Cartwright’s Philosophy of Science

Nancy Cartwright’s Philosophy of Science Eds. Hartmann, Hoefer and Bovens, Routledge 2008

I have often been recommended to read some Cartwright, but found it opaque. The Overview in this volume by Heofer seems more accessible.

In DW (‘Dappled World’) Cartwright announces that her main motivation for studying science is that of the social engineer: the desire to see science put to good use in the improvement of society and the lives of its people. And Cartwright is concerned that for those goals, the fundamentalism and imperialism characteristic of much physics and economics may be a bad prescription. …

Thus Cartwright’s recommendations are intended to be ‘pragmatic’ in the general sense. She is against ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘imperialism’, which are explicated as follows:

In DW, Cartwright resumes the attack on fundamental laws, but this time her aim is directed squarely against the imperialism she sees in fundamentalism: The belief that physics will, some day, give us The Truth, the equation or equations that are true everywhere and everywhen, and govern all happenings in the world, is a faith that Cartwright sees as both empirically unsupported and damaging to science. …

That is, she is against a set of beliefs that surely no living scientist and few educated people hold. Confusingly, chapter 5, The Finewright Theory, quotes Cartwright directly, with a very different characterisation of ‘fundamentalist’:

[One can make a] rough division of the concrete facts we know into two categories: (1) those that are legitimately regimented into theoretical schemes, these generally, though not always, being about behavior in highly structured, manufactured environments like a spark chamber; (2) those that are not. There is a tendency to think that all facts must belong to one grand scheme, and moreover that this is a scheme in which the facts in the first category have a special and privileged status. They are exemplary of the way nature is supposed to work. The others must be made to conform to them. This is the kind of fundamentalist doctrine that I think we must resist.

It is less obvious that this is a rare view among scientists. But my own view is that in physics, at least, the facts concern theories (such as one of the quantum theories) rather than the underlying ‘reality’. Nature works in some mysterious way that allows us to develop partial models, but we no longer suppose that it totally conforms to them. But wait: according to Chapter 2: Standing Up against Tradition Models and Theories in Nancy Cartwright’s Philosophy of Science:

What has changed with regard to how models and theories are viewed? Models have moved to the fore when it comes to expressions of scientific knowledge. This is a development to which Nancy Cartwright significantly contributed … .

Models are what is communicated from science to engineering and other applications, but the theories are necessary to set the context. If one neglects the theory and takes the models as truths, one risks error. In particular, the models are empirical, and should not be taken as dogmas.

In Cartwright’s response she says:

If the story makes clear what claims we are to derive from the model and how they are to be understood—as it ideally should—then we judge whether the model accurately represents the world by judging in the usual ways whether those claims are true, or true enough. As Bailer-Jones says, ‘Truth is something that can be attributed to propositions, and a proposition counts as true in those cases in which things are in the world as the proposition states’.

It is trivially true, for example, that electrons exist in certain models of the world, but it is also the case that electrons are not in the world as many school-books state, and there seems no way to be sure that any claim about the world is absolutely true. Instead, it seems to me that science must be allowed its own standard of truth, which is essentially being true to the principles of science.

Chapter 5, The Finewright Theory talks about ontic fundamentalism, that:

The world is governed, in every respect, by exact laws that apply universally even though we have not yet found these laws and the world may, in fact, be too complicated for us ever to find them.

Cartwright replies:

First, it is ontic fundamentalism … that I have wanted to develop and defend, indeed that I would bet on if I had to bet. But it is not the kind of bet that makes sense because these claims are so unlike any that we know how to gather proper evidence for.

I find it hard to fathom this. For example, in economics, are there exact laws for crises? If there are laws, they do not seem to be exact in the sense that Newton’s laws of motion are. It seems to me that evolution can produce interesting emergent phenomena, which do not obey pre-determined laws. Or at least, they do not obey laws that could have previously been determined.

If we compare sciences and economics, for example, it seems to me that the key difference is not in the nature of the theories or models, but in the way the theories and models are derived and the way that they are viewed.

The book goes on to discuss Cartwright’s positive theory, based on her notions of causality and capacities. I have not considered them.

Dave Marsay

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