PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics

In recent years, scientific metaphysics has experienced a thumping resurgence. Animated by a distrust of analytic ontology, advocates have claimed that the natural sciences are uniquely posed to elucidate the structure of reality (e.g., Ladyman & Ross 2007). The success of theories in making novel predictions, for instance, is offered as justification that such theories genuinely refer, or that they grasp general features of the world. In offering this justification, however, several standard objections must be addressed, most notably the ‘pessimistic meta-induction’ on the history of science (Chakravarrty 2015). According to this objection, present scientific theories do not differ in kind from past theories, which, although successful by contemporary standards, were eventually rejected. Consequently, there is no warrant for epistemological optimism regarding the truth (or approximate truth) of current theories, nor their ability to successfully refer. The history of science appears to support anti-realism about theoretical entities—or so one might plausibly claim.
Realists have resisted this conclusion in a number of ways. One response is to selectively identify the elements of scientific theories that genuinely refer, such as those that bear explanatory weight or are independently accessible by multiple methods. A second response claims that putative ontological discontinuity in theory change is defanged by focusing on retained mathematical structure (and ignoring changes in the interpretation of pertinent relata). However, each of these responses is open to objections, including the charge that the ‘realism’ they motivate is tailored to the view that scientific knowledge is organized primarily by explanatory reasoning embodied in formal theories. This poster describes a three-year grant project—From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics—designed to shift attention away from theories toward practice in order to ascertain whether there is a way to talk about the success of practices that is not parasitic on the success of theories. If successful, such a strategy could circumvent a number of standard objections to scientific realism while providing a stable platform for metaphysical inference.
Following Ian Hacking’s (1983) insight that manipulability is an important indicator for realism, we argue that a practice-centered approach to metaphysics can be developed and extended apart from considerations of theoretical entities. This approach is ideally suited to the analysis of biological research, in which the dialectic between theory and practice rarely resembles that in ‘fundamental physics.’ To be clear: we do not claim that this should be the exclusive orientation of scientific metaphysics; only that metaphysics should be keyed, in certain instances, to practical achievements—especially achievements that are reliable indicators of genuine outcomes as opposed to artifacts in standardized scientific practices. Given the success of the biological sciences, what conclusions might we draw about the world by attending to successful biological practice?

Chakravartty, A. 2015. Scientific realism. In: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, E.N. Zalta (ed.),

Hacking, I. 1983. Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ladyman, J., and D. Ross, D. 2007. Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Author Information:

Max Dresow    
Department of Philosophy
University of Minnesota

Katherine Liu    
Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior
University of Minnesota


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