, Volume 194, Issue 9, pp 3203–3219 | Cite as

Epistemic selectivity, historical threats, and the non-epistemic tenets of scientific realism

  • Timothy D. Lyons
S.I.: New Thinking about Scientific Realism


The scientific realism debate has now reached an entirely new level of sophistication. Faced with increasingly focused challenges, epistemic scientific realists have appropriately revised their basic meta-hypothesis that successful scientific theories are approximately true: they have emphasized criteria that render realism far more selective and, so, plausible. As a framework for discussion, I use what I take to be the most influential current variant of selective epistemic realism, deployment realism. Toward the identification of new case studies that challenge this form of realism, I break away from the standard list and look to the history of celestial mechanics, with an emphasis on twentieth century advances. I then articulate two purely deductive arguments that, I argue, properly capture the historical threat to realism. I contend that both the content and form of these novel challenges seriously threaten selective epistemic realism. I conclude on a positive note, however, arguing for selective realism at a higher level. Even in the face of threats to its epistemic tenet, scientific realism need not be rejected outright: concern with belief can be bracketed while nonetheless advocating core realist tenets. I show that, in contrast with epistemic deployment realism, a purely axiological scientific realism can account for key scientific practices made salient in my twentieth century case studies. And embracing the realists favored account of inference, inference to the best explanation, while pointing to a set of the most promising alternative selective realist meta-hypothesis, I show how testing the latter can be immensely valuable to our understanding of science.


Scientific realism The no-miracles argument The pessimistic meta-induction Selective realism Axiological scientific realism Socratic scientific realism The meta-modus tollens 



Research for this paper was supported by the AHRC, UK, Grant: Contemporary Scientific Realism and the History of Science. I thank three anonymous referees for their helpful feedback. For conversations and correspondence relevant to the topics in this paper, I am indebted to many including Anjan Chakravartty, Mathias Egg, Steven French, David Harker, James Ladyman, Kerry McKenzie, Tom Pashby, Dean Peters, Emma Ruttkamp-Bloem, Stathis Psillos, and Peter Vickers.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Indiana University–Purdue University IndianapolisIndianapolisUSA

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