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Perspectival Realism. Science, Knowledge, and Truth from a Human Vantage Point

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - Perspectival Realism (Perspectival Realism. Science, Knowledge, and Truth from a Human Vantage Point)

Reporting period: 2017-07-01 to 2018-12-31

The overarching issue addressed in this project concerns a pressing question that arises in philosophy of science: namely, can perspectivism be made compatible with realism about science? Scientific perspectivism is the philosophical view that says that our scientific knowledge is perspectival: it is always situated within a well-defined scientific perspective. Scientific realism is the view that contends that the aim of science is to deliver theories that to the best of our knowledge we believe to be approximately true. These two philosophical positions have traditionally been regarded as somehow at odds with one another. If our scientific knowledge is situated and perspectival, how can it also be true? Does not perspectivism jeopardise traditional realist notions of truth and progress in science?

The overarching objective of the project is to argue for the view that scientific perspectivism and realism are in fact perfectly compatible with one another. The outcome of this philosophical investigation is the articulation of an innovative position called “perspectival realism”, with the ground-breaking potential of overcoming the current impasse between realism and antirealism, and advancing our knowledge about key issues such as scientific progress and truth in science. To achieve this overarching objective, the project is articulated into a series of Sub-projects and follows a highly interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approach that integrates philosophy of science with scientific practice, the history of science and the history of philosophy.
This philosophical investigation is all the more relevant, and timely in the times we are living. Understanding and championing the importance of realism about science, but of a kind of realism that takes on board the lessons coming both from current scientific practice and from the history of science, is all the more salient to setting the record straight about the importance of truth, evidence and progress in science.
Our first Subproject has concerned the perspectival nature of modelling in contemporary scientific practice. We have been looking at two main areas, particle physics and cosmology where fascinating issues arise about perspectival modelling. In particle physics, after the discovery of the Higgs boson, the community has been exploring the possibility of a new physics Beyond the Standard Model (e.g. candidates for supersymmetric particles and other exotic entities). There are strong theoretical reasons for searching for such a new physics but as of today no experimental evidence has been found for say supersymmetric particles (just to mention one among other possible candidates for such physics; incidentally some supersymmetric particles are also candidates for dark matter). When it comes to cosmology, large galaxy surveys are currently under way (such as the Dark Energy Survey —DES— whose first-year results were announced in August 2017). These galaxies surveys are designed to answer pressing questions about the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which while postulated by our current best cosmological model, still remain elusive entities. These are exciting times for physics. And as philosophers of science, these two areas raise profound philosophical questions about the role of perspectivism in the search for physical reality. How do scientists go about searching for new physics if their practice is so entrenched and situated within a well-defined scientific perspective (e.g. the Standard model in high energy physics)? In what sense are scientific models perspectival? How can perspectival models (including computer simulations at specific scales) help scientists answer questions about physical reality?
With my team, we did fieldwork at CERN and at the Dark Energy Survey (DES) to acquire first-hand knowledge of some of the methodological challenges and modelling techniques used by physicists to look for supersymmetric particles as well as dark matter/dark energy.

We have also started working on Stage 2 of the project, which turns more historical in looking at perspectivism in the history of philosophy and the history of science.
The research to date has resulted in 14 publications in international peer-reviewed journals and high-profile edited collection (please see under Publications in Two edited collections and a monograph are also under way.
Moreover, we delivered a two-pronged dissemination strategy that included: (1) two summer schools at Edinburgh to over 200 children (P6 and P7); and (2) two Edinburgh International Science Festival events (2017 and 2018) on “The Hunt for Supersymmetric Particles” and “Searching for Dark Matter and Dark Energy” in collaboration with colleagues from particle physics and cosmology.
We also delivered the first international conference (in July 2016) and three interdisciplinary workshops (in May 2016, November 2017 and May 2018). For the full list of activities please see the project website:
The project and its activities have featured in articles in The Guardian, Frankfurter Allgemeine, La Repubblica, 3:AM magazine, BBC Sky at Night, Quanta Magazine, among other venues.
The philosophical investigation at stake in this project is all the more relevant and timely in the times we are living. Understanding what is involved and what is at stake in perspectival realism is all the more salient to setting the record straight about the nature and importance of truth and progress in scientific inquiry and public discourse.
In the 14 publications to date, we have started a novel systematic exploration of some of the methodological issues, problems and prospects related to perspectivism and its relation to realism in science. The issues we have addressed so far range from truth to scientific progress; from laws of nature to modelling and simulations; from the Kantian roots of perspectival knowledge to methodological issues in cosmology and particle physics.
The work ahead includes more journal articles, two edited collections, a dedicated monograph to perspectival realism, and two further international conferences.