Michela Massimi: Scientific evidence and a plurality of perspectives

Professor Michela Massimi’s inaugural lecture, recorded at the University of Edinburgh, 24th May 2017.

Abstract: For very long time, the search for truth and objectivity has been regarded as one of the central goals of scientific inquiry. The philosophical view that goes under the name of “scientific realism” takes truth and objectivity as the defining features of theories in mature science. Yet the association of truth with objectivity (i.e. one true objective account of nature) has proved problematic. For it is at odds with scientific practice where a plurality of scientific perspectives on the same object under investigation can often be found. For example, when it comes to scientific models in the physical sciences, the widespread use of seemingly incompatible or even inconsistent models for the same target system has seemed to challenge the very possibility of attaining one true objective account of nature. Should realism about science be abandoned in these situations? Or, should pluralism instead be curbed? I argue that neither is a promising way forward. Instead, it is the task of philosophers of science to re-think both realism and pluralism in science so that the search for truth can be made compatible with a plurality of perspectives. The outcome is a new kind of realism within the bounds of our scientific perspectives (what I call perspectival realism). And, just to mention one example, perspectival realism turns out to be best placed to explain the nature of contemporary high-energy physics searches. This philosophical exercise is also designed to show what good philosophy of science can be for understanding scientific practice. Narratives about realism and pluralism in scientific inquiry are too important to either be left untold; or, worse, to be left up for personal or lobbies’ opinions in the sphere of public discourse and policy-making.