receive through their ocular systems; they do not observe individually
the shape, colour and possibly texture of each little piece of the painting, they
observe it as a whole. In terms of observational sentences such as ‘this is a
painting of a farmhouse,’ the ability to discern the truth-values of the
sentence and the role the sense data plays in such ‘tokening’ (Maxwell, 1998;
pp.1061) can be explained fully using ‘physical-thing language as our
observational language and treating sensations, sense contents, sense data,
and ‘inner states’ as theoretical (yes, theoretical!) entities’ (Maxwell, 1998;
pp.1061). However, whilst people do not often pay direct heed to the
particular ‘theoretical entities’ of sense data, it does not mean that they
cannot, or indeed that they do not. Thus, by using different perceptual
capabilities people can come to observe directly theoretical entities that were
previously unobserved; the entities were not unobserved because they were
unobservable, but because the right method of observation was not used. In
light of these arguments, it seems the line drawn between observable and
unobservable is entirely arbitrary and thus ontologically irrelevant, and the
realist triumphs over the anti-realist.
The concept of inference to the best explanation is a widely discussed
argument in the dialectic between realism and anti-realism. This ‘canon of
rational inference’ is widely undisputed (Van Frassen, 1998; pp.1075), and a
realist would argue that realism is inherent within it. It states that if there is
good reason for believing that the entities postulated within a theory exist,
then we have good reason for believing in that theory. To take example from
Van Frassen, if ‘I hear scratching in the wall, the patter of little feet, [and] my
cheese disappears’ there is a strong justification for believing that a mouse is
living in the walls of my home. It is clear that such evidence justifies a belief
that the symptoms of mouse cohabitation shall continue, not just in the sense
that they are likely to continue or that the phenomena will continue to support
the belief, but also that the mouse exists in reality.
Thus, if this rule of inference is rationally followed in such everyday
contexts, surely it would be irrational not to follow it when considering

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whether we should have belief in unobservable entities found in scientific

theories. However, to say that we consciously apply this rule to all our
inferences, ‘like a student doing a logic exercise [is]... much too literalistic and
restrictive’ (Van Frassen, 1998; pp.1076), as whilst all humans perform such
inferences on an everyday basis, very few can actually articulate the process,
suggesting it cannot be a conscious act of rationality. Conversely, it cannot be
satisfactorily described as an unconscious act, as ‘each logical rule is a rule of
permission (modus ponens allows you to infer B from A (if A then B), but does
not forbid you to infer (B or A) instead)’ (Van Frassen, 1998; pp.1076). In other
words, logical rules do not entail one inference over the other, they provide
support for one without technically suggesting the other to be false; thus
there must be some sort of conscious decision involved here. It could be
argued that a person follows a set of rules when they deduce all of their
conclusions from their premises through those rules, but this is far too loose a
definition, as it is clear that any conclusion can be inferred from any premise
(Van, Frassen, 1998).
Furthermore, as Van Frassen argues, it seems this rule of inference is
followed in everyday contexts must be a ‘psychological hypothesis’ (1998;
pp.1076). As such it is based on observational data of other people, and can
be faced by rival hypotheses. In this case, the anti-realist alternative
hypothesis is that we are always willing to believe the theory that best fits the
data is empirically accurate; while the realist position argues that we should
do so, the anti-realist position points out that it is possible that we merely do
because we are willing to. Van Frassen believes that examples from everyday
life cannot refute either of these hypotheses, and thus we are not justified in
believing one over the other based on the above arguments.
However, again the anti-realist is search for definitive knowledge rather
than justification. To say that the arguments from inference to the best
explanation thus provide equal justification for realism and anti-realism may
appear to be highly trivial, but if these arguments are seen as an attack on
realism, rather than a defence of it, it stands up well to the assault, and is no
less of a justified position due to the other arguments in its favour7. To clarify,
it appears that realism is not necessarily inherent in the concept of inference
to the best explanation, but this is not detrimental to the justification for the

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relist to believe in the existence of unobservables.

So far in certain cases it has seemed particularly easy to add to the
justification for believing in unobservable entities, as the arguments
themselves do not have to be concrete, as long as they lend support to the
realist position they can be used as justifications. However, there are some
realist arguments that do seem to have been fully refuted by the non-realists,
most notably the unification argument. The realist stance on unification is that
‘the regularities uncovered in experimental science would remain nothing
more than enigmatic cosmic coincidences were we not to believe in some sort
of reality behind the phenomena’ (Forster, 1986; pp.395). In other words
scientific enquiry has as its final goal some sort of unified theory that explains
everything that happens in the universe, which it is hoped will be arrived at
through constant revision and integration of current theories5.
Papineau (2005) argues that there are two strong anti-realist counter-
arguments to this claim. The first of these is that the unification is not
necessarily motivated by such a desire for the ‘one underlying truth’ (pp.150),
but rather a desire for simplicity. Such simplicity is very convenient to
scientists as it eliminates the need to choose between theories when dealing
with problems, and will avoid cases where one or more theories are
implemented that later turn out to unsuitable. The second, more damaging
response is to assert that such unification is simply impossible, and as such
cannot really be a goal of scientific enquiry. Nancy Cartwright’s book, How the
Laws of Physics Lie, has made massive contributions to this view (Papineau,
2005). In it, she manages to argue with much success that there is no such
thing as basic laws (Fine, 1984), and thus there cannot be ‘one underlying
truth’ as the realist may hope, and thus unification cannot be used in support
of the realist argument6 in any way.
Finally, what many philosophers describe as the ‘ultimate argument’ for
realism shall be considered. It asserts that science has to explain its own
success; it is clear that scientific theories do describe regularities in the world,
and that they are well able to predict the outcomes of a great many events
based on those regularities. This success needs to have an explanation. Van
Frassen argues that the best explanation is a ‘very traditional one- adequatio
ad rem, the ‘adequacy’ of the theory to its objects, a kind of mirroring of the

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structure of things by the structure of ideas’ (1998; pp.1084); essentially an

assertion that the success of the theories strongly suggests that they are
grounded in fact, and thus the entities described in them really do exist. But
this is a mere reformulation of some of the realist arguments discussed above.
However, when combined with the idea that science is a ‘biological
phenomenon’ (Van Frassen, 1998; pp.1084), that through mankind assists
their interaction with the environment through scientific discovery, the
scientific paradigm, Darwinism, can be used as an argument in favour in
Whilst at first look this appears to be a circular argument, using belief
in science to justify belief in science, an analogy between the process of
natural selection and the refutation of incorrect scientific theories is not. Van
Frassen (1998; pp.1084) cites the observation of St. Augustine that a mouse
runs from the cat because it perceives that the cat is its enemy. The continued
existence of the mouse after such an interaction is due to the ‘adequacy’ of
the mouse’s belief in the order of nature, ‘the relation of enmity is correctly
reflected in his mind’ (Van Frassen, 1998; pp.1084). Thus, in a similar way,
only the scientific theories that really describe regularities in world, and thus
those that genuinely refer even in the case of unobservables, survive the
process of natural selection that is the progress of science; whilst we cannot
be sure that another theory will not come along and refute those that we
currently hold to be true, there is clear justification for our belief that the
entities they postulate really do exist.
To conclude in terms of the original question, the justification of a
justification does not require definitive proof, it merely requires justification.
The line between justification and ascription of knowledge is essentially the
same as the line between support and definitive proof. If a justification of a
belief has a definitive proof behind it, it ceases to be a justification and
becomes an attribution of true knowledge to the belief. The attempt to
describe in general terms what exactly entails a justification is a continuing
epistemological debate, and as such has not been considered here. However,
for specific cases, it is much easier to determine if a belief is justified, and it
would certainly seem that realism is justified for the reasons outlined above.
Thus, as this essay has attempted to show, there need not be concrete

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ontological proof that realism is correct, concrete proof that unobservable

entities do exist in reality; the search for such proof does not concern a
justification of realist belief, it is the search for the answer to another
question, one of whether or not we can know that such entities exist.

There are many more examples not explicated here, both for the purposes of brevity and as
there are surely many more types of observational apparatus yet to be invented. The electron
microscope being a good example of a recent invention that has allowed us to directly observe
what was previously unobservable.
Here I use the term ‘direct’ to mean unobstructed or unaided, elsewhere in the essay it simply
refers to the observation of an entity physically observable by any (non-theoretical) apparatus.
By their very nature cases of internal perception, such as that of hunger, pain and so on, do
involve direct observation of sense content, however, this does not detract from the argument
as unlike sense content that concerns external objects they are directly observable without an
intermediary of perception.
Made possible through, for example, more advanced apparatus of observation being invented.
This argument ties in strongly with the no miracles argument discussed above.
It is interesting to note that, despite this use of her theories, Cartwright herself come out as a
staunch realist due to her strong beliefs in the truth of causal explanations (Fine, 1984).


Maxwell, G. (1998). ‘The Ontological Status of Theoretical Entities.’ In Curd

& Cover, Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues; pp.1052-1063. W. W.
Norton & Company.
Laudan, L. (1998). ‘A Confutation of Convergent Realism.’ In Curd & Cover,
Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues; pp.1114-1135. W. W. Norton &
Lange, M. (2002). ‘Baseball, Pessimistic Inductions and the Turnover Fallacy.’
Analysis; Vol.62, Issue.76, pp.281-285. Blackwell Publishing.

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Forster, M. (1986). ‘Unification and Scientific Realism Revisited.’ PSA:

Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association;
Vol.1:Contributed Papers, pp.394-405. University of Chicago Press.
Van Frassen, B. (1998). ‘Concerning Scientific Realism.’ In Curd & Cover,
Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues; pp.1064-1088. W. W. Norton &
Papineau, D. (2005). ‘Realism, Instrumentalism, and Undertermination.’ In
Grayling, A. (ed.) Philosophy 1: A Guide Through The Subject; pp.148-158.
Oxford University Press.
Fine, A. (1984). ‘Review: How the Laws of Physics Lie, by Nancy Cartwright.’
Isis; Vol.75, No.2, pp.386-387.