The simplest and most clear-cut definition of scientific realism is the general view, that science normally sets out in pursuit of the truth and sometimes science finds this truth.

The general definition of scientific realism

The simplest and most clear-cut definition of scientific realism is the general view, that science normally sets out in pursuit of the truth and sometimes science finds this truth. The concept of scientific realism is involved in taking two basic standpoints. Firstly, it represents a set of claims about the key and most significant features of ideal scientific theory. Secondly, the resolved and unshaken commitment of science repeatedly gives rise to theories, that greatly resemble an ideal theory and science has made groundbreaking unveilings in particular domains. An ideal theory is a representation of the flawless theory that repeatedly science has high inclinations and intentions to produce. An ideal scientific theory must meet a certain thresh hold and has set essential characteristics. For example, the claims brought forward by the theory are either false or they are true, no sitting on the fence. This is determined based on whether the entities are in play as far as the theory is concerned truly exist and the theory gives a correct description of these entities (Armstrong, 2007, p.56). Secondly, the entities that the scientific theory tends to describe are in existence objectively and mind independently. Thirdly, there is the strong reason and a high likelihood of justification of the claims of the ideal scientific theory.

 The first and second claims are a summation of what an ideal scientific theory claims. Moreover, this entails it saying definite things about entities that are genuinely in existence (Armstrong, 2007, p.58).

The third claim serves to notify us that there is a sound reason to believe that claims made in relation to science about these entities is true. Scientific realism in usual circumstances serves to assert that science, more often than not, makes groundbreaking progress, and that scientific theories get better with each succession. The claims made held by scientific realism undergo thorough and exhaustive scrutiny before being adopted and incorporated into the realm of scientific realism.

Example of such claims is that the scientific theory that proves to be the best must at least hold a partial element of truth if not absolute truth. Scientific realism also claims that the optimum theories do not make use of central terms that in reality are non-referring expressions. Another claim held strong by scientific realism is the statement that a theory holds some approximation of the truth. This serves as a sufficient explanation of the degree to which it is predicted to succeed. Thus, the quantifiable approximate truth of a scientific theory is the only criterion that serves to explain the levels of success it is predicted to reach (Armstrong, 2007, p.62).

Scientific realism also stands by the claim that even if expressions utilized in a scientific theory do not have a tangible reference, the scientific theory might still prove itself as true. Scientific realism also claims that the theoretical claims made by a scientific theory should be read in a literal manner. Moreover, it should be proven either true or false but certainly never both. Another firm claim made by scientific realism is that the ultimate goal of science is to give a detailed and conclusive account of the physically existent world that is plainly correct

Putnam on the no miracles argument

Clearly scientific realism represents a commonsensical view, a trait held dear by most scientists. Hilary Putman described scientific realism as the only philosophy in existence that has absolutely no inclination towards the conversion of a scientific success into a miracle (Putnam, 1975, p.73). These remarks were made by Putnam when he was still a realist way before his radical conversion to internal realism. The remark was made concerning the argument involving the concept of miracles, which is often, in descriptive terms, referred to as the ultimate argument that scientific realism needs to resolve. The argument rests on the premise that is of the view that our very best theories are extraordinarily successful. The explanation for this success is that our best theories are in actuality true and if they were not true then the fact that they turned out successful would be miraculous.

Van Fraanssen’s argument

The no miracle argument categorically states that realism with reference to science is probably the best plausible explanation of the successes science has made and continues to make, which would under different circumstances be miraculous. It represents a unique case of inference to the best explanation. Inference to the best plausible explanation is a pattern employed in argument and is pivotal not only in science but to simple everyday life. Van Fraanssen argues that successful theories  are similar to well adapted organisms (Fraanssen, 1980, p.40) since only the most successful theories will ultimately is thus hardly any surprise that our theories are successful and thus no need arises for explanation of the success. Whether the evolution analogy stands sufficient, enough to discredit the miracle argument however remains a matter of debate.

 Van Fraanssen presents a homely example, where he thinks he might be living with a mouse in his home, and proceeds to narrate exactly why he thinks that. He talks of hearing the sounds of scratching in his wall, the sound of little feet moving round and about at midnight and disappearance of his cheese as key reasons why he is confident in his assertion of presence of a mouse in his home. His conclusion is that he is living with a mouse in his home and the premises that hold for this conclusion are the sounds of scratching on the wall, the sound of little feet moving at midnight and the disappearance of his cheese right into thin air (Fraanssen, 1980, p.88).

The premises are a variety of statements that require be explaining and further breaking down for more clarity while the conclusion is the element that explains the premises, their reason for the occurrence, and their general significance to a particular question or issue. This process, however, presents the dilemma of ambiguity since it is very clear that inferences arrived at through this method cannot be termed as deductively valid whereby undoubtedly truth of all the involved premises acts as a guarantee for the absolute truth of all the conclusions arrived at (Fraanssen, 1980, p.96).

The standard deductive model applied in explanation does not involve deduction of all known explanatory hypothesis from the existing phenomena, but rather a deduction of all aspects of the phenomena from all available explanatory hypothesis. In order to clearly establish that this kind of inference is beyond the shadow of a doubt sound, it is necessary to establish when a hypothesis indeed explains an actual existing fact. Moreover, this applies to the exploration of whether there exists another hypothesis, which tends to explain and disambiguate the fact better than the previous hypothesis. If one hypothesis has undergone scrupulous testing, which resulted in it being refuted yet the other hypothesis, has not, then the latter is better and a more truthful representation of the absolute truth than the former. In a situation whereby it is highly objected that the best available explanation may indeed involve elements of falsehood, this does not necessarily mean that the best available explanation is untrue (Fraanssen, 1980, p.96). 

Any explanation might be termed as being false in the sense that it is not true. However, it is the absurdity of the highest order to presume that the only things that can be reasonable believed are indeed truths. In a situation where the best available explanation of a fact is in actuality false, it is still very reasonable to believe this falsehood (Fraanssen, 1980, p.106). In the example of Van Fraassen’s mouse, suppose that the explanation leading to the existence of a mouse in the house is false, and the accused mouse is not in reality responsible for the disappearance of cheese, scratching on the walls and the feet like noises. It is still highly reasonable to believe in existence of the mouse since it is currently the best available explanation of the strange phenomena. If further inquests prove that the mouse hypothesis is nothing but a mere falsehood, then it no longer holds any reason to believe in the existence of a mouse. The underlying concept discovered is that, what was believed previously was wrong and not that it was unreasonable or wrong for concerned parties to have believed it. Thus, van Fraanssen disowns the possibility of the success of his theory being miraculous but rather a case of survival for the fittest theory and the theory that ultimately survives tends to be true and needs no further scrutiny (Fraanssen, 1980, p.110). Thus, the success of a scientific theory cannot be downplayed to a miracle but natural selection at its best.

Consideration of Van Fraassen’s hypothesis about a mouse shows an element of empirical adequacy and truth coinciding since the mouse is a creature that is observable but with reference to the hypothesis about unobservedness, empirical adequacy and truth clearly come apart. The levels of success of a theory do not suggest that the theory is actually true and since there is no clear cut way of  determining the base of theories that are approximately true, the chances of a theory being approximately true cannot be assessed (Fraanssen, 1980, p.64).

Points in favor of the miracle argument

The miracle argument gets its lease of life from the widely utilizes and accepted premise that the best theories formulated tend to reach extraordinarily high levels of success. The success under high scrutiny is a predictive success, the apparent ability of a well-formulated theory to indeed enable the yielding of true predictions relating to what is observable and the technological success that more often than not dependent on this. The claim at the heart of the issue is that the best available explanation of the predictive success of a theory is that it is true. It is emergent that it is the only consistent empirical success that can indeed derive its explanation in terms of truth. It is difficult near impossible to explain the partial success of an already falsified theory in terms of truth. The question remains as to whether we can determine with high confidence levels whether any theory is empirically adequate. To accept the notion of a given theory being empirically adequate and attempting to justify this claim would be a grave mistake.

This is because it would entail the making of generalizations beyond any available evidence but it would bear great resemblance with a lot of explanations in science since science, in ordinary situations, sets out to seek explanations for general statements. Science more often than not sets out to seek general explanations of statements rather than particular statements, which relate to a certain particular fact. It is the general standpoint with most radical inductive skeptics that any general statement whatsoever regardless of what it entails is true. They are however hard-pressed to explain how they have come to the knowledge that this statement itself is true. Other mainstream radical skeptics are of the stern opinion that there is absolutely no way, that any statement which refers to certain generalizations can be undoubtedly known with absolute certainty to be completely true.

They, however, are swayed by the notion that some statements, which refer to certain generalizations, can be adopted with high levels of rationality as complete and utter truths. This might be useful when scientists set out to explain, for example, why sticks look bent in water. Scientists who set out to investigate this issue or of the general opinion that sticks always appear bent as long as they are in water irrespective of any other occurring variables. It is very reasonable for them to make this general assumption despite the fact that further and more thorough investigations may, in fact, prove their previous general assumption as purely untrue as previously and vehemently put out by the inductive skeptics.

Metascience and the no miracles argument

Science bears great structural and functional resemblance to metascience. Metascience can, with good and logical reason, of course, assume that a certain theory is empirically adequate and then embark on giving explanations as to why this is so and as to why the general assumption was previously made (Gattei, 2006, p.41).

This project involves aspects of an inductive leap, and if it were to be termed as null and void based on the application of this inductive leap then all explanatory projects brought to the table by science must also in a similar fashion be rejected on the ground that they also display aspects of an inductive leap. The fact remains that to make a categorical claim that a theory is empirically adequate is indeed to make a very bold and very strong claim. This is paramount to claiming that indeed all the existing empirical regularities entailed in the theory and predicted by the theory actually hold significance water and are in essence absolutely true. To make a claim that all of the predicted empirical generalizations are actually true involves taking a horizontal inductile leap from generalizations that have already been tested to all generalization in existence about a given particular matter (Gattei, 2006, p.53).

Any claim that any particular predicted empirical generalization is true involves the taking of a vertical inductive leap from cases that have been previously explained to all cases that exist irrespective of whether they have been explained or whether they have not been explained. Thus, the concept of empirical adequacy already holds credible elements of epistemic problematics.

Empirical adequacy and not miracles

If the assumption is made that, it makes absolute sense to attempt and come up with an explanation of empirical adequacy the question remaining how truth exactly helps achieve this. An example is a theory that claims that indeed there exist some unobservable entities in one’s world. The only way that the theory can indeed be true, is if all these existence claims are priorly true. Therefore, the point put across by realists is that a theory is highly adequate because the unobservable entities it proposes really do exist despite their incapability to be seen (Smart, 2007, p.48).

Reference is indeed a necessary condition that must be present for success, but it certainly is not a sufficient condition. This theory might b referential to very high standards and still be false and prove to be unsuccessful.

The miracle argument is of the controversial frame of thought that asserts that truth is not the only criterion that explains empirical adequacy, but it is apparently the only explanation and indeed the best explanation available. Adequate and conclusive evaluation of this claim needs to juxtapose the realist explanation of exactly what success is in terms relating to successful references and truth, against all the available plausible antirealist explanations (Smart, 2007, p.62).

Van Fraassen replaces what is indeed true by empirical adequacy as an aim for the greater good of science, but it appears evident that empirical adequacy cannot be satisfactorily explained in terms of empirical adequacy (Fraanssen, 1980, p.74).

This explanation is inconclusive and holds no water since it is blatantly and plainly circular. Ludan on the other hand attempts to replace truth with the ability to solve particular and a comprehensive range of problems as an aim, and the central one at that, of science. His claim is based on the explanation that a problem which is posed by a question appearing in the firm ‘why this empirical generalization?’ Thus, any claims that are of the opinion that theory serves as a good basis for solving certain empirical problems is generally trying to say that this particular theory ends up yielding quite a considerable number of empirical generalizations (Ludan, 2006, p.52).

Thus, deeper scrutiny reveals the underlying and indeed very ugly truth that what we once again have is nothing more than an explanation of what empirical adequacy is and what empirical adequacy entails in terms of empirical adequacy. Jarret Leplin also makes a valiant attempt with his introduction of the concept of surrealism or surrogate realism in full. Surrogate realism is brought to life by taking a certain theory and forming its surrealism transform (Leplin, 2003, p.68).

The phenomena that appear observant is as if the original theory were true, and this is just a cloaked way of attempting to claim that the theory is indeed and by all means empirically adequate. That being said we cannot, with high confidence levels and to a high satisfactory note, explain the empirical adequacy of a particular theory by making use of and invoking the surrealistic transform of the theory as this would amount to nothing more than mere attempts to try and explain empirical adequacy plainly and simply by invoking empirical adequacy (Leplin, 2003, 108).

Comparison not miracles

The Ptolemy-Copernicus case claims that the empirical success of a Ptolemy or a false theory is clearly and in detail explained by taking into account and considering its similarity to a Copernicus or a true theory. The similarity thus serves as a testament to explain why the two theories tend to make the same predictions (Leplin, 2003, p.111).

Thus, the truth involved in the second theory serves as an explanation as to just why predictions made by the first theory are true despite it being a proven fact that the first theory is indeed and false. The surrealistic transformation of Ptolemy’s theory as if they were true follows from theories of Ptolemy and theories of Copernicus.

Realists about theories of Copernicus thus become surrealists about theories of Ptolemy, in order to be able to explain the empirical adequacy of Ptolemy’s theories, but in essence, it is Copernican realism that is doing all the explaining here and not polemic surrealism. Copernicus proceeds to give evidence as to why the phenomena are as if Ptolemy was true.

Truth in terms of the no miracles argument

The main premise attributed to the no miracle argument was that the truth of a particular theory is in actuality the best explanation of the empirical level of adequacy of the theory and thus far that key premise seems to be indeed correct and holds a lot of leverage in certain instances. This argument makes the assumption of the realistic theory of what is considered to be true which elevates truth to higher levels rendering it as an institution more than empirical adequacy. The self we opt for an empirical adequacy theory concerning the truth this collapses truth and coalesces it into empirical adequacy thus causing the miracle argument to collapse (Rescher, 2003, p.78).

This argument, however, presents two issues that cause great worry. The first issue of concern is that it is inclined towards an extreme case, that involving empirically adequate theories and the second cause for concern is that the assumption has been made that truth is a better explaining factor of empirical adequacy than empirical adequacy is of itself because the latter presents an explanation that is completely circular. Independent evidence is, however, necessary to prove that the explanation is indeed true, but no independent evidence can be provided that favors an explanation, which leans on truth against an explanation, which is more, inclined towards empirical adequacy (Rescher, 2003, p.83).

The explanation brought forward by the realists may be more detailed and tell more than the explanation brought forward by the antirealists, but due to the delicate and complicated nature of the case, there can be no production of conclusive evidence that the more it reveals is indeed correct. In some instances, explanatory virtues present complications and fail to go hand in hand with the available evidential virtues. The fact remains that antirealists can always formulate alternative hypotheses with reference to the realist hypothesis which empirical evidence cannot rule out.

These emergent alternatives can, however, be excluded on grounds based on explanations, either they provide no tangible explanations at all or the explanations they provide are incredible. This is very similar to the explanations brought forth by the antirealists on the success of scientific theories in terms of their empirical adequacies.

Such explanations tend to be either null or contain no explanations at all or the explanations provided are completely inadequate and circular in nature and thus can be with great levels of confidence, rejected on those grounds. Thus, the explanation put forward by the realists on science’s success is much better than the explanation brought to the table by the antirealists especially due to consideration of the grounds previously covered.


Armstrong, D. M. (2007). Universals and scientific realism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gattei, S. (2006). Karl Popper’s philosophy of science: rationality without foundations. London: Routledge.

Leplin, J. (2003). Scientific realism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rescher, N. (2003). Scientific realism: a critical reappraisal. Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

Smart, J. J. (2007). Philosophy and scientific realism. New York: Humanities Press.

Putnam, H., & Boolos, G. (1975). Meaning and method: essays in honor of Hilary Putnam. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press.

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