: Real species and ideology

Nico Mario Franz nmf2 at CORNELL.EDU
Thu Apr 22 03:13:46 CDT 2004

Have to jump in here. Some 50-100 years ago there was a relatively
important debate in philosophy of science whether or not one can have
knowledge about "unobservable entities" (such as subatomic particles,
historical processes like the evolution of insect wings wasn't an issue,
partly because almost everyone was trained in physics). The "empiricists"
said, roughly, that all factual knowledge is based on observation (that's
Hume). One can make "reliable predictions" about unobservable phenomena,
but not know them like one can know things directly through the senses.
The "realists" defended the other position. They argued that there is no
deep difference between observational and theoretical evidence, since the
value of either is ultimately judged in the light of (inductively
corroborated) theoretical knowledge. For the most part, the "realists"
won. Now the debate about unobservables is recast as - "are we achieving
approximate truth" (realists) or "is empirical adequacy sufficient and
more elegant explanation of the aims of science?" (sophisticated

It seems like some of us are saying "real = observable," or "theoretical
construct = artificial." That would identify those proponents as (slightly
old-fashioned) empiricists, with a healthy dose of skepticism.

There's a more radical position of what is "real," which maintains
"anything that we can use successfully to accommodate our inferential
practices in a set of coextensive scientific disciplines." In English:
taxonomists describe species, and reference to those species assists
evolutionists, ecologists, even conservationists in achieving the kinds of
reliable conclusions they're  interesting at. Or sometimes not, in which
the taxonomists' concepts were perhaps less close to reality.



At 15:35 2004-04-20, Richard Pyle wrote:
>To be fair, I believe the implied meaning of "real" in this context is that
>they (taxonomic entities like "species") exist and are identifiable outside
>the scope "artificial" (=created by humans) definitions of taxonomic units.
>I.e., they are "discovered" in nature; rather than defined.

That's the sense in which I use the word "natural" (since "real" has so
much baggage :-).

Curtis Clark

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