Chakravartty: Week 1

Chakravartty (2017, Ch. 1, 2018)

Chakravartty pitches voluntarism as a response to the scientific realism debates. In particular, he sees voluntaristism as an explanation (and potential escape) from the seeming intractability of the scientific realism debates.

Background: The Scientific Realism Debates

Chakravartty offers voluntarism as a framework for diagnosing the seeming intractability of debates about scientific realism. In the philosophy of science, scientific realism is understood as a doctrine consisting of three claims:

  1. A metaphysical/ontological claim: The physical world exists independently of our minds.
  2. A semantic claim: Scientific theories should be interpreted literally, not as “secretly” being only about observable reality.
  3. An epistemological claim: Our best scientific theories provide approximately true descriptions of both observable and unobservable reality.

Antirealists deny at least one of these claims. Chakravartty focuses on those antirealists who deny either the semantic or epistemological claim. Critics of the semantic claim include deflationary views which “recast the study of what things exist, and what they are like, in terms of something else” (2017, 9), and instrumentalists, i.e., empiricists who “hold that scientific descriptions of unobservable things… are meaningless, strictly speaking” (2017, 17).

Most of the debate in the last fifty years or so concerns the epistemological thesis. Chakravartty focuses on constructive empiricism, which is typically taken to deny only the epistemological thesis. Specifically, constructive empiricists hold that our best scientific theories only provide approximately true descriptions of observable reality but are not (or at least need not be) accurate with respect to unobservable reality.

            The most prominent argument for the epistemological thesis is what is called the No Miracles Argument:

NM1. Science is empirically successful.

NM2.  The best explanation of science’s empirical success is that its best scientific theories provide approximately true descriptions of unobservable reality.

NM3.  For all x and y, if x best explains y and y is true, then (probably) x is also true.

SR.     So (probably) our best scientific theories provide approximately true descriptions of both observable and unobservable reality, i.e., the realist’s epistemological claim is true.

The most prominent argument against the epistemological thesis is what is called the Pessimistic Induction:

PI1.    Our best scientific theories in the past have turned out not to provide approximately true descriptions of unobservable reality.

not-SR.   So (probably) our best scientific theories in the present do not provide approximately true descriptions of both observable and unobservable reality, i.e., the realist’s epistemological claim is false.

Evaluate the No Miracles Argument and the Pessimistic Induction. Which premises do you accept and which do you reject?

Scientific Realism Debates’ Inevitability

One might think that scientific realism debates are misguided. After all, what better guide can we have to knowing whether our scientific theories provide accurate descriptions of the world than from science itself? Chakravartty (2017, 31) argues that “scientific ontology is underdetermined by the sciences and case studies thereof.” Reviewing three prominent kinds of scientific realism—explanationist, entity, and structural—he shows that while attention to scientific practice is necessary for adjudicating between different philosophical positions, it is not sufficient. In each of these cases, further philosophical argumentation about historical interpretation (for all three realist positions), language (in the case of entity realism), and structure (in the case of structural realism) is needed.

Do only realist positions face these problems? Chakravartty does not say much on this front.

Scientific Realism Debates’ Intractability

So, it appears that philosophical issues cannot be avoided. Why think these debates are intractable or irresolvable? After all, many philosophical debates are “perennial.” Chakravartty (2018) offers three reasons for this intractability (2018, 226). First, in addition to the “ground-level” disagreement—between, say, the realist’s epistemological claim and its empiricist counterpart—there are also differences in meta-philosophical commitments or “epistemic stances.” Second, these stances “concern how these ground-level positions, realism and antirealism, are formulated as views about scientific knowledge and how they are evaluated.” Third, whether realism or antirealism is correct is decidable only after one has adopted a particular stance. So, the debate bottoms out in these meta-philosophical differences in stances. If this is correct, then arguments such as the No Miracles Argument and Pessimistic Induction cannot possibly resolve the debate, since they aren’t resolving the different stances that are the true drivers of the debate.

Epistemic Stances

So, what exactly are stances? After reviewing some options, Chakravartty settles on the idea that stances are “epistemic policies… regarding which principles and methodologies are appropriate or inappropriate to producing knowledge” (227). Thus, epistemic stances bear directly on the debate about realism’s epistemological thesis.

            Chakravartty (2018, 229) considers three stances: the metaphysical, empiricist, and deflationary stances. For purposes of illustration, let’s consider the first:

The Metaphysical Stance:

M1      Accept demands for explanation in terms of things underlying the unobservable.

M2      Attempt to answer these demands by theorizing about the unobservable.

It is clear why realists, many of whom adopt the metaphysical stance, are drawn to the No Miracles Argument: that argument presupposes M1 and M2. By contrast, neither empiricists nor deflationists share the metaphysical stance’s epistemic policy regarding demands for explanation, so we can now see why they are unmoved by the No Miracles Argument.

            Furthermore, as M1 and M2 illustrate, epistemic policies are not descriptions that can be true or false. Rather, they are imperatives. This goes some way to accounting for the realism debates’ intractability. It is not altogether clear how one argues that one of these imperatives is better than another without begging the question. Following van Fraassen (2002), Chakravartty identifies two criteria of assessment. First, stances should not admit of “self-sabotage by one’s own lights,” meaning that an epistemic policy should not undermine the achievement of the very epistemic aims one seeks to fulfill. This is how van Fraassen and Chakravartty conceive of rationality. Second, one’s stance should reflect what one values epistemically.

Both of these aspects of stances are permissive, meaning that they allow for a multiplicity of rational stances. For instance, the metaphysical stance reflects a commitment to the rationality or epistemic value of accepting certain kinds of explanation, while the empiricist stance does not. Yet, both of these two stances are immune to self-sabotage and reflect their proponents’ core epistemic values, so both realists and empiricist stances seem legitimate.

As Chakravartty notes, some people find these constraints on stances to be too permissive. What do you think?


To be a voluntarist about x is to claim that x can be freely chosen. In epistemology, the controversial doctrine is voluntarism about beliefs. In short, many (if not all) of our beliefs do not seem to be things that we can directly control. (Think, for example, of your beliefs about what you see.) However, voluntarism about stances seems more plausible.

            Chakravartty then notes that one can rationally choose a stance by: (i) surveying the range of stances that are rational, i.e., non-self-sabotaging and (ii) adopting the stance that best accords with one’s epistemic values. From this he notes, “minimally, one can say that a good choice of stance is one that incorporates these two aspects, a negligent choice is one that neglects one or both, and a poor choice is one that for reasons of mistaken assessment or negligence results in the adoption of a stance that fails to pass the test of rationality or value matching” (2018, 234).

Is it really necessary for stances to be voluntarily chosen, or is it enough that different stances are permissible? What’s gained by the voluntaristic move?

Chakravartty, Anjan. 2017. Scientific ontology : integrating naturalized metaphysics and voluntarist epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chakravartty, Anjan. 2018. “Realism, Antirealism, Epistemic Stances, and Voluntarism.” In The Routledge Handbook of Scientific Realism, edited by Juha Saatsi, 225-236. Routledge.

van Fraassen, Bas C. 2002. The empirical stance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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