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How to be a scientific realist (if at all): a study of partial realism

Peters, Dean (2012) How to be a scientific realist (if at all): a study of partial realism. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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Abstract

"Partial realism" is a common position in the contemporary philosophy of science literature. It states that the "essential" elements of empirically successful scientific theories accurately represent corresponding features the world. This thesis makes several novel contributions related to this position. Firstly, it offers a new definition of the concept of “empirical success”, representing a principled merger between the use-novelty and unification accounts. Secondly, it provides a comparative critical analysis of various accounts of which elements are "essential" to the success of a theory, including structural realism and the divide et impera strategy. A novel account of essentialness, entitled the “empirically successful sub-theory "account", is defended. Thirdly, it is argued that the realism/anti-realism debate should put to the side metaphysical questions and focus instead on partial realism's commitment to the continuity of science. Because this commitment lacks metaphysical implications, it is referred to as "deflationary realism". Anti-realists cannot reject deflationary realism as a matter of a priori principle; its overall viability (and therefore that of partial realism) can therefore only be assessed by a careful examination of the history of science. Finally, another consequence of partial realism, named "partial rationalism", is defended. Partial rationalism states that, in cases where several competing theories have been suggested, scientists are rational just in case they accept the essential elements of each of the scientific theories on offer. This novel position subverts the existing literature on scientific "revolutions", as it sometimes demands that scientists devise a synthesis between competing scientific theories, instead of "choosing" only one. The philosophical points defended in this thesis are illustrated and supported by case studies from the history of science, including Fresnel’s wave theory of light, the Copernican revolution, the "neo-Darwinian synthesis" in evolutionary biology, the "prion revolution" in molecular biology, the miasma theory of disease, and the chemical revolution.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2012 Dean Peters
Library of Congress subject classification: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General)
Sets: Departments > Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method
Supervisor: Worrall, John and Frigg, Roman
URI: http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/id/eprint/539

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