Reviews - What do customers think about Realism in the Sciences: Proceedings of the Ernan McMullin Symposium, 1995 (Louvain Philosophical Studies , No 10)?
Symposium or Seance? Mar 15, 2006
This book includes the Reverend Ernan McMullin's latest rendering of realism given at his symposium at the Roman Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, where he received his Ph.D. in philosophy in the 1950's. The Reverend McMullin was later University of Notre Dame's philosophy department chairman.
The Reverend's Ph.D. dissertation thesis is that quantum theory is interpreted by operationalist definitions. This means that quantum theory is not a literal description of microphysical reality - a thesis inconsistent with contemporary scientific realism. Ironically by denying realism to quantum theory the Reverend took basically the same instrumentalist view towards quantum theory that the Vatican had taken toward the Copernican theory when the pope condemned Galileo.
Later in "Case for Scientific Realism" in Scientific Realism (1984) the Reverend's thesis was that quantum theory is only metaphorical and not literally descriptive. He offered no theory of metaphor. And this view is not scientific realism. Furthermore he is wrong: theories are literal. As even van Fraassen notes, if a theory contains the statement "electrons exist", then it says that electrons exist!
In this book, Realism in the Sciences, the Reverend discusses "virtues" he finds operative in theory appraisal, a discussion in which he still retains positivist views of "observation", "law", "theory" and "explanation". The Reverend McMullin is evasive; he says that a detailed account of how these "virtues" argue for realism awaits some other occasion. Whatever that occasion, that account will not come: realism is not a logical conclusion to be argued; it is the primordial prejudice to be recognized and accepted. Most of this book is more positivist dithering about the semantical significance/ontology of theoretical terms.
Positivism is dead. In fact it's so dead that positivists don't want to be called "positivists", and they fabricate caricatures of it to distance themselves from it. But there is enough positivism in these articles including the Reverend's to call his symposium a necromancing seance with positivism's ghost. I did not observe that any of the philosophers contributing to this book received their graduate education in the U.S., so not surprisingly none of them reveal appreciation for contemporary American pragmatism.
Catholic philosophers love their absolutes whether delivered by Thomistic simple apprehensions or positivist operational definitions, but they recoil at the semantical and ontological relativism in contemporary pragmatism. I found in my personal experience that they are always the rear guard, protective of the past and paranoid of the future. Pragmatism has been the prevailing philosophy of science for the last thirty years, and still is. In my view therefore the Reverend and his brethren are philosophy's "left behind."
American Catholic colleges are typically small liberal arts schools lacking budgets for science, and thus have little or no interest or faculty slots in philosophy of science. Notre Dame's graduates must therefore often compete disadvantageously with tax-supported university graduates for available faculty appointments in philosophy of science in the tax-supported schools. But the Vatican will likely have no objections to the philosophical views in this book.
Google to my web site philsci, History of Twentieth-Century Philosophy of Science, for free downloads.