Observable & unobservable entities

Observable & unobservable entities
nosos
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Posted Dec 8, 2006 - 4:26 AM:
Subject: Observable & unobservable entities
Do observable & unobservable entities have differing ontological statuses? Are entities that have not been unobserved – or cannot be observed – mere posits whose invocation is irrevocably instrumental? Does this make them in any meaningful sense less real? Or is this sort of notion simply a nasty left-over of positivism which needs to be swept aside?

Does some sense of degrees of reality have any significance within science? Does it have any significance outside science? Or is it simply a binary question such that something is either real or it is a mere fiction?
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Posted Dec 8, 2006 - 11:57 AM:

This sounds too much like "what qualities would an X have if the X had no qualities?". I think it's a meaningless question. It's the set of all Xs that aren't Xs.

Or am I missing something? (I have to add this or I might sound arrogant or worse, certain that I have the truth or worser, that I'm a logician)
nosos
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Posted Dec 8, 2006 - 12:25 PM:

Any question in particular or all of them?
Timothy
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Posted Dec 8, 2006 - 5:13 PM:

nosos wrote:
Do observable & unobservable entities have differing ontological statuses? Are entities that have not been unobserved – or cannot be observed – mere posits whose invocation is irrevocably instrumental?


Great question. Let me dwelve into it with a particularly notorious lack of style:

I hold (with Quine) that both observable and unobservable entities are into our ontology. But not any unobservable, but a special set of unobservables, namely the mathematical "entities" such as sets, numbers(?), etc. Those posits (yes, they are posits!) must be accepted into our ontology because of the positive pragmatical consequences -such as simplier explanations, formalization of physical laws, etc-. Entities such as "Santa" and "fairies" provide less practical consequences -more complex explanations, etc-. So, in a sense, those postis we ought to conserve are instrumental -it allows us to do something in a better way, namely science- Ontologically, they may be isntrumental, but epistemologically, they're central and vital.

nosos wrote:
Does this make them in any meaningful sense less real? Or is this sort of notion simply a nasty left-over of positivism which needs to be swept aside?


Hmmm, not so if you call "reality" the conjunction of observable and the special unobservable entities. In that sense, they're both equally real.

nosos wrote:
Does some sense of degrees of reality have any significance within science? Does it have any significance outside science?


Given the above, "degrees of reality" is something not very meaningful. Either it is accepted in our ontology or not, don't you think? It's practically a "yes" or "no" question.
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Posted Dec 9, 2006 - 1:15 AM:

Timothy wrote:
Given the above, "degrees of reality" is something not very meaningful. Either it is accepted in our ontology or not, don't you think? It's practically a "yes" or "no" question.

I see where you’re coming from but surely if the two kinds of entity are treated differently—such that one is accepted on the basis of observation and the other, unobserved, kind on the basis of utility—then there is some distinction to be drawn between the two? Unless you elide them by saying that observed entities are just particularly useful elements in our ontology?
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Posted Dec 9, 2006 - 7:49 AM:

nosos wrote:
Unless you elide them by saying that observed entities are just particularly useful elements in our ontology?


Precisely. This could be explained better as an answer to some ontological skeptic that asks us: are there really objects "out there", our "physical objects"? Instead of replying with some philosophical theory, we could just say: it is more practical for us to believe that there are such physical objects; it is a basic belief that allows our science to progress in a better way than without it. This involves a rather problematic turn from what is known (the skeptic wants us to prove how we know that there are really physical objects) towards what is ought to be believed in terms of pragmatical considerations (simplicity, a minimum ontology, etc).

So, in context with what was said before, both the "physical objects" and the special subset of unobservable entities share the same reason for acceptance into our ontology: it's more useful to believe in them than to not do it, regarding both science and the everyday 'knowledge' - which yields a particular view of science as nothing else than "sophisticated common sense" -

But all this is, of course, rather problematic, as anything in philosophy.

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Posted Dec 15, 2006 - 7:55 AM:

This really depends upon what you mean by observed and unobserved. There are things that theoretically modern science can only infer the existence of, but which cannot be directly observed (virtual particles for example.) Such things have more of an epistomological impact than an ontological.
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Posted Jan 12, 2007 - 8:35 AM:

Umm, how does usefulness to human endeavors of an unobservable entity determine an ontological status?

Many unobservables aren't _purely_ instrumental, and are real, although their use in instrumentally reliable theories has everything to do with their ontological status.

For example, are you really going to reject that, say, electrons aren't real, simply because we cannot see them? We have so much reason to believe that they're real. They are the basis of scientific theories that reliably predicting that which we can in fact observe.

It may sound like we're positing the existence of electrons simply because it's useful, and convenient. But that's not the case.
Rather, we're trying to _explain_ the demonstrated, observable, reliability of these involved scientific theories that posit the existence of unobservables.

So what's the best explanation of the reliability of these theories? The best explanation is that the entities, both observable and unobservable, proposed by the theories do in fact exist. I mean, the theories do not simply posit the existence of these unobservables... they _revolve_ around the existence of the unobservables, with the unobservable entities playing a crucial role in most all of the causal mechanisms proposed by the theories that underwrite the observable predictions that the theories do in fact get right.

This "best explanation" argument for scientific realism is Richard Boyd's.

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Posted Jan 12, 2007 - 1:21 PM:

Is an electron observable?

I would say that Millikan's oil drop experiment is an example of an observation of the charge on an electron. That is, that electrons are observable.

So what sort of scientific entities are not observable?
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Posted Jan 12, 2007 - 1:22 PM:

Or broader, who can give an example of any unobservable entity?
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