Realism and Antirealism

A key debate in the philosophy of science (with interesting implications for young-earth creationism).

May 16, 2016 (updated June 06, 2016)Filed under Theology#m. div.#papers#philosophy#science#sebtsMarkdown sourceBibliography

The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Greg Welty's Religion and Science class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.


N.B. This copy of the paper has been lightly revised for grammar, spelling, etc. You can see the full revision history here.


Part I: Argument for Realism

1. Introduction, Definition, Constraints

Because these facts… are so striking, because there was no reason a priori to expect man to be able to achieve such cognitive feats, because no undertaking can guarantee success of this particular sort, we are confronted with a genuine problem: why is science so successful?1

The success of science over the last four hundred years has produced a radical increase in effective prediction of natural phenomena across a wide array of domains. It has also yielded a striking ability to intervene successfully in the natural world in areas as diverse as biology and medicine on the one hand, and particle physics and the development of computing technology on the other. Yet, when scientists speak of electrons, quarks, dark matter, and so on—phenomena not directly accessible to ordinary human experience, but in many cases directly related to this empirical and technological success—it is an open question in philosophy of science whether such entities really exist, or are merely useful ways of solving problems and dealing with data. Scientific realism is the affirmation that the entities postulated by scientific theories actually do exist. This claim does not entail the success of all scientific theories, and is therefore not compromised by the failure and replacement of some scientific theories. Nor does it require that all theories be embraced equally firmly. It simply means the claims and practice of science do really, if only approximately, describe the world. This paper will argue that critical realism is the best explanation for science’s success, and that it correctly characterizes the relationship between scientific models and the world they describe.

2. Reasons for Accepting Realism

a. Analogical Reasoning

One of the most straightforward arguments in favor of scientific realism is the intuition toward realism in general. When a detective examines a murder scene, she tends to assume the hypothesized criminal actually exists. Further analysis may or may not bear out the initial hypothesis about who committed a crime—perhaps it was a psychotic killer escaped from a mental ward, not an acquaintance of the deceased—but her normal faculties reliably point toward real entities in the world. Moreover, the process of analysis generally leads an (honest) investigator toward an increasingly accurate mental picture of the perpetrator. Missteps may occur in the analysis, but are amenable to critical reassessment, so that even when the revision from the original hypothesis is substantial, the trend-line of the mental model is toward increasing accuracy. The basic picture was refined, not destroyed: the victim was not after all killed by a wizard from Alpha Centauri (and even that would be a malicious, person-like agent).

Science, on a realist view, operates similarly. Initial hypotheses may prove to have more or less in common with the real world, and not only may but must be subject to revision, even radical revision along the way. However, theories should be treated realistically, both ontologically (there really is something out there to know) and epistemically (science grants access to reality, albeit in approximate and limited fashion).

The primary argument against this analogy toward scientific realism is the idea of in-principle unobservables.2 The crime scene investigator has direct experience of things like criminals (other human persons, at least) as well as of the evidence itself. No one has direct experience of electrons. More than this, the postulates of quantum mechanics (are taken to) suggest that no one can have such direct experience. Then, the antirealist argues, the scientific claim is at best unknowable: electrons may exist, but scientists have no way of knowing. They may observe a trail in a gas cloud, but whether the thing leaving the trail is really like an electron is unknowable.

Any such attempt to distinguish in principle between observables and unobservables fails.3 First, antirealists use “unobservable” to mean anything not directly observable by human senses. However, declaring such objects in-principle unobservable is question-begging: the point under debate is just whether things detected indirectly are being observed or simply hypothesized. Antirealists must first establish such an in-principle distinction between indirect and direct observation. Realists note that indirect observation is rightly considered reliable in the realm of ordinary experience, and can rationally be extended analogically. It is reasonable to conclude that the wind is blowing from seeing its effects on trees even if sitting inside a closed room (with no direct experience of the wind). This would be so even for a person who had spent his entire life locked up inside and therefore had never had direct experiential access to wind or trees. Indirect observations still count as observations.

b. Whole-Cloth Reasoning

Moreover, human reasoning seems to be “whole cloth.” It is difficult (if not impossible) to find any particular line, even a blurry one, where this kind of inferential reasoning becomes suspect.4 Granted that electrons are quite different from anything of which humans have direct experience, this is not finally telling against reasoning about them. Humans are quite capable of making the requisite fine distinctions required for analogical reasoning to be valid; indeed, scientific models of electrons expressly include both similarities to and sharp discontinuities with human experience.

Second, a realist view rightly makes sense of the way “observability” lies along a spectrum. On one end are those phenomena which can be detected through (normal, healthy) human senses such as hearing or vision. Moving down toward the not-directly-observable spectrum, scientists use telescopes and microscopes to enhance their ability to observe things inaccessible to ordinary human sight because of distance and size respectively. In both cases, however, there is no clear line distinguishing “observable” from “unobservable”—only a spectrum of more- or less-directly-observable phenomena. Insects may be observed with the unaided human eye, bacteria with optical microscopes, individual molecules of materials with electron microscopes. In each case, the same principle is at work in the observation: light bouncing off an object and being received.5

The anti-realist may object: the fact that the distinction between observables and unobservables is blurry does not mean it does not exist. As Samir Okasha notes, the line between “bald” and “hirsute” may be fuzzy (pun intended), but it is still possible to identify a bald man.6 Even granting the in-principle distinction between “observable” and “unobservable,” however, the objection fails to establish the strong claim made by antirealists. It does not establish that the items in question are in fact unobservable (especially when confronted with the realist argument for indirect observation). Nor does it establish that scientists would be in principle incapable of correctly modeling unobservables. At most, it establishes that there may be unobservable phenomena.7

Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that though current models of astronomical behavior, or of quantum mechanics, or gravity, or any other only-indirectly-observable phenomena may be incomplete or partial, they nonetheless represent something actual. There really is an electron leaving a trail in the gas chamber.

c. No Miracles

The substantial success of science in both predicting and providing coherent explanations for empirical phenomena, it seems prima facie strange that the hypotheses in question would have nothing whatsoever to do with reality. It would be a miracle of sorts if a set of theories which do not directly rely on each other would all work effectively, and effectively in conjunction, while not actually saying anything true about the world. These predictions are more than merely theoretically interesting; they have real-world application used every day: “laser technology is based on a theory about what happens when electrons in an atom go from higher to lower energy-states. And lasers work…”8 It seems reasonable that one reason scientific theories have been so successful is that they are approximately accurate, and increasingly so over time (if in fits and sometimes with false starts).9

Many critics think the evidence of change in adoption of given theories, and varying degrees of empirical success over time, is hard evidence against the notion that scientific theories generally do refer in this way. Similarly, some theories once held to be true are now thought to be neither approximately true, nor even subsets of what is true. Larry Laudan, citing a number of changes in this vein, sniffs: “The realist’s claim that we should expect referring theories to be empirically successful is simply false.”10

First, the fact that science is an iterative and approximative process does not tell against the realism asserted. Any given theory may be substantially false. This does not mean all theories are likely not to refer, only that realists must be critical, aware of the possibility of failure, and willing to hold their claims tentatively, especially at first. No scientist with a knowledge of the history of the discipline should think otherwise. Electrons might not exist; but at least for the present, there is good reason to treat them not only as useful but as real. The longer the predictions of the model are (not dis)confirmed by the evidence, the more reason scientists have for holding the conclusion confidently. Likewise, as other theories developed without direct reference provide further corroboration, it is increasingly rational to affirm a theory as true, as well as empirically useful.

Second, even if Laudan’s point is granted, it does not disprove realism. It simply proves naïve realism false—naïve, even. True: empirical success does not guarantee the truthlikeness of a theory, and vice versa. It does not follow that there is no correspondence between the two. Laudan insists that the truthlikeness of a given theory has zero bearing on its empirical fruitfulness, but it is at least possible that it is instead a contributory factor.11

Finally, what about later theories which do not make special cases of the earlier theory? When Laudan, Kuhn, van Fraassen, and others examine e.g. the fluid and aether theories and compare them to the atomic theories now held by most physicists, they note that science has been empirically useful without being true in the past; the same may be true today. However, later views, currently held by realists to be accurate, can often explain the success of the earlier theory even without claiming it as a subset.12 The atomic theory lets scientists explain the appearance of the aether. Newton’s mechanics can be applied to show why Ptolemy’s epicycles worked, even though they were false. The later theory not only has greater empirical success; its explanatory power also includes the now disconfirmed theory—whether as a special case or not. To be sure, the idea that all science proceeds linearly and that every theory is this kind of empirical superset of the former is incorrect.13 Still, the fact that later theories often can do so is further evidence that truthlikeness is a contributory factor in the success of scientific theories.

3. Alternatives to Realism

The two broad categories of antirealism, rational and non-rational, both deny the rationality of believing science truly describes the world.14 Larry Laudan’s instrumentalism, Bas C. van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism, and J. P. Moreland’s eclectic approach are rational antirealisms. They all affirm the rationality of the scientific enterprise and reject conceptual relativism.15 Non-rational antirealisms such as a strong Kuhnian approach deny the rationality of science and affirm conceptual relativism. Each fails as a critique of or alternative to critical realism.

a. Larry Laudan’s Instrumentalism

Instrumentalism takes the effectiveness of science as indicating only its effectiveness in delivering more reliable predictions.16 Philosophers like Larry Laudan reject as both irrelevant and false the idea of “partial truth” or “verisimilitude” as incoherent: in a semantic model, statements are either true or false. This is partly fair: scientists claim their models have a semantic content corresponding approximately to the world. Yet the critique fails to account for the way scientists use the notion of “approximate-ness.” Models may be incomplete, yet yield correct results when the approximation is appropriate. There are thus three important distinctions to be made. The first is between accuracy (how near the actual value a given experiment is) and precision (the repeatability of a measurement). An archer who consistently shoots four inches to the right of the bullseye is precise but not accurate; one who is always within two inches of the target but all around it is accurate, but not precise. The second is between accuracy and the philosophical binary of truth. A scientific model might in the strict sense be “false”—that is, even its predictions are not empirically true, only close to correct, while the model may be more accurate than any previous model. An arrow is either within the bullseye or not, but there is more to scoring an archery contest—and more to evaluating the accuracy of scientific claims.

The third distinction, and the most serious, is between models’ empirical content and their semantic content. A theory might be said to be “more true,” i.e. more accurate, than any predecessor, if it is more consistent with the empirical data or capable of explaining a broader set of such data. However, the semantic claim is more likely to be binary. Either there are electrons, or there are not. If not, there may be nothing very much like electrons at all. Even so, this distinction is less sharp than Laudan supposes. Increasing approximation of reality is possible. Models may have more or less fidelity. A perfectly round globe may strictly be a false representation of the earth, which is slightly squashed due to its spin; but it is nearer correct than a piece of paper or a donut. The earth is much more like a sphere than a plane or a toroid. If reality is more like the Standard Model of quantum mechanics’ description of electrons and quarks than it is like a pre-atomic view of reality, the Standard Model is a better approximation to reality than the pre-atomic view. Voiding the distinction between accuracy and binary truth is simply a category mistake.

Finally Laudan shows how the scientific methodologies developed over the past several hundred years work, but not why—especially in cases quite different from his example of double-blind clinical studies.17 In scenarios where technological control over the environment is at stake, science clearly has an edge on other methods (so his critique of relativism stands).18 It is less clear why drug trials should be amenable to this sort of testing if the human body and drug interactions are not more like the scientific models than the non-scientific models. It was precisely the belief in the accuracy of such models which gave rise to the instrumentally effective methodology! One might posit, then, that realism itself is instrumentally useful in the pursuit of these technological gains. The problem, of course, is that such an epistemic stance is difficult to maintain at best. It is one thing (and not a very controversial one) to say that the scientific method is instrumentally effective. It is another to say that belief in scientific realism is instrumentally effective and false, because no one can sustain a belief they think false.

b. Bas C. van Fraassen and Constructive Empiricism

In Bas C. van Fraassen’s constructive empiricist model, science is (or at least should be) concerned solely with explaining the empirical data available to the human senses. Theories are useful but not true; they “do much besides answer the factual questions about regularities in the observable phenomena which, according to empiricism, are the scientist’s basic topic of concern.”19

At least three major problems confront van Fraassen’s view. One is van Fraassen’s prior commitment to materialist empiricism. He asserts, for example, that criteria such as mathematical elegance, simplicity, scope, completion, unification, and explanatory “provide reasons for using a theory… and cannot rationally guide our epistemic attitudes and decisions.”20 Why? Because he regards human observational powers as the sole grounds of knowledge. As such, he also rejects any critique of the limitations of “sense data” or problems with human perception as “armchair psychology” which can safely be ignored.21 The sole point of interest, for van Fraassen, is explaining those regularities in observable phenomena. As Grover Maxwell comments, though:

Surely the main concerns of, say, a theoretical physicist involve such things as the actual properties and varieties of subatomic particles rather than mere predictions about where and how intense a certain spectral line will be.22

Indeed, even in conducting their ordinary research, theoretical physicists and chemists are concerned with things they think actually exist. However much van Fraassen thinks science should only concern itself with those regularities, realism seems basic to the scientific endeavor as actually practiced.23

The second problem for van Fraassen is closely related to the first: “empirical adequacy” is a necessary but insufficient condition for the acceptance of a scientific theory. Scientists do (and must) embrace those other conditions for accepting theories as true, and rightly so. Nothing about using those criteria to decide between theories is irrational in the least apart from van Fraassen’s prior commitment to empiricism.

Finally, van Fraassen simply reasserts the distinction between observable and unobservable entities. He begins with the idea of in-principle unobservability, but on encountering Maxwell’s argument from technological improvements, he moves the goalposts. He has in mind, he says, the limitations of human beings “qua human beings;” technological aids actual or imaginable are irrelevant.24 As shown above, though, the lack of any such clear distinction is the major problem for the antirealist interested in maintaining this distinction.

c. Moreland’s Selective Antirealism

J. P. Moreland suggests an alternative from within a Christian epistemology and ontology. He fully grants a generally realist epistemology and affirms a correspondence view of truth. However, he also approves a cautiously eclectic approach to scientific realism.25 He offers two major criteria for adopting antirealist stances. The first is “in those cases where the phenomena described by that theory lie outside the appropriate domain of science, or the scientific aspect of some phenomenon is inappropriately taken to be the whole phenomenon itself.”26 For example: scientific explanations of mind currently tend toward reductive physicalism. But if there are good reasons to suspect that the mind is not reducible to the brain (say: the whole history of dualist arguments), any scientific theory which purports to explain mind solely in terms of material function should be treated antirealistically—as instrumentally useful, but not true. But a critically realist claim about physical-mental state correlation does not entail physicalism. Rather, the physicalist claim is not scientific but philosophical. This should certain chasten the materialists, but it is not proof against realism—not generally, and not even in the case of this specific theory. It is proof only against unwarranted extension from the claim.

Moreland also argues that “an antirealist stances should be taken toward some scientific theory in those cases where a realist view conflicts with a rationally well-established conceptual problem for that theory but an antirealist view does not.”27 He suggests that the logically problematic claims of some interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest a non-realist interpretation: “the indeterminacy in nature is due to the uncertainty of our knowledge of nature or our inability to measure nature and is not a feature of nature itself.”28 Similarly, if there are good philosophical reasons for rejecting infinite regress, one should be confident rejecting even an instrumentally-useful cosmological model of an infinite universe.

In these latter examples, however, as well as in the further criteria he briefly mentions,29 Moreland lumps together two distinct phenomena under the same label of “anti-realism.” One is an in-principle denial that certain kinds of data are available to us; the other a denial that a specific model comports with reality. One might think that all theories about electrons are permanently subject to antirealist critiques and that we can have no true knowledge of such allegedly unobservable entities. This is quite different from thinking that a given cosmological model is wrong. Both entail prior commitments, and the warrant in both cases arises outside science. They are nonetheless different kinds of claims: one about what is knowable, and one about what actually is. Even if Moreland’s criteria were granted, this is very different from van Fraassen’s empiricism or Laudan’s instrumentalism. Rejecting a given theory is quite different from rejecting the possibility of a theory being true.

d. Non-Rational Antirealism

The strongest form of Thomas Kuhn’s description of scientific history emphasizes that the theories on either side of a scientific revolution are totally incommensurable, actually operating in “different worlds.”30 The shift away from Aristotelian is one where Galileo saw differently than he had before.31 Kuhn’s protests that he understands the problem with the phrase notwithstanding, he regularly reverts to the idea that scientists before and after revolutions lived in different worlds.32 This cannot be right: even if the theories are distinct in important ways, and even if are not totally commensurable, there are certainly data on which they can agree. Even if what the planets were seen as shifted between the Ptolemaic and the Keplerian eras, the basic observational data were agreeable to both, for example. Likewise, though mass has different semantic content in the Newtonian and Einsteinian conceptions, both agree on many of the empirical values—including problematic measurements which prompted to the transition between them.

Taken as a chastening of overconfident or naïve realism Kuhn’s historical critique is to be appreciated. His view of scientific revolutions leads him (or at least many of his readers) further, though—to conclude that observation is so theory-laden that, though the objective world is “out there” to describe, humans have no true access to it. The data itself is always subject to the flux of another revolution. Such a view, whatever its attractions, is first of all suspect simply on the reality that scientific approaches have accomplished goals (like predicting and controlling floods) which cut across scientific and non-scientific cultures.33 Second, any such non-rational antirealism stands clearly opposed to the Biblical idea that truth is knowable and that both moral and empirical data may be true or not—that the final standard is not human knowledge but the God-created reality outside the human knower. Third, such a view is self-defeating, as it claims objective knowledge about scientific theories while purporting that no such objective knowledge is possible.34

4. Conclusion: The Best Option

Scientific realism, then, is the best option. It has its limitations, and specific theories may well not be finally accurate descriptions of reality. Phlogiston, after all, is not real; it may turn out that quarks are not either. But neither radical skepticism nor even hard agnosticism are therefore warranted. Rather, a critical realism which acknowledges the limitations and possibility for inaccuracy in any given model is far more appropriate. This model best accounts for both science’s instrumental effectiveness as a standalone discipline and its applicability to other disciplines. It best makes sense of the philosophical issues around epistemology and ontology. It best explains how scientific theories advance over time, not necessarily linearly but such that later models to tend to be capable of treating earlier models either as special cases or as comprehensible misunderstandings. Not least, it best comports with the Biblical view of truth and knowledge.

Part II: Excursus—Realism and Creationism

Antirealism holds an undeniable appeal to many young-earth creationists. If science is meaningful only in a pragmatic sense, then the creationist may happily accept the utility of science for technological innovation, while still rejecting scientific claims about the age of the earth and common descent of living organisms without any serious conflict. As Moreland comments, “After all, if one does not assume that evolutionary theory is approximately true or objectively rational, then why bother to argue against it or to integrate Christian theological claims about the history of life with evolutionary theory?”35 The more traditional (and admittedly more straightforward) reading of the Genesis narrative may be maintained, and the propositions of secular science safely sidelined as merely useful models which say nothing about the actual world. More, the off-putting claim often associated with scientific realism, “that science or the scientific method represents the only (or, more weakly, the most) effective instrument for discovering truths about the world”36 may be safely rejected.

This excursus aims to show that, whatever the appeals of an antirealist stance for young-earth creationism, such a view is deeply mistaken. First, as seen above in Part I, there are good reasons to embrace realism in general, and to reject the major alternatives on offer. Second, even if one embraces an eclectic stance, a la J. P. Moreland, the relevant criteria do not apply to the creation-science debate specifically. Third, in order for the antirealist objection to prove useful in the creation-science debate, it must go far beyond those criteria anyway—it must treat nearly all modern science antirealistically. It smuggles in a radical skepticism not especially congenial to Christian thought. It proves too much.

1. The Argument Applied

The constructive empiricist program has severe problems for the Christian. As van Fraassen freely admits in the introduction to “The Scientific Image”:

By empiricism I mean the philosophical position that experience is our source of information about the world, and our only source.37

The motivation for a constructive empiricist view of science, then, is expressly the defense of empiricism. But empiricism as a worldview is antithetical to Christianity. Grover Maxwell searingly points out the underlying philosophical commitment: “the conviction that there are very few ontologically legitimate kinds of entities, perhaps only one.”38 Empiricism as an all-encompassing gestalt must be distinguished from the employment of empirical methods within other paradigms, of course: the Christian believes that the God-given senses are broadly trustworthy as a means of acquiring knowledge. However, Christians do (and must) affirm that non-empirical sources of data provide real warrant for belief: particularly divine revelation. Constructive empiricism is plainly antithetical to Christian theism—and certainly no friend to a claim about the age of the earth driven entirely by special revelatory considerations!

Thus, the two kinds of anti-realism regularly embraced by young-earth creationists are instrumentalism and J. P. Moreland’s eclectic antirealism. Instrumentalism is at least at first blush much more appealing an option for Christians than empiricism. It allows the believer to affirm that science produces enormously helpful insights for technological advancement and control of the world.39 Beyond the basic critiques of instrumentalism noted in Part I, however, there are further problems for the young-earth creationist considering instrumentalism as an “out.”

For example, one might reject scientific approaches for measuring the age of fossils or the earth itself. Current isotope decay rates explain some observations, and are technologically applicable to e.g. managing nuclear reactors—but they are merely useful, not true. As such, they are certainly not applicable to the past. Therefore, any claims about their past behavior should thereby be ruled out of bounds. Granted that the past is strictly inaccessible to scientists, this should still give the young-earth antirealist some pause. Dating a manuscript or a particular piece of pottery is not terribly dissimilar to dating a fossil. Taking this stance equally rules out much of the archaeological support mustered for the antiquity of the Bible. For that matter, how can one know that paper did not transmute words in the past? Claiming that documents changed their meaning would seem patently silly, but there is no more and no less evidence for it than that isotope decay rates have changed. Historical investigation of any sort, but especially archaeology, depends on the accessibility of the past much as geology does. It is not at all clear that reasoning about the earth suddenly becomes out of bounds at some arbitrary point far enough back in the past, or that radiometric isotopes should be assumed to be reliable up to a given point but no further.

Worse, while astronomy and geology seem at least partly to follows Laudan’s model of problem-solving—the practice of the disciplines results in more empirically-adequate explanations over time40—his pragmatic approach asserts that science never approaches the truth whatsoever. Science solves empirical problems and helps humans accomplish certain technical tasks, but it reveals nothing of the world itself. Like van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism, it is thus contrary to the biblical view of the world.

2. Moreland’s Criteria

Notably, many young-earth creationists such as Ken Ham take an explicitly realist stance toward science overall, arguing for something like the eclectic realism of J. P. Moreland, rather than a true instrumentalism or empiricism. This makes sense: it seems that one or more of J. P. Moreland’s criteria for eclectic antirealism might give warrant for taking an antirealist stance toward some of the relevant theories. However, even if Moreland is right that “We should not automatically assume that if science and theology conflict… the scientific theory should be read in realist terms and attacked accordingly,”41 there remain two major problems with applying Moreland’s criteria in this way.

First, even if Moreland’s criteria for skepticism are valid, they are not applicable to the majority of the data under consideration in creationist arguments about e.g. the age of the earth. His first criterion certainly does not apply: the investigation of questions like the age of the earth or the life-cycle of stars or even the relationship between various kinds of life on earth all seem to be well within the legitimate territory of scientific explanation. His second criterion, having “a rationally well-established conceptual problem for that theory [which] an antirealist view does not,”42 seems more applicable. Surely a well-established history of young-earth exegesis counts as a “rationally well-established conceptual problem”? Indeed, this is the strongest argument in favor Moreland’s eclectic empiricism applied to the issue. But of course, interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis have varied widely throughout the history of the church. This suggests at the least that the problem is less well-established that its proponents might think or hope. Moreover, it is relatively straightforward to propose readings of the creation narratives which accord with both the rest of Scripture and with science—far more straightforward than to propose entirely new, mutually compatible systems of physics, geology, biology, etc. The shoe seems to be on the other foot.

What about Moreland’s other suggested criteria?43 Most of the fields are not especially young.44 Few of them (especially the cornerstone fields of astronomy, geology, and particle physics) have experienced a large proportion of theory replacement over refinement of existing theories. None of the fields are in a period of Kuhnian crisis. One stronger contender is that “non rational, sociological factors account for much of the theory’s acceptance by the scientific community.”45 This certainly looks to be the case in some ways, and it is fair to critique the scientific community on those terms. However, the same could equally be said of the young-earth creationist stance itself: it has at times been difficult even to get a job in conservative evangelical institutions while denying young-earth creationism.46 Moreover, although the critique stands for some of the fields, it is certainly not applicable to all of them; there is no particular sociological pressure on findings about isotope decay rates relevant to the discussion, for example. Finally, one might claim of evolutionary biology that “the main virtue… is its empirical adequacy, and its more metaphysical, theoretical aspects can be understood as unnecessary, excess baggage”47—but again, the same can hardly be said of isotope decay or stellar life-cycle theories, neither of which has particularly strong metaphysical implications here!

The second, related problem—conflating two distinct phenomena into a single label of “antirealism”—was noted above but warrants further discussion.48 Again: one (strict instrumentalism or van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism) is an in-principle denial that certain kinds of data are available to us; the other a denial that a specific model is correct. So for example, one might think that all theories about electrons are permanently subject to antirealist critiques and that we can have no true knowledge of such allegedly unobservable entities; we can never know whether our theories about these things are in fact true. Regardless of whether this claim is correct, it is quite different from thinking that a given cosmological model is wrong, while another one is correct (and demonstrably so if certain key assumptions were to be revisited). Both of these entail prior philosophical commitments, and in both cases the warrant for critiquing the realist claim arises outside of science itself, e.g. from a commitment to empiricism, or from a specific reading of Scripture. But they are nonetheless different kinds of claims: one about what is knowable, and one about what actually is the case.

One can of course imagine an antirealist critique of the former sort being levied against some cosmological model or another, but this is not what young-earth creationists who adopt an antirealist stance toward cosmology (Moreland included) seem to be proposing. Moreover, precisely because these are different kinds of claims, the kinds of warrant for skepticism that are in play for scientific knowledge about electrons or quarks are quite different both in principle and practice from the relevant factors for cosmology, geology, and so on.

Taking an anti-realist stance toward these phenomena, then, requires a radical degree of skepticism—more radical than Moreland’s criteria warrant, and as it turns out with rather sharp consequences for other domains.

3. Severe and Undesirable Consequences

It is not sufficient to grant a certain suspicion about unobserved or indirectly observed phenomena.49 Rather, the would-be creationist antirealist must commit to rejecting the realist validity of some or all the claims of: nuclear physics, geology, and paleontology (with serious repercussions to archaeology); general relativity; evolutionary biology; and observational astronomy (with direct application to cosmology). The consequences are no less devastating for the Christian worldview than for the physicalist,50 albeit for different reasons.

First of all, the no-miracles argument applies not only to the question of realism in general but also to the age of the earth and universe specifically. It is profoundly unlikely that one could derive an empirically adequate scientific model of something like fundamental particles without any correspondence to reality. It is at least as unlikely that findings from a variety of unrelated fields should all agree, while also all being totally wrong. Though some young-earth creationists chalk up this outcome to conspiratorial forces in the sciences (so Henry Morris) or to the presuppositions held by non-Christian scientists (so many disciples of Van Til), the claim both strains credulity and also—more to the point—is simply inaccurate both historically and in the present. The history of scientific estimates of the age of the earth is particularly illuminating; committed Christian Lord Kelvin’s early and foundational work already pointed to an age in the millions of years at a minimum. Likewise, many working Christian scientists today find the evidence for the antiquity of the earth and the universe quite reasonable, and they would be neither member of a Morrisian conspiracy nor, as regenerate believers, subject to precisely the same Van Tillian noetic defects as their non-Christian colleagues.

Independent lines of evidence for the antiquity of the universe and the earth include: astronomical observation and theories of star formation; cosmological development models and the prediction and discovery of the Big Bang background radiation in line with those models; geological and paleontological observations and associated data from decay rates which derive from fundamental physics. Many of these lines of data arose independently but have since been found to confirm one another. For example, isotopic decay rates are both predicted by particle physics and well-verified, and provide an independent line of evidence for the age of the earth in line with the ways of estimating that age: from patterns of stratification, to tree ring samples, to similar measurements of the age of other objects in the solar system. Models built up from the plate-tectonic theory of geology corroborates paleontological evidence of geographic colocation of certain species in the past. Radiometric dating of the age of the earth also accords with analyses of the age of the universe based on current models of star life-cycles and the formation of heavy elements, which in turn accord with models of cosmological development. These astronomical observations and analyses depend on both general and special relativity as well. Moreover, the evidence for these individual claims appears quite defensible to many confessing evangelical Christians. That all these independent lines of evidence, leaning on nearly every major area of physics, earth science, and biology should coincide at all—much less so neatly—while being entirely false is just the kind of miracle subject to the critique levied above.

Moreover, this kind of strong antirealism leads to a radical skepticism that seems very out of keeping with Scriptural teaching on the role of nature. Surely passages such as Psalm 19 and Romans 1 indicate clearly that the world has a kind of revelatory content, which points to the nature of the one who created it. But imagine the young-earth creationist adopts an antirealist stance toward astronomical observation as a way of rejecting the apparent age of the universe. This requires asserting all of the following: No star has gone supernova before the last 10,000 years, and thus the heavy elements were all created “in situ” and are not, as currently believed, the product of supernovae. Indeed, any kind of apparent stellar life-cycle is an illusion (or at least: has never actually been experienced by any star). The evidence of background radiation is merely coincidence, and is in fact unrelated to the apparent expansion of the universe indicated by the red-shift of stars further from the earth. The apparent expansion of the universe is just that: apparent only; it has only ever been fractionally different than it is. Whatever the apparent evidence, the light seen is not in fact from the stars apparently observed: given the apparent distance to most stars, and the best models of how stars work, many of the stars in the night sky would have ceased to be visible, whether by exploding into supernovae or by burning down to white dwarfs, long before they were actually created. In other words, there is literally nothing true revealed by observing the stars—not even the brute fact of their existence.

Much the same could be said for the other sciences. The earth shows apparent geological history including incredible catastrophes—ice ages, impacts from meteors, and so on—which in point of fact never happened. This is far more radical than instrumentalism, and stronger even than van Fraassen’s empiricism. It even goes beyond the kinds of claims advanced by the conceptual relativists. There is no possible evidence which could countervail against it. It is sheer fideism.

4. Conclusion

Antirealism, particularly of the instrumental or eclectic varieties, may seem appealing to Christians troubled by the claims advanced by modern science. Whether the concern is with a kind of materialist “scientism” which strongly asserts a monadic view of human consciousness, or the apparent contradictions between Scripture and claims about the age of the universe, treating science as useful but not necessarily true seems a helpful escape-hatch. However, adopting such a stance brings along so many other, and such severe, problems that whatever gains appears in this area seem not to be worth the cost—especially if there are other means of reconciling a realist view of science with Scripture’s teaching. Note that this does not mean that young-earth creationism is wrong. There may be other good reasons, including scientific reasons, to think that the earth is young.51 Programs of research oriented this direction may be fully realist while not affirming the veracity of any particular model. The distinction between principled antirealism and the rejection of a given theory is helpful and important.

Scientists at times maintain their views in the face of contrary evidence, or because of presuppositions they refuse to relinquish. But so may exegetes. If there is good reason to be a realist about science generally (and there is), and seemingly good evidence for the age of the earth (and there is), it behooves Christians at the least to hold their young-earth views tentatively. The strength of the claim that the earth is young, given all the evidence, warrants some humility.

Bibliography

Diéguez-Lucena, Antonio. “Why Does Laudan’s Confutation of Convergent Realism Fail?” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 37, no. 2 (2006): 393–403.

Fraassen, Bas C. van. The Scientific Image. Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy. OUP Premium, 1980.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 50th Anniversary Edition. 1962. Reprint, The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Laudan, Larry. “A Confutation of Convergent Realism.” Philosophy of Science 48, no. 1 (March 1981): 19–49.

———. “Explaining the Success of Science: Beyond Epistemic Realism and Relativism.” In Science and Reality: Recent Work in the Philosophy of Science, edited by J. T. Cushing, C. F. Delaney, and G. Gutting, 83–105. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

Maxwell, Grover. “The Ontological Status of Theoretical Entities.” In Scientific Explanation, Space & Time, edited by Herbert Feigl and Grover Maxwell, III:3–27. Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science. University of Minnesota Press, 1962.

Moreland, J. P. Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989.

Okasha, Samir. Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Putnam, Hilary. “Mathematics, Matter and Method,” Second edition., 1:60–78. Philosophical Papers. Cambridge University Press, 1979.

———. “Three Kinds of Scientific Realism.” Philosophical Quarterly 32, no. 128 (1982): 195–200.

Rosenberg, Alex. Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction. Edited by Paul K. Moser. Third edition. Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy. 2000. Reprint, New York: Routledge, 2012.

Torrance, Thomas F. Reality and Scientific Theology. Edited by T. F. Torrance. Theology and Science at the Frontiers of Knowledge. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985.


  1. Larry Laudan, “Explaining the Success of Science: Beyond Epistemic Realism and Relativism,” in Science and Reality: Recent Work in the Philosophy of Science, ed. J. T. Cushing, C. F. Delaney, and G. Gutting (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 89.

  2. See also the discussion of Bas C. van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism below.

  3. The following material is adapted from a short essay written for Dr. Welty’s PHI7650 midterm.

  4. The general problem of induction is left aside and the basic validity of inductive reasoning is assumed for the sake of argument; this is obviously contentious in its own right, and orthogonal to this issue. Perhaps all inferential reasoning is suspect, but if so that tells against empirical and instrumental accounts of science as well.

  5. Grover Maxwell, “The Ontological Status of Theoretical Entities,” in Scientific Explanation, Space & Time, ed. Herbert Feigl and Grover Maxwell, vol. III, Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science (University of Minnesota Press, 1962), 4–11.

  6. Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 69–70.

  7. Ibid., 70.

  8. Ibid.

  9. So Hilary Putnam, “Mathematics, Matter and Method,” Second edition, vol. 1, Philosophical Papers (Cambridge University Press, 1979), 72–73; and contra Bas C. van Fraassen, The Scientific Image, Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy (OUP Premium, 1980), 39.

  10. Larry Laudan, “A Confutation of Convergent Realism,” Philosophy of Science 48, no. 1 (March 1981): 24.

  11. See the discussion and analysis in pp. 398–399 of Antonio Diéguez-Lucena, “Why Does Laudan’s Confutation of Convergent Realism Fail?” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 37, no. 2 (2006): 393–403.

  12. Cf. Hilary Putnam, “Three Kinds of Scientific Realism,” Philosophical Quarterly 32, no. 128 (1982): 197–99.

  13. Kuhn’s discussion of Galileo’s measurements vs. those conducted today is enlightening (see Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 50th Anniversary Edition (1962; repr., The University of Chicago Press, 2012) 119ff). Note, however, that though Galileo’s measurements are not reproducible today, reasons may readily be adduced for the measurements he took from within the context of later theories—the accuracy of the measuring apparatus available to him, for example. Kuhn’s objection is weaker than he thinks.

  14. Categorization from J. P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989) 140–141. For a more detailed discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of these views, see ibid., ch. 5, though he is perhaps overly sympathetic to antirealist critiques (especially of theoretical physics), on which see below.

  15. Ibid., 194.

  16. Laudan, “Explaining the Success of Science,” 91.

  17. Ibid., 98–100.

  18. Cf. Fraassen, The Scientific Image, 40.

  19. Ibid., 70.

  20. Ibid., 87.

  21. Ibid., 72.

  22. “The Ontological Status of Theoretical Entities,” 19–20.

  23. On the idea of embracing realism instrumentally, see above in §2a, and cf. Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction, ed. Paul K. Moser, Third edition, Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy (2000; repr., New York: Routledge, 2012) 211-214.

  24. Fraassen, The Scientific Image, 18.

  25. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science, 193–41.

  26. Ibid., 206.

  27. Ibid., 210.

  28. Ibid., 210.

  29. ibid., 211; and see discussion in Part II below.

  30. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 111.

  31. ibid., 119; see pp. 118–124 on this transition specifically and ch. 10 on paradigm-shifts more generally.

  32. E.g. his discussion of chemistry in ibid., 133.

  33. Laudan, “Explaining the Success of Science,” 94–95.

  34. So, rightly, Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science, 201–2.

  35. Ibid., 142.

  36. Laudan, “Explaining the Success of Science,” 85.

  37. Fraassen, The Scientific Image, 8, emphasis mine.

  38. Maxwell, “The Ontological Status of Theoretical Entities,” 27.

  39. In this author’s experience, instrumentalism is far more common among Christians trained in engineering than to those trained in the sciences—perhaps (and this is merely speculation) because the engineering disciplines already instrumentalize science. Cf. Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology, ed. T. F. Torrance, Theology and Science at the Frontiers of Knowledge (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985) 22.

  40. Cf. Laudan, “Explaining the Success of Science.” Interestingly, Laudan’s view comports in this area with van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism.

  41. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science, 211.

  42. Ibid., 210.

  43. Ibid., 211.

  44. To be sure, there are related fields which are quite young and, in this author’s view, quite suspect, e.g. evolutionary psychology. But the field’s findings are irrelevant to the age of the earth, and thus to the question at hand.

  45. Ibid., 211.

  46. Nor is this limited to creationism; for much of the last century, many evangelical institutions demanded fealty to dispensationalism!

  47. Ibid., 211.

  48. Cf. ibid., 206–11.

  49. a la ibid., 210–211.

  50. See Part I § 2a and 2b above.

  51. This author tends to think the earth is as old as it appears, and that young-earth views hinge on hermeneutical and philosophical commitments which are unnecessary and incorrect—but this is beside the point.