What Parts Of Reality Does Science Describe, And Which Parts Are Merely Constructs?

What Parts Of Reality Does Science Describe, And Which Parts Are Merely Constructs?

A rose would not smell as sweet if it was called, as it likely is called in German, a sourbloodpetal. Or whatever. Naming things, getting the good names for things, brings with it many victories.

In the philosophy of science a realist—which is a name most excellent—is one who believes the objects named in physical theories are real. The objects exist, as the theories say they do, in reality. Strings, for instance, are there because theory demands it. But in reality, I say, sometimes these objects are there and sometimes they aren’t. So what do we call the position that says sometimes theories are blowing smoke, and sometimes they name real things? Can’t use realist. That’s taken.

Well, there is a name for such a view, which I’ll reveal in a moment. But I’m giving nothing away by telling you the name stinks. Smacks of academese. And that’s because the realists got there first with their name. (Incidentally, nobody beats computer scientists in naming: artificial intelligence forsooth!.)

A position that’s sort of the polar opposite of realist is empiricist. This is the view that the things named by theories don’t really matter, probably aren’t real, but that the theory is still empirically useful because it makes good predictions. The vast majority of people using machines, like cellphones, are empiricists in a way. Strings don’t have to be real for the math to be pleasant.

An intermediate position is epistemic structural realism. As in, “Hi, I’m an epistemic structural realist.” Ugh. As one source puts it:

So one way of thinking about structural realism is as an epistemological modification of scientific realism to the effect that we only believe what scientific theories tell us about the relations entered into by unobservable objects, and suspend judgement as to the nature of the latter.

Well that’s just the way you’re going to have to talk because the realists took such a commanding lead in the Name Game.

I was reminded of all this by the Bas van Fraassen article (which I learned from an Ed Feser tweet), “Science does not describe reality“, a position with which, at the current time of writing, I have much sympathy (blog, Substack). I put the condition in because of the hope that someday science will describe reality. Right now I think it does so only sometimes.

Van Fraassen (why two ‘a’s and two ‘s’s but not two ‘n’s?) reminds us that realists say that because theories make such good predictions (or when they do), it’s reason to believe the objects in the theory are real. That is a good argument, but far from convincing, as we see below. This is contrasted with the empiricist view he holds.

On an empiricist view, the aim of science is to give us empirically adequate theories. There is a distinction between being true in all respects and being true about what is observable. So to accept a theory, when there is good reason in the empirical support, need involve as belief only that the theory is empirically adequate. Acceptance need not involve a belief that the unobservable parts of the scientifically represented world are real. You may certainly add more beliefs to your acceptance, beliefs about truth and reality, if you wish! But as far as science is concerned that is just supererogatory.

A group of philosophers made comments on van Fraassenn’s article. This is my favorite of them:

John Dupre said…

As a realist and an empiricist, all I can say is that I think too much attention to physics can give philosophers a very strange take on science. I probably wouldn’t believe a lot of physics was strictly/approximately true even if persuaded that it was useful for making predictions. So much the worse of physics. But such an attitude really doesn’t make much sense for physiology, molecular biology or, for that matter, evolution.

To which I say Amen. Looking only at physics is doing philosophy of science the hard way. If you only focus on the quantum bestiary you will get eaten by the difficulties. Why not start easier? Recall we’re discussing the philosophy of science and not science itself.

Here’s something easy. In probability we have models galore that are correlational, which make excellent predictions and which we know the objects behind them are not all real, though some might be. There is no dispute about this, either.

Take the humble die throw (a nauseatingly cliche example, yes). The model, which is to say the theory, is easy: “A six-sided object with unique sides is tossed and must come up with one side uppermost; the probability of any is 1/6.” Well, if you apply this model to a real die, then you are naming actual objects in reality.

But we aren’t naming everything that exists about that object, just one or two aspects. This theory is also not a complete explanation, which we naturally hanker for. It is a partial explanation, though, because it names one of the causes: the formal cause; those six sides. It also has some information about the efficient cause: the tossing. And the material cause: the actual die you apply it to.

To get a complete explanation it to specify the substance in its entirety, and the powers that it exhibits, which is to say, we write down all the causes. And if we do, or can, then when have a theory that describes real objects in theory.

We also aren’t saying in this theory that chance is real. “Chance” isn’t a part of Reality that is causing the die to come up this rather than that. This we showed in the coin flip video (blog, Substack). Chance is good for an empirical theory, but it’s wrong at describing Reality itself: it’s not there.

Contrast dice to strings (of the subatomic kind). Are they real? How can you prove it? Can you construct a necessary and sufficient proof?

Subscribe or donate to support this site and its wholly independent host using credit card click here. Or use the paid subscription at Substack. Cash App: $WilliamMBriggs. For Zelle, use my email: matt@wmbriggs.com, and please include yours so I know who to thank.


  1. Nate

    Is it even possible to write down *all* the causes? Good enough for a specific decision, probably in some or most cases. But aren’t there often causes that we simply dont have the ability to measure? For a die roll, we can get pretty good by *removing* causes (roll in a vacuum, in a seismically quiet area, using a machine) but even add back in air and you have a much harder time, right?

  2. McChuck

    It was proven about 30 years ago that String Theory was unprovable. All “research” on the topic since then is enormously expensive and wasteful navel-gazing. It is proof that you can fool some of the people some of the time, that overly trained academics will consistently confuse the map for the territory, and that most physicists are not scientists, but specialized mathematicians.

  3. JH

    Now, how do you make sense of religious realism?

    Leiter Reports is one my favorites. Glad to know that you are reading articles and (even like) comments written by liberal academics.

    While it’s hard to differentiate truth and hate speech nowadays, my dear friend, is it time to stop making blanket statements and show some respect toward others regardless of their gender, race, and political affiliation? No blanket statement can stand in a court room. Your credibility shall increase. (This comment stems from your previous posts of being “pre-fired.”) Remember, I have lived through more days of February 29th than you, for which I deserve your respects. Ha.

  4. McChuck

    Want some real truth? Take these as basic and essential principles, and follow where they lead.

    1. The total energy at every point is a constant.
    2. There is no such thing as negative energy.
    3. Spacetime is a field governing motion.
    4. Proper time (the subjective time something experiences) is the source of all potential energy.
    5. Proper time is a type of spin in the imaginary plane, and appears to be left handed.

    All else follows. There are no infinities. There are no singularities. There are no contradictions. Hyperbolic spacetime (imaginary time + Pythagorean theorem) and the theories of Special and General relativity emerge from these principles. So do neutrinos and the highly peculiar weak force (left handed, imaginary time). So does antimatter (opposite handed time). There is no dispute between the relativistic and quantum realms, except where they are misunderstood and misapplied.

    Sheer, enjoyable speculation, born of mathematical navel-gazing:
    Where is all the antimatter? It went the other time direction after the big bang. After all, conic sections are mirrored about the origin, and law zero of physics is that everything adds up to nothing. So, an answer to “What existed before the big bang?” is, the antimatter universe, with negative (but no positive) energy and right-handed time.

  5. McChuck

    @JH: I have not yet begun to disrespect others based on their religion, gender, race, and political affiliation. Especially when they conflict with the preservation of Western Civilization (formerly known as Christendom), the White race, and the American nation.

  6. James Daniel

    Realism? Empiricism? Truthism?!

    How about a word that characterizes the proper attitude to adopt when attempting to describe the world as truthfully as possible: HUMILITY

  7. yech – I have maintained ever since being forced to take a philosophy course as part of the requirements for my undergrad degree that philosophy is bunk for smart(ish) people too afraid and/or too lazy to learn a science. In the context of your blog here it amounts to a misuse of language to conceal an ignorance of reality.

    Consider, for example, a group of ten people carrying an average of 1.5 raw eggs each. If you count the eggs you’ll get 15, so the arithmetic works and the average is meaningful – but you will not find anyone with half an egg – so the average does not directly reflect reality. Bunkers think that’s a deep problem; I think it’s obvious that abstractions can be useful – as long as they are founded in reality.

    And, in that context, your reference to string theory provides a more difficult example. I think the math on this makes sense, but, just as no one had half an egg, this does not mean that strings exist. They might, but the internal consistency of the construct really only means that something which can be usefully modelled as a set of interacting continuous bounded surfaces can exist – but whether the better intuitive analogy is to strings, flocks, or clouds is an open question, as, of course, is the scale at which the math might turn out to describe reality.

  8. Incitadus

    What you’re really trying to do with all the physics, statistics, and dice is predict
    the future something we’ve done for millennia and can still do with any two
    dollar Gypsy fortune teller on a street corner in Budapest. As the past fades
    from the nanosecond that comprises all of existence does it continue to coexist
    in time with the unknown future that stretches out before us. This is the riddle
    of ‘The Time Machine’ that subconscious fiction that bubbled up in H.G Wells brain.
    Where do ideas like that come from that? Could time itself be some sort of playground
    where the gods cavort? It’s all nonsense of course except there’s that idea and it’s origin,
    its subsequent allure and appeal to millions, that white hot yearning to know that built
    CERN. Who the hell could come up with the dinosaurs and are there planets out there
    crawling with them?

    Fact or fiction?
    The Unbelievable Hodgson Sisters Story

  9. Milton Hathaway

    JH: “Glad to know that you are reading articles … written by liberal academics.”

    This got me thinking – I like to say that I try to read articles with different viewpoints and keep an open mind. But the truth is that I generally don’t make it very far when reading an article written by a liberal. The reason is that when the writer is laying the groundwork as the starting point for the arguments and conclusions to follow, I usually don’t accept those baseline assertions. To be fair, an article written by a conservative will do the same thing, but I continue reading the conservative article because I already believe in the truth of the baseline assertions. For a common example, a liberal article on some macroeconomic topic might have some variation of assuming some aspects of socialism as the ideal, where a conservative article would assume some aspects of capitalism as the ideal. Perhaps the most extreme example would be articles on abortion, where one invariably and immediately runs into the baby/lump-of-tissue assertions that cannot be enlightened by anything that follows.

    So why don’t I just continue reading the liberal articles and try to evaluate the writer’s argument in light of the baselines assumptions? Sometimes I try, but for me, it takes a large amount of mental effort to follow an argument while simultaneously untangling the dependencies on assumptions I don’t accept.

    One analogy I use is that it feels like one of those “quick-change artist” scams that were common in my youth. To avoid being scammed, the cashier only has to follow a few simple procedures, which are the equivalent of “don’t accept the scammers assertions on face value”. The quick-change artist is very, very good at what they do, and if you believe you can out-think them, you are certainly going to get scammed.

    Sometimes it’s much simpler – I find the liberal writer’s assumptions to be an insult to my intelligence, and I feel no need to suffer further insult.

    So are we condemned to an echo chamber of our own beliefs? I don’t think that’s necessarily so. I have had a (very) few productive discussions, usually via email exchanges. The key for me is 1) interacting with an intelligent thoughtful person with an opposing viewpoint with an awareness of logical fallacies, 2) slowing down that interaction so that more thought goes into each exchange, spreading it out over days if necessary, 3) bite-sized interactions, and 4) respectful unemotional exchanges.

    Have I had any success with these interactions? Rarely do I immediately change someone’s mind or do they immediately change mine. More often any success comes in the form of planted seeds of doubt that will have to grow and eventually blossom on their own. The garden of the human mind is best left unattended by others once a seed is planted.

  10. Steve

    Van Fraassen (why two ‘a’s and two ‘s’s but not two ‘n’s?)

    “How long have you had these pains, Mr. Barber?”
    “Two Bs?”
    “One. B-A-B-A-R.”
    “That’s two.”


  11. Milton:

    You might consider my rule on reading science articles: quit reading if the summary contains recommentations.

    For example a “study’ cited by Briggs here recently on climate had:

    “As a form of knowledge vulnerability, climate denialism renders communities unprepared to take steps to increase resilience. As with other forms of misinformation, social media companies (e.g., X, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok) should flag accounts that spread falsehoods about climate change and collaborate on targeted educational campaigns.”

    The need to recommend the politically correct auto-ids garbage “science.”

  12. It’s all fake and gay. According to some you’re an algorithm in an ancestor simulation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *