Sunday, November 05, 2006

Structural Realism and the Problem of Interpretation

Worrall’s particular flavor of structural realism (SR henceforth) seems to point to two possibilities for structural continuity: continuity concerning strict mathematical formalism or continuity concerning structural elements (of reality) that goes significantly beyond mere formalistic conservatism. My problem is this: if the claim of SR is simply that the formalism of physical mathematics is conserved between previous theories and subsequent theories, then: (1) it seems very difficult to counter the critique that this continuity is based on merely pragmatic values, and; (2) there is nothing particularly ‘realist’ about the assertion that equations, formulas, etc, are historically conserved between theories apart from interpretation. So, at least it seem to me, that Worrall was after the more significant interpretation of SR; namely, that the mathematical formalism has ‘latched’ on to quantifiable relations between elements existing in reality and that it is these relations, instantiated by the formalism, that is conserved between theories as opposed to simply the formalist structure of mathematical physics.
But at this point another problem arises for me: mathematics uninterpreted is nothing more than syntactic manipulations of symbols expressing abstract concepts that cannot legitimately be said to be about anything. So it seems that mathematical physics, insofar as the field presupposes that these syntactic manipulations can even successfully capture/represent the relations physics quantifies, is burdening mathematics with an ontology that goes beyond that which is contained within mathematics as an independent enterprise. So, again, it would seem that any attempt to apply mathematics to any given field is going to require superfluous (from the perspective of math) ontological commitments that then stand in need of interpretation (interpretation that cannot be said to be strictly mathematical). And this is where I see Worrall’s problems begin to mount, especially in light of Psillos’ critiques concerning the interpretation of the application of a strictly formal system.
Essentially, so I read Psillos, either the formalism is conserved and SR says nothing interesting about realism, or, the formalism is burdened with extraneous ontological commitments that necessarily stand in need of interpretation, in which case it is not strictly the formalism that is being conserved but implicit theoretical assumptions, background theories, etc., that are snuck in under the radar, as it were, coasting in on the claim that it is just the formalism that is conserved.
I am positive that I am missing some possible interpretations/counterarguments here and I hope to begin discussing these as soon as they are presented…


At 4:02 PM, November 05, 2006, Blogger Trin said...

On the sixth line down, it is supposed to be 'mathematical physics' instead of 'physical mathematics'.
Don't hold it against me.

At 4:46 PM, November 05, 2006, Blogger Marcus Adams said...

I agree that Worrall seems to be after the second possibility: "continuity concerning structural elements (of reality) that goes significantly beyond mere formalistic conservatism." The continuity, as you say, seems to be a result of a particular theory having "latched onto" the structural relationships between unobservables. As Psillos notes (1999), this seems quite Kantian since we talking, as it were, about the thing-in-itself but we can never really talk about it in more than in a relational sense.

My concern is similar to yours (I think). It's difficult for me to see how one can attribute the success of a theory to merely its mathematical structure. After all, it seems plausible that one could interpret a structure incorrectly and thus have an unsuccessful theory, even though the structure was successful in another theory. It seems that the sucess of a theory is certainly due to its formal structure, BUT that the success really comes when the structure is properly applied.

But, Worrall would certainly never allow the interpretation to creep in as responsible for the success because this would involve all the difficulties with radically different ontologies.

Psillos fleshes his objections to structural realism in the following article: "Is Structural Realism Possible?" Philosophy of Science 68:3 pp. S13-S24. He discusses two possibile paths for structural realism: the upward path & the downward path. The downward path begins with realist views and reduces the claims to be more palatable to Laudan's objections (he says the view is "metaphysical realism" which includes both independence of the domain and knowability of it...the structural realist places restrictions on the latter). Worrall takes the downward path. The first problem Psillos points out is that "structure" is ambigious. There are three possible interpretations:

1) We can know everything but the individuals that instantiate a definite structure;
2) We can know everything except the individuals & their first-order properties; or
3) We can know everything except individuals, their first-order properties and their relations (all from p. S19).

Possibility #3 is similar to Trin's first possibility: "continuity concerning strict mathematical formalism". So we have to decide where exactly Worrall falls in these two possibilities remaining. There's a copy of the Psillos paper at the following link if anyone is interested:

I'm still thinking about where I am on this one.



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