Science and Reality - Is Science Really Real?

27/05/2014 15:00 BST | Updated 21/07/2014 10:59 BST

We live in a world where science prevails. After all who would argue with it, science has given us computers and planes. On the path to reality many of us might think that science is the kingmaker, presenting the idea that both science and reality is objective and universal - standing outside the mere social affairs of petty human discourse. Science is more than just powerful theories that match empirical data. Scientific theories are far more meaningful and powerful than other representative devices we possess like art because science does not attempt to address reality, science is reality.

Although this is a popular common sense view of science it is also a contentious issue that strikes at the heart of contemporary debates regarding the role of science, philosophy and the ultimate deliberations on reality. This is because science and the pictures of reality that it paints should not be taken for granted by way of unequivocal universality and non-contingency. This point is often completely overlooked. Many treat science and the construction of reality, as universal, timeless and objective negating not just the historical and cultural elements that underpin these practices but also how theories and concepts that once vehemently explained reality now completely fail to do so.

How can science not be real? At first this seems a ludicrous proposal because what are we to make of all this evidence we know to be statistically verifiable, that we can manipulate and predict. Why bother meddling with science and reality when it is reality that the earth orbits the sun and the plane really does fly. These common arguments along with the spectacular accuracy of quantum mechanics are usually defended by the no miracles argument. As the argument highlights, rather conspicuously, it would be a miracle for these theories not to be explaining reality and still have the predictive and explanatory power that they do.

However the initial problem of asserting a timeless and universal reality, instead of a malleable and questionable one, lies in the correspondence between empirically verifiable evidence, and therefore the externally proposed independent reality, and the gap bridged by theories. It is here where the problems begin to unmask themselves and start to question the supremacy of predictive and explanatory power; and even the possibility of a permanently knowable reality. This is because the history of science has a garbage bin of discarded scientific theories that would astound the average layman. So what's the problem with this? Surely science is full or hypothesis and theories that don't work? This is of course true but in the case of discarded theories they once worked as accurately as those that we cherish today in terms of observation, prediction and explanation.

So what can be going on here with reality? In general, scientific realists would advance something like an ascending treasure chest picture of reality. That with each new theoretical framework that is established we get just that bit closer to a true underlying reality. The disposal, progression and evolution of maxims about reality are required in science and we have seen this with Big Bang cosmology - for instance the addition of inflationary theory to account for anomalies like the uniform distribution of cosmic background radiation in the observed universe. When these anomalies arise scientists adapt theories, adding new dimensions to them that can be verified and once this works out as expected we can add them to the picture of reality and we move on like the Higgs Boson. Scientific realism is a treasure chest of grand theories building expansively on previous knowledge, ironing out the creases and getting closer to reality by chopping away at theories that are no longer adequate, no longer required and therefore no longer part of reality.

However, as I mentioned earlier, previous theories in their time did excellent jobs at describing and explaining their target phenomena - until one day they didn't. Subsequently the realist defense of contemporary theories really getting at reality is problematic due to the historical context that the realists find themselves in which happens to propagate a particular set of theories and states of reality which history has consistently shown to be never immune to being either drastically modified or completely eradicated. This is also irrespective of testable data because previously successful theories were verified by testable data but are nonetheless redundant today.

The assimilation of ever changing theories and concepts into a unified project of reality was also a challenge most famously put forward by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions who argued that when scientific theories change, along with the concepts they employ, then the landscape of reality and those concepts themselves change. Kuhn' point is that reality is not modified or expanded in piecemeal terms but it is actually redefined. Theories and concepts change from one paradigm to another and therefore so do the accompanying notions of reality. The ether is no longer a constituent of reality but the graviton is and Einstein did not conceptualise gravity in the same manner that Newton did, yet in their own contexts they have both been highly successful in terms of prediction and explanation.

One could argue that the philosophical speculations put forward by the anti-realist tradition by the likes of Kuhn essentially do no more than amplify a timeless scepticism regarding the nature of reality and its potential understanding; and that the antirealist seems to be doing a petty philosophical disservice, at very least, to the practical utility of science. Science clearly works but is it getting at a true reality? Is getting at a true reality even possible? And should we even be bothered about whether science is getting at a real underlying reality because, again, science clearly works.

The latter position of science as a highly efficient operation was articulated by the American philosophical movement of Pragmatism which contended that the nature of knowledge and reality are best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successful applications rather than in terms of their "real representative accuracy". If ultimate reality exists but is not accessible then whether you are a realist or anti-realist matters not because one is only concerned with the virtuous utility of the scientific method. This is a reasonable position but the argument that the best when can ever do is have practically successful applications instead of actual representations of reality is an idea that makes some scientists shudder.

It is however easier to tear down notions of reality than to erect, validate and sustain them so how do the anti-realists fully account for the accuracy of modern science instead of simply hiding behind the long established Kantian argument that we can never know reality intrinsically but only how it appears to our senses? This was a point of discussion I had with the leading anti-realist philosophy Kyle Stanford as part of my Biggest Questions Podcast Series. Stanford astutely pointed that the practice of science today, and throughout history, is no more than a form of instrumentalism that works, a sentiment shared by the pragmatists. In a certain sense this is all one has to agree on to be an anti-realist. This then allows the anti-realist to account for the success of any scientific theory throughout history because ultimately scientific realists today must be instrumentalists about all previous theories highly successful and empirically verified theories throughout history. This then puts the realist in a compromising position where now it is they who cascade on the wrong side of likelihood because they wow must essentially argue a form of exceptionalism about the present compared to the past that they cannot also logically guarantee in the future.