Sixth Form Lecture, Loretto Senior School, Musselburgh, Monday 29 August 2016

‘Perspectivalism across the Humanities and the Sciences’

The first Sixth ForLoretto_Michela1.2m lecture of the year was provided by Prof Michela Massimi of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences. She is currently leading the Research Cluster in Philosophy of Science and has studied and taught in Cambridge, UCL and Pittsburgh. She has contributed to the BBC Radio4 series ‘In Our Time’, particularly on questions relating to the history of science and philosophy.

Prof Massimi’s talk focused on the importance of realism in scientific thought, as well as the validity of anti-realist views. Moving between contemporary and historical examples, she showed how a realist perspective has come to dominate our understanding of the world and the purpose of scientific research. She provided examples of how scientific theories can be elegant, valid and diverse without necessarily being true in the usual sense of the word. Examples came from the Copernican revolution, the phlogiston debate of the 18th century, and the current but incompatible range of atomic models.

Whether Science is to pursue true models or not lies at the heart of the realism/anti-realism debate for Massimi. Realists aim to discover theories, which we believe to be true, while anti-realists focus on ‘good’ theories which do not depend on a distinctive method of science or of an idea of ‘scientific progress’. Here, she stressed the scientific and philosophical significance of Thomas Kuhn’s book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ on developing ideas about paradigm shifts rather than incremental progress. The key point was that a new paradigm (or model) should have a ‘higher puzzle-solving power’ than the previous one, but that it does not necessarily follow that it will be any more true.

The remainder of the lecture explored the questions at the heart of her research work over the coming years.  Her aim is to help resolve the conflict between the two views through the idea of ‘perspectival realism’, which makes use of the best of both sides of the argument. She suggested that it is possible to reconcile the realist’s belief that facts about the world are independent of our perspective, with the anti-realist view that our scientific knowledge claims about these facts depend on perspective.

The Head Boy and Girl presented Prof Massimi with a school plaque, and the conversation continued in the Old Library.

(Many thanks to Henry Hung for the photos.)