Internal Realism – A Successful Response to Scepticism?

Essay 2003 11 Pages

Philosophy - Theoretical (Realisation, Science, Logic, Language)


Table Of Contents

1. The Aim of Science

2. Scientific Realism

3. Conventionalism and Empirical Underdetermination

4. Internal and Metaphysical Realism

5. Summary and Evaluation

6. References

Internal Realism – A Successful Response to Scepticism?

This essay is concerned with internal realism, a position that can be understood as intermedi­ate between scientific realism and constructivism, which are two strands in the realism/ anti-realism debate regarding philosophy of science. It is presented in the paper “What Science Aims to Do” by Brian Ellis (1985). To introduce the problem Ellis faces in his essay, I shall begin by outlining the debate on the aim of science, presenting a sceptical argument which claims that truth is irrelevant to scientific discoveries. I will then go on to outline and discuss three central points concerning Ellis’ paper: Scientific Realism; Con­ventionalism and Empirical Underdetermination; and Internal and Metaphysical Realism. Finally, I will summarize and evaluate the arguments in support of internal realism. The aim of this essay is to discover how successfully internal realism deals with scepticism.

1. The Aim of Science

“What Science Aims to Do” by Ellis (1985) is a response to “constructive empiricism“, which is developed in van Fraassens book The Scientific Image (1980). It aims, so the author claims, to “defend scientific realism from the perspective of an internal realist”[1], although it can also be read as a critique of traditional scientific realism. This double strategy occurs right in the introduction of the paper, when, on the one hand, Ellis agrees with van Fraassen that the current form of realism is untenable, while, on the other hand, he dis­agrees with him on the alternative van Fraassen suggests.

Van Fraassen, in contrasting realism to empiricism, proposes two opposed theses on the aim of science:

(1) “Science aims to give us, in its theories, a literally true story of what the world is like; and acceptance of a scientific theory involves the belief that it is true.”[2] (realist thesis)
(2) “Science aims to give us theories which are empirically adequate; and acceptance of a theory involves as belief only that it is empirically adequate.”[3] (empiricist thesis)

In rejecting the idea that scientific theories aim to be true, van Fraassen highlights that em­pirical adequacy is the only aim science can reach with its theories. He assumes that all theories are generally empirically underdetermined in the sense that there is always more than one theory predicting the same empirical consequences. Therefore, scientists decide on a pragmatic base which of the empirically adequate theories they accept, while the truth of the theories remains in a sphere that is generally unknowable. Ellis, in contrast, points out that van Fraassen presupposes a correspondence theory of truth, and emphasises that another theory of truth can rescue scientific realism. To demonstrate the problem, let us consider the following argument:

(i) A theory is true, if it gives us a literally true story of what the world is like.
(ii) There is always more than one empirically adequate theory.
(iii) Thus, empirical or logical considerations alone can never determine what theories we should accept.
(iv) The choice between theories is, therefore, always a pragmatic one (simplicity, ele­gance, etc.).
(v) Given (i), pragmatic considerations have no relevance to truth and falsity.
(vi) Therefore, we can never have a good reason to believe that a theory is true.

Thesis (i), a version of the correspondence theory of truth, is not mentioned by van Fraassen himself, but it is a necessary premise for his empirical/pragmatic distinction which leads to the conclusion. However, a pragmatic theory of truth would not suggest such a strong distinction. This distinction, following from a correspondence theory, is thus one strand of the argument. The other is the thesis of empirical underdetermination main­tained in theses(ii), (iii) and(iv). Ellis considers this argument to be valid, and therefore regards the realist as being in trouble. For the thesis of empirical underdetermination is widely accepted and most realists are reluctant to give up the empirical/pragmatic distinc­tion and the correspondence theory of truth. According to Ellis, realism can be combined with a pragmatic theory of truth, in order to take pragmatic considerations as relevant to truth. In his view “internal realism” is the only way out of the sceptical argument: “They [scientific realists] have either to reject the correspondence theory of truth, and accept the position known as internal realism, or to follow van Fraassen along the road to his con­structive empiricism.”[4] Consequently, he champions a third thesis on the aim of science:

(3) “Science aims to provide the best possible explanatory account of natural phenomena; and acceptance of a scientific theory involves the belief that it belongs to such an account.”[5] (pragmatist thesis)


[1] Ellis 1985, 169.

[2] Van Fraassen 1980, 8.

[3] Van Fraassen 1980, 12.

[4] Ellis 1985, 169.

[5] Ellis 1985, 169.


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581 KB
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Institution / College
University of Nottingham – Department of Philosophy
73 (=1st)
Internal Realism Successful Response Scepticism Seminar Anti-realism



Title: Internal Realism – A Successful Response to Scepticism?