Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More on the Philpapers Survey: Anti-Realism

As I'm presently writing something about instrumentalism - I've recently decided that it's still a respectable position when suitably moderated, and deserves reincarnation, in my latest phase of madness - I decided to have a closer look at the figures on anti-realism in the Philpapers survey.

I spotted some interesting differences, which I thought I'd share:

Of professional philosophers with an AOS 'Philosophy of Physical Science', 1.6% (1!) accepted anti-realism and 4.9% leaned towards it.

Of those with an AOS 'Philosophy of Biology', by contrast, 10.5% accepted scientific anti-realism and 10.5% leaned towards it.

And rather surprisingly, I think, no-one with an AOS 'Philosophy of Social Sciences' fully accepted anti-realism. (Less surprisingly, given the likelihood of crossover from fashionable anti-realist stances in certain areas of social science, e.g. sociology, 23.8% leaned towards it.)

So is there an underlying difference between physics and biology (or at least the perception thereof)? My first knee-jerk reaction is that complexity may have something to do with this, perhaps because of the areas of physics which philosophers of physics - quite contingently - happen to be interested in. (I suppose some might be interested in, say, condensed matter physics of biological systems. But I haven't met any on my travels! There are, of course, some significant methodological differences, e.g. in the way modelling and particuarly idealisation is considered, but I've written about those elsewhere. Suffice it to mention systems biology as a reaction to a peculiar view on the limitations of perceived approaches in the physical sciences.)

And why, oh why, are fewer philosophers of social sciences than philosophers of biology willing to go all the way and accept anti-realism if complexity is the issue?

Are there better explanations for all this, taking the stats at face value?


  1. Hard to draw much in the way of conclusions here, I think, because of small sample size. There were 38 phil bio amongst target faculty, and 21 phil soc sci. So, the 23.8% target phil soc sci profs that lean towards anti-realism is just 5 people. 10.5% of target phil bio profs is just 4 people.

    If you open it up to all respondents you get:

    Phil Bio
    Lean toward: scientific anti-realism - 10 / 110 (9%)
    Accept: scientific anti-realism - 6 / 110 (5.4%)

    Phil Soc Sci
    Lean toward: scientific anti-realism - 9 / 84 (10.7%)
    Accept: scientific anti-realism - 6 / 84 (7.1%)

    which is significantly more congruent.

  2. I'm not sure that sample size on target faculty (with respect to inferences about faculty) is all that bad. Remember it's not the number (i.e. 5 people); it's the percentage of the relevant set of philosophers of biology that are faculty, say in the Anglo-American philosophical world, that's important. (How many philosophy faculty with an AOS of philosophy of biology, say, are there? I think that 38 is a decent chunk.)

    Unfortunately there isn't just a _faculty_ category, which is what I'd want...

    Anyway, do humour me! Is there any reason we'd expect a difference between tendency towards anti-realism in phil. phys. and phil bio., in particular, even in the absence of the stats?

  3. Well, there's "Philosophy faculty or Ph.D.," with somewhat better sample sizes again.

    Phil Physics:
    Lean toward: scientific anti-realism 14 / 90 (15.5%)
    Accept: scientific anti-realism 2 / 90 (2.2%)

    Phil Bio:
    Lean toward: scientific anti-realism 6 / 65 (9.2%)
    Accept: scientific anti-realism 5 / 65 (7.6%)

    Phil Soc Sci:
    Lean toward: scientific anti-realism 7 / 45 (15.5%)
    Accept: scientific anti-realism 3 / 45 (6.6%)

  4. But on the substantive question, I'm not sure. My experience in phil physics is that there is a sense that all of the interesting questions go away if we are anti-realists. E.g., if we're going to be anti-realists about quantum mechanics, then Bohr and Heisenberg basically had it right and there's nothing left to say. (I think this attitude is completely undermined by careful attention to Bohr's writings and Bas van Fraassen's work on QM, for what it's worth.) So the problem's you're raised on as a philosopher of physics require a realist attitude. But my sense about biology is that there are interesting questions about models and methods that are independent of realism/anti-realism issues.

  5. I'd agree on QM; and there's a considerable gulf between Bohr and Heisenberg's views, not to mention controversy over how best to characterise the former's (e.g. in the debate between Faye & Folse). It seems to me that categories like 'entity realist' or 'instrumentalist' don't really do the trick... i.e. are a bit too coarse-grained. And that, in itself, is helpful in reminding us that there are possible positions which we don't often pay attention to.

  6. I think there's a host of issues that could account for the difference. For starters: fundamental laws. I would bet that the perception regarding the phil. of Biology is that its fundamental laws lack the kind of conceptual robustness and clarity found in the physical sciences. Relatedly, it's not as clear in Biology what precisely the objects of analysis are or what the laws are meant to cover (genes, populations, etc). I think you could list similar sorts of issues regarding the status of the science in terms of traditional philosophy of science criteria for say robustness, coherence, integrity of the science itself and that the perception is that Biology falls short and so an anti-realist attitude is prudent. But I also think that treating the moniker "anti-realist" as though it designates a set of similar positions or attitudes (is it nominalism, instrumentalism, constructivism, etc?) is misleading. Just my initial reactions

  7. The thought about laws had occurred to me too, although I'm not sure I agree with the (apparently popular) view that there are no biological laws. (One's stance on the primacy of fundamental vs. phenomenological laws will no doubt matter here too.)

    Yes; it would be very nice to see a repeat survey with an appropriate breakdown of 'anti-realism', which covers a multitude of sins when compared with standard presentations of 'scientific realism'. Even a rejection of a correspondence view of truth would do on many accounts...

    (I've been assuming, for instance, that structural realists and entity realists would give 'lean towards realism' results. But who knows? There's quite a bit of territory between the two extremes, some of which arguably hasn't been charted (at the very least in an uncontroversial way), which explains how Folse takes Bohr to be inclined towards realism and Faye takes him to be inclined towards anti-realism.)

  8. How about these science cartoons?

    There are many good ones on Vadlo search engine http://vadlo.com/cartoons.php?id=1.