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Constitution, evidence, and an argument for realism: responses to Bird’s Knowing Science

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What sorts of aims, or goals, are constitutive of science? How does scientific evidence relate to the knowledge that science produces? And can the No Miracles Argument for scientific realism be defended against concerns about the explanatory capacity of truth? In Knowing Science, Bird engages with questions like these at length. In this paper, I engage with these questions too. I raise some concerns for the view that aiming at knowledge is constitutive of science. I provide three counterexamples to an epistemic principle which Bird uses to argue for the view that evidence is knowledge. And I formulate a version of the No Miracles Argument which, by basing realism on a particular approach to meaning and to the empirical science of linguistics, avoids any mention of truth whatsoever.

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  1. For instance, see Bird’s discussion of the inner workings of the early Royal Society (2022, p. 141), or of the reams of data produced by the ATLAS detector (2022, p. 9).

  2. For lack of space, throughout this paper, I will not connect Bird’s proposals in Knowing Science to related proposals that Bird has made elsewhere, such as in his (2007).

  3. For instance, Bird writes that constitutive norms describe essences (2022, p. 25). At that point in Knowing Science, Bird is explicitly discussing norms on beliefs. But given the close connection which Bird draws between norms on belief and norms on science, it is reasonable to think that Bird would take constitutive norms on science to describe essences too.

  4. For brevity, my description of full essence and partial essence is slightly different from standard descriptions. But the differences do not matter, for my purposes here. For nice discussions of full and partial essence, see (Correia & Skiles, 2019; Fine, 2015).

  5. This is, in my view, the version of (Aim-K)C which Bird should endorse.

  6. For a nice picture illustrating just how complicated both models were—and showing how the complications stemmed from similar uses of epicycles—see (De Santillana, 1955, pp. 30–31).

  7. One might respond that some new knowledge was achieved: scientists learned that a heliocentric model captured the relevant celestial phenomena approximately as well as the leading geocentric model did. But for two reasons, this response does not succeed. First, it is arguably false, since it is not clear that Copernicus’s model successfully captured the phenomena in question. Second, this response seems besides the point, since the proposed knowledge achieved is not the sort of knowledge which seems relevant to evaluating principles like (CK) in examples like this one: surely only knowledge of the right sort, for a particular break-through, counts as facilitating scientific progress; for otherwise, there would be many counterexamples to (CK).

  8. Note an assumption underlying these candidate counterexamples to (CK): making moral progress counts as making progress, full-stop; so a good account of scientific progress should imply that these are indeed cases of making progress. Therefore, to reject that these cases are counterexamples to (CK), Bird could reject that assumption. Perhaps Bird could do so by claiming that (i) the listed cases concern moral progress, and (ii) the principle (CK) concerns epistemic progress only. The problem, with this claim, is that it risks bringing (CK) closer to tautological triviality: because of the close connection between the notion of the epistemic and the notion of knowledge, it sounds close to tautologous, or analytic, or something similar, that science makes epistemic progress when scientific knowledge is accumulated.

  9. For more on epistemic modals, and why instances of words like ‘can’ in principles like (\(KI+\)) should be understood epistemically, see (Yalcin, 2007).

  10. For lack of space, I focus on just one version of the No Miracles Argument. I do not focus on the version which Bird discusses later in the book (2022, pp. 239–245).

  11. Note the appearance of the quantifier ‘for every’ in the above paraphrase of (NMA-1)A. Bird’s own formulation of (NMA-1)A does not include any quantifiers at all (2022, p. 230). Because of that, one could read Bird’s formulation of (NMA-1)A in either of two ways: as making a claim about every empirically successful theory \(T_{A}\), or as making a claim about some empirically successful theory \(T_{A}\). For reasons I cannot discuss in detail here—relating to how (NMA-1)A figures in the larger dialectic of this part of Knowing Science—I adopt the former reading.

  12. This follows from the standard grounding principle that existentials are grounded in their instances: see (Correia & Skiles, 2019; Fine, 2015).

  13. At certain points in the discussion, Bird seems to agree with this: for instance, when he writes that “[t]he No Miracles Argument, applied to a particular theory, provides us with no additional reason to think that the theory is true beyond the reasons provided by the scientists in favor of believing the facts asserted by the theory” (2022, p. 230). In this passage, Bird does not seem to be making a claim about just some theories. Rather, as far as I can tell, Bird seems to be making a claim about all theories whatsoever.

  14. Elsewhere, Bird suggests that the No Miracles Argument does work for at least some theories (2022, p. 253). So this consequence, of Bird’s line of criticism of (NMA-1)A, is not one which Bird would endorse.

  15. The short version of the explanation is: I express the realist view by using the object language, rather than the metalanguage. For whereas (R)A uses object-language vocabulary to express A directly, (NMA-1)A uses metalanguage vocabulary to express the truth of A. This is what allows my version of the No Miracles Argument to avoid all mention of truth, and in so doing, to avoid Bird’s criticisms.

  16. This physical field might strike some philosophers as intuitively odd, since the mathematical representation of the values of this field are bispinors. I am not entirely sure why bispinor-valued physical fields often strike philosophers as more strange than real-valued physical fields; there is probably some sociological explanation of this, which invokes facts about the sorts of mathematical objects with which philosophers are generally familiar. But regardless, there is nothing terribly strange about a physical field whose values are best represented by the mathematics of bispinors: that is, quite simply, a perfectly understandable way for a physical field to be.

  17. For more discussion of the relationship between linguistics and realism about quantum field theories, see (Wilhelm, forthcoming).

  18. Bird is well aware of the importance of reference in formulating versions of the No Miracles Argument. For Bird starts off his discussion of (NMA-1)A by writing that he will assume a certain kind of referential element of scientific realism is accepted on all sides. My point here: this referential element, of scientific realism, can be wielded to do basically all of the work of the No Miracles Argument, without invoking truth.


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Thanks to Alexander Bird, and an anonymous referee, for much helpful feedback and discussion.

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Correspondence to Isaac Wilhelm.

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Wilhelm, I. Constitution, evidence, and an argument for realism: responses to Bird’s Knowing Science. AJPH 2, 46 (2023).

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