Scientific Perspectivism by Ronald N. Giere

Scientific perspectivism, as Professor Giere describes it, is a somewhat weak form of scientific realism: “For a perspectival realist, the strongest claims a scientist can legitimately make are of a qualified, conditional form: ‘According to this highly confirmed theory (or reliable instrument), the world seems to be roughly such and such’. There is no way legitimately to take the further objectivist step and declare unconditionally: ‘This theory (or instrument) provides us with a complete and literally correct picture of the world itself'” (pp. 5-6).

Even the most accurate instrument gives us just one perspective on the world, since it picks out some feature(s) of interest, it’s subject to some margin of error, and its output is subject to interpretation according to some theory. 

Giere begins by discussing color vision and other sense perception, then moves on to the use of various instruments for scientific purposes, and finally discusses the creation of scientific models and theories. He is especially concerned with how scientists actually do their work. His conclusion is that all truth claims are relative to a perspective, even the claim that all truth claims are relative to a perspective (p. 81). “The strongest possible conclusion is that some model provides a good but never perfect fit to aspects of the world” (p. 93). Giere’s own theory of scientific perspectivism “may be regarded as a set of models of various scientific activities … these models exhibit a good fit to actual scientific practices. That … is as much as anyone can do” (p. 95). 

Some models fit the world better than others, however, meaning that they better serve our purposes. Perspectivism might be considered a kind of relativism, but not the kind that says all perspectives are equally valid.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the discussion of “distributed cognitive systems”. Giere argues that much of science involves the operation of such systems, most of which involve instruments and models that are perspectival. A simple example of a distributed cognitive system is a student’s use of pencil and paper to perform long division. The student making the calculation is part of a system that includes the pencil and paper. The system generates a calculation. This doesn’t mean that the pencil and paper are part of the student’s mind, as some philosophers who talk about “extended” or “embedded” cognition have argued. It’s not necessary to go that far in order to describe human cognition.

This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that I want to read again.  (4/24/12)


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