In the last post I gave positive mention to an “instrumentalist rather than realist view of scientific explanation”. I think an instrumental view of science is the natural one from an engineering point of view, which the philosophy of science ought to take very seriously. I actually work as an engineer in my day job, and have a bit of engineering education. Though these days I privately think of myself mainly as a moral philosopher, I truly enjoy engineering for its practical orientation. Engineers learn that the real world doesn’t always conform to theoretical simplifications, and they have to make what are actually value judgments all the time.
Curiously, it seems to me that in spite of our culture’s obsession with technology and all the stereotypes about nutty scientists, engineering as a discipline doesn’t have nearly as much social prestige as science. For the reasons just mentioned, I think engineering deserves the higher status, as the actually more comprehensive concern. Modern science is first and foremost a tool used in engineering. But in our culture’s mythology of science, there is a popular prejudice that engineers — unlike real scientists — just make rote applications of formulae developed by scientists. Meanwhile science students — if I may be forgiven a broad-brush picture — all too often seem to get the message that the latest Science is Truth, and everything else is irrelevant. This can unfortunately make them arrogant and dogmatic in later life. I think engineers on the whole are more attuned to the provisional status of assumptions.
On the historiographical side, I think the over-propagandized scientific revolution was actually more of an engineering revolution. The design of experiments can be considered a kind of engineering, as can the development and use of therapeutic techniques in medicine. The very practical, experiment-oriented work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in its broad parameters at least is a much better model for science in the modern sense than the new mechanist/voluntarist dualist world view promoted by Descartes, or even the empiricism of Locke. In terms of the long time-scale of human development, engineering long predates science, and I think that generally speaking, historical causality flows that way, with engineering driving science rather than following it.
These varied considerations seem to me to jointly favor an “instrumentalist” view in the philosophy of science. This is another example of the mediated or “long detour” type of approach to knowledge that seems most sound to me.
In analytic philosophy in recent decades, there has been a big debate about realism versus anti-realism. Implicitly, this mainly applies to the philosophy of science, but in many circles there are still prejudices that theory of knowledge comes first in philosophy, and that science is the most important kind of knowledge. This can make it seem as if realist or anti-realist positions in the philosophy of science must be applied across the board at a sort of ontological level, but I want to argue against that.
I think that ethical reason and interpretation come before the theory of knowledge in the overall order of explanation relevant to human life, and that normative practical judgment actually grounds what we think of as exact knowledge. From an ethical standpoint, it is vitally important to recognize there is a “push-back” of reality we need to respect and take into account, so I want to argue for a kind of realism. The true home for a respect for realism, I want to say, should be ethics and not the philosophy of science. We can meet all the ethical needs related to concern for objectivity in a way that is entirely compatible with an instrumentalist and “anti-realist” philosophy of science. Meanwhile, a more modest view of science — as a valuable tool rather than a source of ultimate truth — can help heal the false rift between science and values that permeates our culture. Further, if science is a tool and we also say that higher forms of faith are expressed not in propositions but in action and attitude (as I would respectfully suggest), then in the world of what should be, there is no possibility of conflict from either side. (See also Kinds of Reason.)