Scientific Realism and the Weird World

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Area: Language Arts and Literature, Science
Grade Level: High School & Beyond
Topics: empiricism, Epistemology, Philosophy of Science, Scientific Realism, Truth/Perception, understanding
Estimated Time Necessary: Approximately 60 minutes

Lesson Plan

Objectives:
What is the status of Scientific claims?
This lesson explores the question of the status of the claims of science...are they describing reality or just offering us useful models?

Overview

One of the most fundamental questions involved in the Philosophy of Science involves the problem of Scientific Realism. It asks us to think about the status of scientific claims. For instance, when your Chemistry teacher talks about atoms, are these real entities are they just a linguistic model that’s a convenient way to refer to a set of observations?

Scientific Realism at its heart makes two claims:

  1. Reality exists independently of our thoughts and observations
  2. Scientific claims about the world at least sometimes get it right — they actually describe reality

However over time, three categories of objections have been raised:

  1. Those that question the status of empiricism, particularly of unobservable objects
  2. Those that question whether or not terms like “jade” or “gold” or “mammal” actually describe reality or if they are convenient constructs that may actually contribute to making a world and finally,
  3. What we might call the instrumental evasion (common to engineers) which suggests that there could never be an answer to this question and that it simply doesn’t matter. If I can accurately build a bridge and it doesn’t fall down, does it matter if my understanding of reality is accurate?

After watching this video, use the discussion questions to talk about this: what are scientists talking about when they talk about science? Have the students think about whether or not it matters if science describes “Reality” and also about how we would know.

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Video

Discussion Questions

  • Why is the Scientific Realism? What are the practical consequences of believing this or Anti-Realism?
  • What is the Miracle Argument? Is it adequate proof of Scientific Realism?
  • Does it matter whether or not science describes “Reality” if it is able to make accurate predictions (what we might call Scientific Instrumentalism)?
  • After watching the video about the quantum particle/ wave effect, what questions are raised about Scientific Realism? How does the fact of observation affecting the electron being observed change this?
  • Is Scientific Realism important? Formulate arguments for and against this position.
  • Discuss scientific theories that suggest that the world is “weird” (for instance, basic chemistry tells us that the sensible world around us is really almost fully made up of empty space!). What relationship do these have with “reality”?

Resources

This lesson plan was contributed by: Stephen Miller, Oakwood Friends School, Marist College.