History and Philosophy of Physics


Instrumentalism Vs. Realism and Social Construction

Authors: Armin Nikkhah Shirazi

An important debate in the philosophy of science, whether an instrumentalist or realist view of science correctly characterizes science, is examined in this paper through the lens of a related debate, namely whether science is a social construct or not. The latter debate arose in response to Kuhn's work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he argued that while there exists a process through which scientific understanding evolves from primitive to increasingly refined ideas, it does not describe progress 'toward' anything. Kuhn's work was then used to argue that there is no such thing as a knowable objective reality, a view much in agreement with that of the instrumentalist. This paper argues that a generalized version of the correspondence principle applied to a theory's domain of validity is an exclusive feature of science which distinguishes it from socially constructed phenomena and thereby supports the realist position. According to this argument, progress in science can be characterized as the replacement of old paradigms by new ones with greater domains of validity which obey the correspondence principle where the two paradigms overlap. This characterization, however, is susceptible to the instrumentalist objection that it does not fit the transition from Aristotelian to Newtonian physics. In response, it is required that this argument depend on the intactness of certain core concepts in the face of experimental challenge within some regions of the theory's original domain of validity. While this requirement saves the argument and even offers an answer to the question of what it would take for our most established theories in physics, relativity and quantum theory, to suffer the same fate as Aristotelian physics, it also defers a conclusive resolution to the debate between instrumentalists and realists until it can be determined whether an ultimate theory of nature can be found.

Comments: 6 pages

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[v1] 7 Oct 2011

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