Realism is the theory that there is a mind-independent reality which we can know and interact with. Anti-realism holds, in general, either that there is no such mind-independent reality or that if there is the mind cannot possibly come to know about it.

Many anti-realists, within the analytic tradition especially, seem to have very close bonds to science and its method. But science likewise seems to assume that there is a real world that the mind is analyzing and interacting with. Indeed, the very purport of science as a method hinges on there being something independent of the analytical instruments being used, which is yet at the same time knowable. In other words, science reveals to us not merely the ways in which we can or should categorize our beliefs, but also the very nature of the objects our beliefs are about.

So my questions are as follows (and they are not intended with a sour tone, so apologies if they come off that way): How can anti-realists and ontological relativists insist upon the use of scientific method or scientific theories? Does all anti-realism collapse into idealism?

  • There are different kinds of anti-realism, but most acknowledge the (rather obvious) efficacy of science when it comes to engineering, making predictions, etc.
    – Era
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 14:49
  • Doesn't Kant's epistemology offer a straightforward answer to your question? Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 16:23
  • @AlexanderSKing It might. That's why I'm asking. My knowledge of Kant is so-so.
    – Bombadil
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 16:38
  • So is mine, or I would have fleshed out an answer. Maybe one of the in-house Kantians will respond. Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 17:25
  • You can read van Fraassen "the empirical stance" for an example of antirealism that takes science with respect. Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 1:57

3 Answers 3


Science assumes the real world in the same sense we assume that the Sun goes around the Earth in our everyday lives, or mathematics assumes an ideal realm populated with numbers and structures. It is a practical attitude of a working scientist (farmer, mathematician,...) that saves time and effort on complications irrelevant to the task at hand. Upon reflection one could conjecture that this attitude does reflect operation in a mind independent world inhabited by real things. A realist might even argue that doing otherwise undermines our usual activities, scientific activities in particular, and leaves them hanging. But this reasoning is moralizing and emotional, not rational. Which brings us directly to what it means to have "faith in science": what is the goal of science?

Plato once taught that the goal of geometry is to lift the soul from the bonds of the sensible to higher pastures of philosophy. In a similar vein a realist might say that it is uncovering the hidden reality of nature that animates science. But this stance naturally undermines itself, once science replaces the apparent reality of everyday life (or older theory) with deeper scientific reality, and transfers its realist commitments to the latter, the same doubt arises about the latter as it raises about the former. Indeed, scientists are trained not to take appearances at face value and seek ever deeper explanations. Cao and Schweber give an interesting account of how this dynamic plays out in modern physics in Conceptual Foundations and the Philosophical Aspects of Renormalization Theory:"the recent developments support a pluralism in theoretical ontology, an antifoundationalism in epistemology and an antireductionism in methodology. These implications are in sharp contrast with the neo-Platonism implicit in the traditional pursuit of quantum field theorists... which assumed that, through rational (mainly mathematical) human activities, one could arrive at an ultimate stable theory of everything." (see especially pp.73-77).

The scientific method itself is not a natural extension of realism, but something in tension with it. The hypothetico-deductive origin of mature scientific ontologies plainly means that they took shape in speculation, only empirical consequences of which were confirmed afterwards. This gives rise to the famous problem of underdetermination of scientific theories, associated with Duhem and Quine. And the "no miracles" argument from empirical success to realism is acknowledged to be logically uncompelling even by realists. Looking at history it is hard to expect that fundamental theories of today can not share the fate of geocentrism and ether, whose empirical consequences are nonetheless fully integrated into the modern theories, affirming the empirical continuity of science.

Anti-realism in ontology goes hand in hand with instrumentalism in epistemology, and a different understanding of the goals of science. They are empirical adequacy, and more remotely practical success of applications, rather than a search for hidden reality. This may strike a realist as lowly and demeaning of science, but that again is appeal to emotions, and mechanics too once "corrupted the good of geometry", according to Plato, for it "uses bodies needing much vulgar manual labor". There is no being right or wrong about goals, they are not matters of fact. This is one reason why the dispute is perennial. Anti-realism and instrumentalism take the scientific method itself at face value, and view the ontologies it produces only as tools. Anti-realism takes an agnostic position on reality of theoretical entities, and the idealism/materialism dispute in particular, and questions if one can even make sense of "mind-independent" (as opposed to just not mind-determined) reality. Unlike realism, it is a stable position, starting at anti-realism one is anchored there, whereas starting at realism one has to resist being led away from it. And it has as much faith in science as does realism, but on its own terms.

Here is Quine's description of his faith in science in On What There Is, that an anti-realist can largely endorse:"The physical conceptual scheme simplifies our account of experience because of the way myriad scattered sense events come to be associated with single so-called objects; still there is no likelihood that each sentence about physical objects can actually be translated, however deviously and complexly, into the phenomenalistic language... Viewed from within the phenomenalistic conceptual scheme, the ontologies of physical objects and mathematical objects are myths. The quality of myth, however, is relative; relative, in this case, to the epistemological point of view. This point of view is one among various, corresponding to one among our various interests and purposes". Technically Quine self-identifies as a realist, see however How does Quine answer the metaphysician's charge that scientism is self-refuting? for the nature of his "realism".


1) How can anti-realists insist upon the use of scientific method or scientific theories?

I take over from your question as definition of anti-realism “that there is no such mind-independent reality”.

This premiss excludes any further science. Because science makes the premiss that there is an observer independent external world. Furthermore, that we can make observations and experiments to interact with this external world.

Science strives to design observer-independent theories, making predictions about further observations, and confirming or refuting them by observation. Any prediction is tested by several groups of experimentators. If they all come to the same result the most easy explanation is, to the base this coincidence on the observed phenomena, but not on a mysterious correlation of the minds of all experimentators.

2) Science can concede that in some cases “the mind cannot possibly come to know about it [mind-independent reality]”.

Since the advent of quantum mechanics we know that observation of microphysical effects may disturb the mind-independent reality in an unpredicitible way. As a consequence our knowledge resulting from a single observation is restriced by Heisenberg uncertainty relations.

But according to Kant’s emphasis on the thing-in-itself we can never know how the mind independent world is. Because we construct our knowledge from the input of our senses, due to the forms of our intution, and using the categories of our reasoning. The whole process acts as a filter.

You do not give your definition of ontological relativism. But one can denote Kant’s position as ontological relativism. On the opposite, ontological relativism in the sense of Quine would be irrelevant for your question.

3) I would even say that anti-relativism collapses into solipsism. One cannot refute the latter position by logical argumentation. But no solipsist endures this position in his daily life.


I think Liebniz monadology is a model of a pure idealism which is anti-realist and yet supports the scientific method. You only need to trust that minds adapt to one-anothers' expectations, or in the case of a single overmind, that it maintains its own internal consistency via some kind of feedback loop.

The basic idea behind this class of models of idealism is that each element of nature is reflected in each other element. There is nothing other than perception, and no notion of an external basis outside the minds and their perceptions. But there is a convention of 'politeness' that indicates each mind's established order should be respected. Changes that do not respect this order cannot be perceived, and the effects of actions that would violate the order are therefore lost entirely.

Even though there is nothing going on in this model other than perception, the perceptions are coordinated by being shared. Things cannot change erratically because the perception of the event in one mind is itself reflected in all other minds, which have expectations of the mind that it avoids violating. Things can only change at the rate that all minds can reach consensus on their shared perceptions.

This not only predicts a stability to scientific outcomes, but it predicts various odd things first observed long after Liebniz: a top speed on change (i.e. special relativity), change being slower the more particles are involved (i.e. relativistic gravitational time dilation), and the "morphogenetic field effect" a la Rupert Sheldrake (that as rules become more accepted by all minds, they should become truer, more reproducible and more stable.)

This class of models shows that there does not need to be an underlying substance to bear order, only an ongoing intersubjective negotiation.

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