In the miracles argument for scientific realism it is said that

our best theories are extraordinarily successful: they facilitate empirical predictions, retrodictions, and explanations of the subject matters of scientific investigation, often marked by astounding accuracy and intricate causal manipulations of the relevant phenomena. What explains this success

This SEP article goes on to credit VanFrassen with claiming that we don't need to explain the success of science.

But suppose those successes were so remarkable that leaving them unexplained would be completely unsatisfactory to the opponent. How might an idealist, by which I mean someone who believes that nothing exists independent of mind (e.g. I think Hegel), explain the success of science, without sounding like they were really over-reaching?

  • 1
    Which characteristics do you attribute to the idealist of your question? Can you name a representative philosopher of this position? Thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 21, 2016 at 8:49

2 Answers 2


They would not in so far as idealists are not realists. The no miracle argument is an argument for realism: it says that realism is the only (or best) explanation, so the argument works against any anti-realist position, including idealism. The idealist and the empiricist are in the same position and can use the same arguments to respond, such as the one you mentioned.

Van Fraassen proposed that the success of scientific theories can be explained by the fact that our theories are in fierce competition and only the best survive. However the proposal was criticized because this kind of explanation does not answer the right kind of question. For example when asking "how do birds fly?" you can answer with an evolutionary argument (they were in competition etc.) but that's not the right explanation: what we'd want is, for example, a mechanistic explanation (their wings are such and such...). Similarly the explanation required for realism should sat what makes theories so successful in their prediction, not how we came to conceive such successful theories.

  • good answer. i wonder why "winning" can't explain why something is successful at prediction. without just assuming that
    – user6917
    Jan 21, 2016 at 11:56

If all that exists is mind, then Nature is an emanation of mind, and its apparent order is the order of our minds. All useful forms of idealism assume our internal intuition is at base fully in tune with the nature of the physical world, or the physical world could not exist. From that point of view, of course mental models of Nature work.

In fact, it is harder for idealists to make reasons why our intuition is not just perfect, why science does not just pour out of us logically complete, without effort. And they explain the distance in terms of indirection: Intuitions are compromised as they combine across individuals (a la Leibniz), or reflected off God (a la Berkeley), or diluted via 'participation' (a la Plato), or emanate into physical reality in a way that loses information (a la Kant), or ...

This is clearly a very cogent explanation of the success of abstraction and the basic approach of science via mathematical models, if one that has a hard time explaining anything else, or remaining internally consistent. It is the first reasonable philosophical explanation of this, going back to Plato, and explaining why earlier thinkers are defined in terms of him, being consigned to the category of 'pre-Socratic'.

It may be the only one: The real difficulty in explaining the success of abstraction is met only by empiricists and other physicalists. Hume is not wrong.

You can cast the success of intuition back on evolutionary theory, but explaining success with success is simply circular. And statistical/sociological theories from the philosophy of science, while vastly elucidating the process of succeeding, are not a solution. They do help convince us that sheer environmental adaptation "simply works" for mathematically sound reasons. But they ultimately do nothing to address the real difficulties any form of observation has with causality.

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