Carnap and Scientific Realism

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"Carnap and Scientific Realism"

Via John Holbo, it seems They Might Be Giants’s latest for kids projects involves a new song “Science is Real” that opens with a quote from German philosopher Rudolf Carnap:

Carnap did a lot of good work during his career, but as I tweeted it’s disappointing to see TMBG embracing his discredited view that “science is a system of statements based on direct experience and controlled by experimental verification.” That’s just not the case. It’s not how science works in practice and it doesn’t work in principle, either. Facts and theories are interdependent.

Nothing is ever observed that admits of a definitive, theory-independent observation nor does anything ever happen that can verify or falsify a single proposition in isolation. Obviously, observation and experimentation are integral to the work of scientists, but it’s a lot murkier and more complicated than that.

I think it’s unfortunate that people trying to enhance the social prestige of science and scientists (which is basically what the TMBG song is about) have this tendency to want to fall back on this kind of naive realism and positivism as their means for doing so. To understand why science is so impressive what I think you really need to do is not talk about how it’s “real” (whatever that means) but put it as a social practice alongside other social practices aimed at explaining the world. You’ll see that science is impressively progressive—when old theories get overturned by newer ones, our capabilities as a society and as a species are enhanced in really noteworthy ways. There’s no better set of ideas or practices out there. If you really really want to cling to Young Earth Creationism there’s no argument that can compel you to change your mind, but at this point in history creationist thinking is all about explaining away the successes of Darwinian theory it doesn’t actually contribute anything to enhance our understanding of things.

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