Professor Darrell Rowbotoom gave us a fascinating talk on March, 31th, 2017, at the Big Lecture Hall in School of Philosophy. He is Head of the Department (& Professor) of Philosophy at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. The title of the talk was “Scientific Progress and The Value of Science”. Professor Bradly Monton was the commentator.
Scientific realism, roughly speaking, is the view that the (unique) aim of science is truth and scientific progress therefore consists entirely in increasing verisimilitude. Prof. Rowbottom said that he disbelieved this doctrine and aimed to show an anti-realistic account of scientific progress proposed by himself in this talk. His main ideas can be summarized as follows: (1) Increasing verisimilitude is not necessary for scientific progress; and (2) increasing verisimilitude is no more significant than achieving predictive power and understanding for scientific progress.
Prof. Rowbottom’s argument was constituted by several vivid thought experiments. Here are two of them. Imagine that all the leading scientists working in a specific area have gathered to discuss the state of their field. They all agree that they have identified the true general theory in the domain. They discuss what they should do next, if anything. Is there any further scientific progress possible in their area? Scientific realism entails that no more scientific progress is possible in the area, because a true general theory has been found. But this is incorrect. Prof. Rowbottom provided two reasons. First, the true theory could be difficult, or even impossible, to use for predictive purposes. Second, even if it were of considerable predictive use, it might fail to measure up to our explanatory expectations. Even though we could know the true theory of, say, real pendulum motion, it is still very difficult for us to accurately calculate the behaviors of a pendulum or even an idealized model of it. Moreover, there appears to be evidence from the history of science that a theory T may be less virtuous than another theory T*, in key respects, even when T is more verisimilar than T*. Truth is sometimes stranger—more complex, more unaccommodating, less elegant, less comprehensible—than fiction. Therefore, Prof. Rowbottom urged us to accept his suggestion that acquiring theories with greater verisimilitude is not necessary for scientific progress.
One might agree that increasing verisimilitude is unnecessary for making scientific progress while still insist that other kinds of progresses in science are less important or valuable. To respond, Prof. Rowbottom invited us to envisage another thought experiment. Now there are two options for a group of scientists, which cannot be simultaneously hold together. If they take the first, they will maximize their predictive power concerning, and understanding of, the phenomena cared by them; if they choose the second, however, they will discover the true unified theory in that domain. Prof. Rowbottom reported that, according to his intuition, if these scientists opt for the first, they wouldn’t be less rational. (I guess that Prof. Rowbottom might even regard the second choice as the only correct one, for he felt that the research of string theory just wastes time!) So, achieving maximal verisimilitude is no more central to scientific progress than achieving maximal predictive power and understanding.
Prof. Monton’s comment was really heuristic. He tried to persuaded us that to attribute some aim to science is a horrible category mistake. To be sure, science itself has no aim at all. Scientists have aims; but different scientists have different scientific aims. If there is no such a thing could be called as the aim of science, why should we think that something is necessary for scientific progress and that one thing is more important than the other for scientific progress? (By Jin Zeng)