Monday, April 24, 2017

How to be a Pragmatist in the Philosophy of Science (Part I)

I recently attended a workshop called “The Pragmatic Alternative.” The big question of the conference was “What is pragmatism in the philosophy of science?” Here I offer my own answer to that question. As I see it, pragmatism’s main foil is representationalism. I define representationalism as the philosophical doctrine that scientific representations’ capacity for mirroring stuff in the world accounts for the success of scientific practices. Here, representations are theories, models, etc.; mirroring includes relations of correspondence, similarity, and various kinds of iso- and homomorphisms; and stuff in the world includes objects, properties, and structures. I take the phrase “accounting for” to include, but not be limited to, philosophical analysis, explication, and explanation. At root, representationalism is a commitment about the direction of such accounts: mirroring accounts for scientific success.

The traditional reason to reject representationalism concern so-called “placement problems.” Very roughly if part of our successful scientific practice entails that X exists, then representationalists must explain the success of the practice in terms of its ability to mirror X’s in the world. However, some of our scientific practices entail modal stuff: laws, causes, necessities, possibilities, chances, etc. How to place modal stuff into a naturalistic worldview is widely thought to be problematic. For some, this is reason to abandon representationalism.

Enter my brand of pragmatism, which turns representationalism’s account on its head: successful scientific practices account for scientific representations’ mirroring the stuff in the world. So what does this look like? Here’s a schema for one version of this:
1.     Science provides solid reasons for p.
2.     So, p.
3.     p if and only if p is true.
4.     So, p is true.
Regarding the first premise: this is a proxy for actual, first-order scientific reasons for a given claim. So, for instance, if p is bacteria causes ulcers, then the first premise of this schema will be nothing more than the gastrological, bacteriological, etc. evidence for this causal claim. This also means that, in an overwhelming number of cases, the inference from the first claim to the second will be inductive. The general thought here is that science provides us with our best reasons for thinking that the world is the way that it is. The next thing to note is that one can perform a number of trivial inferences in between the second and third claims of this schema. For instance, in our toy example, we can infer that, e.g. bacteria exist, something causes something, and ulcers exist. The schema’s second claim, along with all of these trivial consequences, furnish us with a “naturalized ontology.” As naturalists, we realize that our chances of getting our ontology right once and for all no better than those of the scientists from which that ontology is derived. This is just to say that our ontology “falls out” of scientific practice.

Finally, consider the last two steps in this schema. In Step 3, we adopt a deflationary account of representational success, i.e. one in which the mirroring relationship does no heavy-lifting. Note that nothing hinges on choosing truth as the kind of representational success. It’s only that we have a very clear account of what a deflationary theory of truth would look like in this case. A full-blooded pragmatism would also provide deflationary accounts of representation, reference, and the like, any of which can be used in the third step. The move from the third to the fourth step is what allows us to say all the things that the representationalist wants to say, without according those claims the same elevated status that the representationalist seeks to give. It thereby accounts for representational success (fourth claim) in terms of scientific practice (first claim).

This is a sketch, and raises several questions, which I hope to address in another post:
A.    Can we make sense of successful scientific practice without already smuggling in some assumptions about mirroring? In other words, how do we vindicate the first claim in this schema without “cheating”?
B.    How does this brand of pragmatism compare with others?