Some Undeveloped Thoughts on Realism, Instrumentalism, Science, and Ethics

We cannot be certain that science provides better accounts of nature since anti-foundationalism shows that nature does not give us anything directly. But I am far from convinced that the realisation that we do not have direct access to the world precludes the possibility of better or worse accounts of nature. Indeed, is anybody unconvinced that science gives us relatively better accounts of nature (compared even with what we knew 100 years ago)? This rhetorical question is certainly weak argumentation, but it contains a kernel of an idea that we would all do well to dwell on for a moment. Sceptical arguments can always be levelled against any knowledge claim and can be pushed further and further depending on one’s purposes. But the fact that we in general do not push scepticism to its extreme is revealing. Why not? Is it because we have steadfast arguments against Berkeleyan idealism, or Cartesian scepticism? No, it is because we find such positions utterly unpalatable. Such is the reason that many of us reject radically relativistic or sceptical doctrines. This is not to say that there are not many cogent arguments against such positions, but in the end, scepticism always wins.

Instrumentalism is a response to these conflicts. Instrumentalists try to take anti-foundationalist critiques of “truth” seriously while resisting the pull of scepticism and relativism. It is an attempt to provide criteria for epistemic justification – rules for demarcating better or worse knowledge – while avoiding a troublesome realism. But many realists find instrumentalism unnecessarily timid, unwilling to make the epistemological and ontological leaps that instrumentalism seems to call for. Realists do not deny that true knowledge will tend to be instrumentally useful, but they question instrumentalists’ reluctance to make any inferences from the basic observation that some knowledge is more instrumentally useful than others. What could possibly account for this variability in instrumental success other than it being the case that some knowledge really (and truly) accounts for the way nature is? While the instrumentalist wants to say that we call true that knowledge which is instrumentally useful, the realist argues that this is really a mealy-mouthed way of suggesting that knowledge is instrumentally useful because it is true (in the most ordinary sense of the word).

Depending on one’s philosophical standards, to “prove” realism, or show beyond all doubt that science is capable of yielding accurate knowledge about are likely unachievable. But are there alternative reasons to take scientific knowledge seriously from a realist perspective? Perhaps we might consider the consequences of failing to do so. Realists differ from instrumentalists not merely in the ontological leaps they are will to make to explain useful knowledge. Crucially, they hold that there will be knowledge that will apparently have no immediate utility. There will also be knowledge that appears completely adverse to the realisation of expressed goals. Without such assumptions, there is a danger that the resistance that nature puts up against the desires of humans, especially those involved in immense technological projects, will fail to be recognised. Thus, against thinkers like Arthur Fine and Richard Rorty, I maintain that whether one approaches science, and knowledge in general, from an instrumentalist or realist perspective has profound consequences, especially as to the way science is conceived to be best integrated into broader rational-ethical systems.

I have long found ethics to be the source of a blaring inconsistency with professed anti-foundationalists; in the same breath anti-foundationalists would denounce all attempts at normative epistemology and propound ethical dogmas. It seems that after truth, ethics should be the first thing to fall prey to the scepticism that underlies anti-foundationalism, unless one believes like Berkeley that such things can be guaranteed through divine revelation (but such a claim is at least as equally specious as those of epistemological foundationalists). However, in the face of this conflict – between the desire to promote ethical principles, and recognise the fundamental problems of epistemology – one might demand consistency, but not so ethics are abandoned. Perhaps epistemology should be embraced as ethics. Just as one might feel justified in making an ethical leap of faith, one might likewise make an epistemological leap of faith.


4 thoughts on “Some Undeveloped Thoughts on Realism, Instrumentalism, Science, and Ethics

  1. So, regarding the latest one: I found the first half totally lucid, but when you built up to your punchline in the third paragraph I got a bit lost. I estimate about 70% of that reaction comes from my relative lack of experience with the stuff you’re talking about, and the other 30% is perhaps that thing of when thought fits not so neatly into word-shaped slots and meaning gets fuzzy.

    I more or less get the part about realists holding that there will be knowledge with no apparent immediate utility. But I have trouble parsing the idea of “knowledge that appears completely adverse to the realisation of expressed goals.” I mean, it makes obvious sense as a string of words, but I can’t quite picture it as a non-abstract concept, at least not in a way that flows with your argument. Can you come up with a more concrete example of this type of knowledge, and elaborate on why an instrumentalist might reject its existence?

    The closest thing I can think of, based on my interpretation of what you’re saying, is something like: it’s 1942 and some dudes in New Mexico are trying to figure out how to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238; their understanding of science leads them to believe that centrifuges will do the trick; unbeknownst to them, their centrifuges are too primitive to separate the isotope (this is the knowledge adverse to the realization of their goals) and other methods will be needed. But it seems like the distinction between an instrumentalist and a realist would be fairly weak or even nonexistent here. Maybe, going into the experiment, one would be more optimistic than the other — and actually, I would venture that it wouldn’t necessarily be the instrumentalist — but either way, I don’t see how an instrumentalist would be less inclined to grant the possibility of scientific or technological obstacles, especially not to an extent that would result in a profound difference between his perspective and that of a realist. So, that’s where I need clarification.

    Thanks for an enjoyable 40-or-so minutes of thinkin’. Absent something smart to talk about I probably would’ve just continued reading about Shannyn Sossamon on Wikipedia.

  2. Thanks for the response!

    Ok, part of the problem with that short post is that I am not very specific or detailed about what I mean by “instrumentalism.” There are, of course, a variety of thinkers that have described themselves as such, and they don’t all agree on the same points. Dewey, for example, would probably be pretty appalled by some of my insinuations – he certainly envisioned his instrumentalism to be ethically responsible and not prone to the crude form of instrumentalism that I chiefly take issue with.

    And of course, this crude form is not really a philosophical doctrine (at least not one that is propounded and adhered to by any notable philosopher); it is rather a kind of pervasive ideology characterisitic of the 20th (and now 21) century. Good knowledge is knowledge that we can do stuff with (make flashlights, televisions, trains, cars, cigarettes, bombs, landmines, coal-power plants, DDT, whatever). And “do stuff with” usually translates into “make money” or “exert political/military power.” The broader implications of the use of that knowledge rarely gets factored into the knowledge-producing process itself. In other words, good knowledge is whatever knowledge with which immediate human ends can be achieved. The ethical status of that knoweldge, and the ends themselves, rarely come under ethical scrutiny (at least not until it’s way too late – but often never in any significant way).

    (Conversely, knowledge with no immediate “use” (in the narrow sense of profits, power, fulfilling subjective desires) is seen as lacking value: art, literature, ethics, abstract scientific understanding, philosophical reflection, etc. This is a side point, however.)

    This last point about ethics and ends is I guess the main point I’m driving at. It’s not too original; Horkheimer stated as much over 60 years ago. But, the point is, an instrumentalist in this crude sense is not concerned with understanding the way the universe “really is” – this is seen as an inefficient, waste of time – it’s only possible value could be fulfilling some subjective need to be satisfied by theoretical knowledge. Indeed, for most instrumentalists, there is no sense about talking about “reality” in any objective sense (and certainly not in any ethical sense). All there are are subjective desires. And it’s up to individuals to pursue these desires. And we’ve created a culture that does just this. It pursues individual interests (or corporate, or national, but always sectarian in some way) without regard for the collective. Any obstacle presented to the individual fulfillment of desires is seen as an egregious affront to some weird notion of inalienable freedom.

    Now, does this really link to philosophical instrumentalism? Perhaps not. But, philosophically, one of the reasons people are instrumentalists is that it allows them to be relativists in some sense, without succumbing to some nonsense, anything-goes, consensus theory of truth. It allows them to talk about actions and consequences in a meaningful way (it escapes the objection to radical forms of relativism that different beliefs quite obviously have different instrumental consequences), while not treading into the murky metaphysical territory of “objective truth.” If we say that truth amounts to useful knowledge, then we can non-vacuously say that truth is relative, because what counts as being useful will change depending on an individual or group’s needs and wants and the context.

    Ok, so to the “knowledge that appears completely adverse to the realisation of expressed goals” bit. Let’s say that I’m an oil industry executive. I have a lot of useful knowledge, like how to get tiny amounts of oil out of sand. But I am also presented with knowledge that stands in the way of my interests, for example, that the burning of fossil fuels is warming the planet. Under an instrumentalist notion of truth, since this extra knowledge is “adverse to the realisation of my goals,” I can just disregard it, right? It’s not true for me, because it’s not useful to me.

    Does being a realist solve this? Maybe not. But a realist would argue that the earth really is getting warmer, and this really will have negative consequences for most of the earth’s population, and that’s that. Truth is not dependent on the desires of an oil tycoon. Of course, being a philosophical realist doesn’t really solve any ethical problems – the tycoon could acknowledge the reality of global warming and still not care. But it seems to offer a more concrete basis for formulating ethics than instrumentalism does. So what I am implying is that an instrumental view of knowledge presents some serious obstacles to coping with ethical issues. Of course, the real problem is the ethical one, not the epistemological one, and I have no clue how to adequately adress this.

    But perhaps there are ways to hold on to instrumentalism while avoiding the ethical dilemma without having to appeal to realism. What I have been thinking lately is it’s not really a matter of instrumentalism vs. realism, but subjective instrumentalism vs. collective or utilitarian instrumentalism. Or perhaps short term instrumetalism vs. long term instrumentalism. That is, knowledge that our knowledge-producing systems yield that appears to have no immediate utility will ultimately prove useful, we just haven’t figured out what to do with it yet. But this is precisely the point of realism – we adhere to knowledge because it is the necessary conclusion of the methods we use to discover truths about the universe, not because it is immediately useful. Science obliges us to believe its results as true. To say that we can pick and choose to believe what knowledge science yields offends my philosophical sensibilities, to say the least.

    1. A very enjoyable essay , thank you!
      However, I take issue with your use of the terms “instrumentalist” and “positivist”. The first one has less to do with actions or any pragmatic kind of philosophy (as far as the philosophy of science is concerned) but rather with empitical adequateness, theoretical conventions and a coherency approach towards the system of scientific theories (Poincaré, Duhem, to some degree Mach and one or two Logical Empiricists). Positivism, too, has never been the naive proposition that it often is made out to be (neither in its original version by Comte nor as a part of Logical Empiricism, which in turn is not what – analytical – philosophers unfamiliar with the history of ideas believe it to have been). And in order to connect both traditions to what you write about pragmatic/pragmaticist philosophy of science: At the beginning of the 20th century and during the revolution in physics, all three major lines of thought – Instrumentalism, Pragmaticism, and Logical Empiricism – were very much in contact with each other. In contrast to the more hermetic discourse in later times (and after the Analytic-“Continental”-schism), groups like the Vienna Circle, the Marburg school of Neo-kantianism, the people around Dewey or Lewis and others actually talked to each other and, more importantly, adopted arguments and propositions when it seemed useful to do so: A classic example of this cooperative and constructive appropach is, of course, Otto Neurath, who incorporated logical analysis of language, pragmatism, and instrumentalist holism in his philosophy of science, while constantly debating the Neo-kantians as well as people like Schlick, Carnap, Popper, and Reichenbach. O, what glorious times…

      1. Thanks for your response!
        Yes, there are certainly various meanings of instrumentalism, and I am not clear about this in the original post. I do, however, attempt to clarify the debates which I am weighing in on in my above comment, which are not, as I note, the discussions surrounding instrumentalism in the early 20th century (as I say, for example, Dewey would probably not recognize what I am talking about here as instrumentalism). Here I am responding to some recent debates in the social sciences and the humanities, particularly in STS, but mostly reflecting on some old issues about “ideologies” of knowledge, stemming from early critical theory (Horkheimer, Habermas, etc.) which I find to be still generally intellectually interesting, and indeed, probably of more intellectual interest to those not versed in academic philosophy.

        As for positivism, I don’t think I mention it.

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