I have heard of this philosophical position according to which science, or at least physics, does not provide us with an actual description of reality, but is a mere tool to predict the outcome of experiments.

What is its name? Which philosophers have endorsed it?

  • It is called instrumentalism. Its main advocate was John Dewey.
    – Bumble
    Nov 30 '15 at 20:24
  • Other prominent proponents are Popper and Milton Friedman, the father of monetarism in economics. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instrumentalism
    – Conifold
    Nov 30 '15 at 20:45
  • 1
    Conifold: Your comment about Popper being an instrumentalist is false. See Popper's criticism of instrumentalism in Section 5 of Chapter 3 of "Conjectures and Refutations".
    – alanf
    Dec 1 '15 at 0:31
  • 2
    Popper, as indicated by user-alanf, criticized instrumentalism in (for instance) his "Three Views Concerning Human Knowledge" (Chapter 3 of conjectures and refutations, London, Routledge, 1965, pp. 97-119).​And although user-Conifold is right to say that in general when a philosopher criticizes some view X it does not imply he does not fall under X, as far as I know Popper was not even close to instrumentalism (as his "The Logic of Scientific Discovery" and "Realism and the aim of Science" may also attest)​.​​
    – user18079
    Dec 1 '15 at 15:18
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    The wikipedia link misrepresents Popper. For example, in the section "Instrumentalism defined" point 2, it is claimed that Popper endorses the instrumentalist standard for criticising scientific theories. Popper criticises instrumentalism because it fails to give a satisfactory account of the ways a scientific theory would be tested. If a theory is just an instrument, it makes no sense to reject it entirely for failing an experimental test since it may still be useful under many other circumstances, but a scientific theory may be rejected in this way, see the section of C&R I cited.
    – alanf
    Dec 2 '15 at 1:08

The position is a form of anti-realism: Anti-realism states that there is no objective reality independent of our sense data (so a strong form of empiricism), the only thing we can know is our own observations. Anti-realism is a broad position which can be applied to science, math, metaphysics, etc..When applying it to science, it means that things such as waves, atoms and sub-atomic particles, genes, etc don't exist other than convenient ways to helps predict our sense data. To some extent, the logical positivists were anti-realists.

It can also be seen as a form of pragmatism: we will never know the ultimate nature of reality and being, blah, blah, blah,...our theories are good as long as they are useful and have "cash-value". Pragmatism when applied to science became known as instrumentalism, and was championed by John Dewey.

  • "Anti-realism states that there is no objective reality independent of our sense data...", sense-data theories are mostly forgotten and refuted, and independent from anti-realism. But you are right in the sense that anti-realism is often related to some form of verificationism, and so to empiricism.
    – Johannes
    Dec 1 '15 at 1:17

The postion is named instrumentalism.

instrumentalism, in its most common meaning, a kind of anti-realistic view of scientific theories wherein therories are constructed as calculating devices or insturments for conveniently moving from a given set of observations to a predicted set of observations. (Audi, Robert (Ed.): The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 1995)

A more general meaning of instrumentalism has been advocated by John Dewey.

Instrumentalism focus rightly on one characteristics of natural sciences: To make predictions or retrodictions. But instrumentalism neglects a second characteristics: Science is based on the theoretical concept of theories. And theories claim to explain observations, they do not only predict them.

  • I do not know if the last sentence isn't too strong. In Experience and Nature, he adresses culture, "spirit" and theory. He only reverses the dependence.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 30 '15 at 21:39
  • @Philip Could you please explain a bit more what's your point, thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Nov 30 '15 at 21:44
  • I think Dewey would not neglect that science is based on theories, but rather that theories are hypotheses that are falsifiable and have to prove themselves on nature. So basically, he does not neglect, but would say he prevents from a wrong understanding (like Popper some years later).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 30 '15 at 22:20
  • Theories are instruments, too, according to Dewey. For example, "theory is an intermediate phase of inquiry. As we live our lives, we confront problems which invoke the need for inquiry and, often, there is a need to devise a tool of explanation and amelioration. Theory is that tool, generated by these encounters; it does not come first" Jun 14 '19 at 1:55

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