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Christopher Norris “Epistemology”

Norris, Christopher 2005. Epistemology. Key Concepts in Philosophy. London; New York: Continuum.

Realism, Reference and Possible Worlds

Hence Frege’s cardinal dictum that ’sense determines reference’, i.e., that in so far as such proper names refer it must be in virtue of our grasping the relevant descriptive criteria. On the contrary, Kripke maintains: the reference of gold was fixed by an inaugural ’baptism’ or act of naming, and has since held firm despite and across all subsequent changes in our knowledge concerning its nature, identifying features, physical properties, microstructural constitution, or whatever. (43)

In this respect […] such names are ’truth-tracking’ or ’sensitive to future discovery’. That is to say, their usage at any given time might always turn out (now as in the past) to be based on a limited or partial knowledge of just what it is – scientifically speaking – that constitutes the kind in question. (45)

For if reference is fixed independently of any descriptive criteria that happen to apply from one to another paradigm then we can perfectly well explain how a term like ’electron’, once introduced through the inaugural act of naming, continued to pick out the same referent despite some otherwise radical revisions to its range of defining properties or imputed characteristics. (46)

Thus philosophy of science can be saved from its own sceptical devices by acknowledging (1) that descriptive attributes don’t go all the way down, (2) that early usages are ’sensitive to future discovery’, and (3) that in the case of genuine (as opposed to empty or fallacious) object-terms their reference is preserved across even the most revolutionary episodes of theory-change. (47)

For the moment what chiefly concerns us – to repeat – is the distinction between ontology and epistemology, along with the necessity of drawing it in such a way as to render compatible two (as it might seem) conflicting or contradictory claims. These are, first, that the truth-value of our statements, theories, hypothesis, etc., is fixed objectively by the way things stand quite apart from our best state of knowledge concerning them; and second, that veridical knowledge can yet be achieved through the kinds of reliably truth-conducive method and procedure developed  by the various sciences. (60)

[Realism] is the claim that there exists a real-world domain of physical objects, events, structures, properties, causal powers and so forth which decide the truth-value of our various statements or theories and which cannot be treated as in any sense dependent on our current-best or even future-best-attainable state of knowledge concerning them. (61)

[Transcendental Realism]: What is crucial here is the complex dialectical relationship between, on the one hand, those ’transfactually efficacious’ laws of nature that depend not at all on our various kinds of controlled observation, experimental set-up, manipulative technique, etc., and on the other those non-naturally occurring (but equally law-governed) entities that show up under just such specialized, e.g., laboratory conditions. (61)

Thus one chief sense of the term ’transcendental’ in critical-realist parlance is the sense: ’pertaining to an order of objective reality and a range of likewise objective truth-values that may always in principle transcend or surpass the limits of human knowledge’. To this extent TR comes out firmly opposed to any positivist, empiricist, instrumentalist or other epistemic approach that would reject the idea of verification-transcendent truths […] (61)

[Transcendental realism] critiques Kant’s critique by maintaining (along with the alethic realist) that truth might always – now as heretofore – transcend or surpass our utmost epistemic powers while nonetheless holding this itself to be a matter of knowledge borne out by the history of science to date and by our grasp of the complex dialectical process through which science progressively converges on truth under various determinate […] conditions. (64)

On this view TR entails the downright contradictory pair of propositions (1) that every well-formed (truth-apt) statement has its truth-value fixed quite apart from our best knowledge concerning it, and (2) that veridical knowledge is yet within our cognitive grasp – perhaps at the ideal limit – through various well-tried methods of enquiry. (66)

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