Scientific realism conference tackles the ‘Big Question’

INDIANAPOLIS — Scientific realism is roughly the view that the world exists as science describes it. But there is a historical challenge to that view: the fact that many successful theories have been rejected in favor of new theories.

Timothy Lyons, Department of Philosophy chair and associate professor of philosophy of science in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, said the historical challenge involves what he calls the Big Question: Does predictive success mean that scientific theories are true?

This question will drive an upcoming conference, "The History of Science and Contemporary Scientific Realism," taking place Feb. 19 to 21 at the IUPUI Campus Center. The conference will include 30 scholars from 10 countries discussing the history — and philosophical implications of that history — of topics ranging from genetics to geology, fundamental physics to medicine, chemistry and biology.

Beyond the fact that "the history of science is fascinating," Lyons suggests that attendees can gain valuable insight on at least two matters:

"The first is the intrinsically interesting Big Question," he said. "People watch 'Cosmos,' hear about DNA evidence [and] watch movies meant to be based on scientific theories. A huge portion of our contemporary worldview comes from science. Are its theories true? A desired outcome of the conference is a better understanding of the answers to the Big Question."

Lyons also hopes that recognizing the success of discarded theories would encourage scientists to question what is treated as fact today. Scientists themselves are too busy studying nature to study the history of science, he said, and are likely unaware of past predictive successes and the way in which false parts of theories contributed to those successes.

"There is much to be uncovered in the history of science," said Lyons, "and if we gather evidence about which parts of successful scientific theories have been retained, and which parts have not, such evidence could inform today's scientists in their own theorizing."

The conference is funded by a three-year grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, located in the United Kingdom. Lyons and his research partner, Peter Vickers, a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Durham University (United Kingdom), were awarded the grant for their project titled "Contemporary Scientific Realism and the Challenge from the History of Science."

As for his personal position, Lyons said, "If I'm advocating anything, it's that, in the quest for truth — or even in the quest only for further successful predictions — the history of science suggests we should not sit complacent with what is accepted today. In fact, we may well find good precedent in the history of science for creatively challenging even the most fundamental components of our best theories, despite their predictive success."

Registration is $35 before Feb. 15 and $45 after Feb. 15. Space is limited. For more information, please contact Mary Lee Cox.


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