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Volume 28 Issue 3 (July 1997), Pages 183-287

Ontology According to van Fraassen: Some Problems with Constructive Empiricism (pages 196-218)

This paper argues the case for ontological realism as against various present‐day forms of conventionalist, instrumentalist, cultural‐relativist, or anti‐realist doctrine. In particular it takes issue with Richard Rorty’s writings on philosophy of science – where these ideas receive their most extreme and provocative statement – and with Bas van Fraassen’s more moderate ‘constructive empiricist’ approach. This latter entails ontological commitment to whatever shows up through trained observation or empirical research. However, it refuses to countenance realist claims concerning the existence of (as yet) unobserved entities and their role in explanatory theories premised on putative laws of nature. I maintain that van Fraassen’s position is: (1) inadequate to account for our knowledge of the growth of scientific knowledge; (2) self‐refuting since often undermined by examples which he himself supplies; and (3) incapable of mounting resistance to other, more wholesale (e.g., Rortian) varieties of anti‐realist argument. Only by combining causal realism with a principle of inference to the best explanation can philosophy of science avoid these kinds of hyperinduced sceptical doubt.

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