Is it the general view amongst philosophers of science that science isn't about truth but rather adequately predictive models and therefore it doesn't make sense to speak of a scientific theory as true so much as an adequate model of the evidence?

Is this the general consensus amongst philosophers of science or one of a number of different viewpoints still debated (and if the latter, what is this viewpoint called)?

  • in answers to my question philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/427/certainty-in-science people made similar statements such as: "science isn't very concerned with how things actually are. Rather it is concerned with predicting how things will behave under certain specific circumstances" and "the fact that a theory lets you predict something still doesn't tell you that the theory is true -- or indeed anything at all about any underlying "reality," for that matter" which are consistent with the viewpoint I'm asking about. Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 5:33
  • or to give another concrete example of the viewpoint I'm talking about: "I don't believe the universe is a four-dimensional Riemannian manifold, I just believe it can be reasonably modeled as one", etc Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 14:20
  • For a read you may not be in the slightest bit interested in... HERE is a potentially related essay, going so far as to suggest not using the word "truth" at all; rather, the author suggests all as provisionally accepted and open to refutation. Your question just made me recall this and thought you might appreciate it.
    – Hendy
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 14:26
  • 1
    Science is mostly lies. Lies that we are all forced to believe - and if we don't, we're considered stupid. Then you leave Highschool and hear year after year that all of those "scientific facts" that they forced down our ears have been disproven. That's Science.
    – RǢF
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 19:18

2 Answers 2


That science strives towards truth is a major part of Scientific Realism. Given the problem of once popular, now discarded scientific theories, it would be naïve to think that scientific theories are simply true. But sophisticated realists make a variety of claims about how parts of theories are true, or that theories are approximately true. For example, structural realists think that the mathematical structure of mature scientific theories does track the truth. Other kinds of realist claim that certain theoretical terms do refer to parts of nature, and thus do say true things about them.

Realism is certainly not the "general view" among philosophers of science, although there are a large number of realists.

So what do you call those who oppose realists? Anti-realists? Well, there are a variety of different positions that fall under the umbrella term "anti-realist" and I guess they disagree with each other as much as with realists. (Realists disagree with each other a lot too...)

  • Empiricists claim that empirical adequacy is the chief (only?) goal of science.
  • Relativists claim that scientific knowledge is socially constructed
  • Instrumentalists claim that scientific theories are just means to the end of arriving at predictions

These are all hopelessly charicatured positions, and there are doubtless plenty of other positions but I hope this gives rough idea. Anjan Chakravartty's SEP article on Realism has a section discussing some of these possibilities.

  • so, in other words, the viewpoint I'm describing (along with others I'm quoting in my comment on the question) is a form of scientific anti-realism? Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 14:18
  • @James Ah. Kind of. I'll update my answer to discuss this.
    – Seamus
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 14:41
  • so the viewpoint I'm discussing is compatible with both empiricism and instrumentalism perhaps leaning more towards the latter? Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 14:55
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    @James I guess so. I wouldn't worry too much about exactly which label is applicable (there'll always be someone who says "well that's not what I call X-ism") but rather on fleshing out the details of your view: how to respond to the "no miracles" intuition, how to explain working scientists' claims about the truth of their theory etc...
    – Seamus
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 14:57
  • @Seamus, "caricatured" could have many meanings... do you mean "simplified"?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 9:00

In le nouvel esprit scientifique (in the introduction), Bachelard writes

"D'ailleurs c'est peut-être dans l'activité scientifique qu'on voit le plus clairement le double sens de l'idéal d'objectivité, la valeur à la fois réelle et sociale de l'objecti-vation. Comme le dit M. Lalande, la science ne vise pas seulement à « l'assimilation des choses entre elles, mais aussi et avant tout à l'assimilation des esprits entre eux » (see here for the rest of the text)

The second part could be very roughly translated as "as M. Lalande said science is about association of things but also and even more association of minds". This idea is clearly shared by Bachelard (Here My question would be who is Lalande ? :) ) and developped in the rest of this introduction to the book.

Additionally, I would say the Wittgenstein from On Certainty goes in the same direction. It is the adequation of the meaning we give to what we observe, with the rest of our system of though, that makes it scientific, rational, (and all this is in line with the answer I gave here).

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