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In the philosophy of science, instrumentalism is the view that a concept or theory should be evaluated by how effectively it explains and predicts phenomena, as opposed to how accurately it describes objective reality.

Instrumentalism relates closely to pragmatism, especially in the work of John Dewey and his student Addison Webster Moore. This methodological viewpoint often contrasts with scientific realism, which defines theories as specially being more or less true. However, instrumentalism is more of a pragmatic approach to science, information and theories than an ontological statement. Often instrumentalists (like pragmatists) have been accused of being relativists, even though many instrumentalists are also believers in sturdy objective realism.

Contents

Critics

The philosopher of science Karl Popper repeatedly rejects and criticizes instrumentalism in Conjectures and Refutations, perhaps regarding it as too mechanical:

Instrumentalism can be formulated as the thesis that scientific theories - the theories of the so-called "pure" sciences - are nothing but computational rules (or inference rules); of the same character, fundamentally, as the computation rules of the so-called "applied" sciences. (One might even formulate it as the thesis that "pure" science is a misnomer, and that all science is "applied".) Now my reply to instrumentalism consists in showing that there are profound differences between "pure" theories and technological computation rules, and that instrumentalism can give a perfect description of these rules but is quite unable to account for the difference between them and the theories. [1]

Instrumentalism denies that theories are truth-evaluable; instead, they should be treated like a black box into which you feed observed data, and through which you produce observable predictions. This requires a distinction between theory and observation, and within each type a distinction between terms and statements. Observation statements (O-statements) have their meaning fixed by observable truth conditions, e.g. "the litmus paper is red", whereas observation terms (O-terms) have their meaning fixed by their referring to observable things or properties, e.g. "red". Theoretical statements (T-statements) have their meaning fixed by their function within a theory and aren't truth evaluable, e.g. "the solution is acidic", whereas theoretical terms (T-terms) have their meaning fixed by their systematic function within a theory and don't refer to any observable thing or property, e.g. "acidic". Though you may think that "acidic" refers to a real property in an object, the meaning of the term can only be explained by reference to a theory about acidity, in contrast to "red", which is a property you can observe. Statements that mix both T-terms and O-terms are therefore T-statements, since their totality cannot be directly observed.

There is some criticism of this distinction, however, as it confuses "non-theoretical" with "observable", and likewise "theoretical" with "non-observable". For example, the term "gene" is theoretical (so a T-term) but it can also be observed (so an O-term). Whether a term is theoretical or not is a semantic matter, because it involves the different ways in which the term gets its meaning (from a theory or from an observation). Whether a term is observable or not is an epistemic matter, because it involves how we can come to know about it. Instrumentalists contend that the distinctions are the same, that we can only come to know about something if we can understand its meaning according to truth-evaluable observations. So in the above example, "gene" is a T-term because, although it is observable, we cannot understand its meaning from observation alone.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Routledge, 2003 ISBN 0415285941

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