Skip to main content

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

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - Perspectival Realism (Perspectival Realism. Science, Knowledge, and Truth from a Human Vantage Point)

Reporting period: 2020-07-01 to 2021-06-30

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 realist notions of truth and progress in science?
The overarching objective of the project has been to argue for the view that scientific perspectivism and realism are in fact perfectly compatible with one another as long as one is careful in examining both what is at stake in perspectivism and realism. The main outcome of the project has been the articulation of a novel philosophical position called “perspectival realism”, which is intended to overcome the current impasse between realism and antirealism in science, and advancing our knowledge about key issues such as scientific progress, pluralism and truth in science.

To achieve this overarching objective, the project was articulated into a series of Sub-projects and followed a highly cross-disciplinary approach that integrated philosophy of science with scientific practice, the history of science and the history of philosophy. In Massimi’s monograph entitled "Perspectival Realism" a novel account of perspectival modelling is offered, which paves the way to the second part of the book where the metaphysics of nature is spelled out. Perspectival realism is realism about ‘phenomena’ (rather than scientific theories or unobservable entities) where the notion of phenomena here offered draws loosely from the Kantian tradition and is examined through a series of case studies from the history of science and by drawing from a variety of scientific practices.
The project activities were articulated in five Sub-projects over the 5-year period and the core team —consisting of two PhD students, two post-doctoral fellows and the PI —contributed to the delivery of all the activities.

Our first and second Subprojects had as their focus the perspectival nature of modelling in contemporary scientific practice. We looked at two main areas, particle physics and cosmology, where fascinating issues arise about perspectival modelling in the search for new physics beyond the Standard Model.
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 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) help scientists answer questions about physical reality?
The team 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.
This work resulted in a series of journal articles published by the PI Massimi and the postdoctoral fellow McCoy, as well as a number of press releases in Physics World, Nature Physics, The Guardian and Frankfurter Allgemeine among others.
In addition, we designed and delivered 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.
For the remaining three Subprojects, we looked at perspectivism in the history of philosophy, the history of science and finally we built on the work done for all these Subprojects in the final part of the project. The two PhD students, Jacoby and Spagnesi, respectively investigated the role of perspectivism in the Chemical revolution and in the Kantian epistemological tradition. And the second postdoctoral fellow, Cretu, delved into the history of the electron theory and the role of perspectivism in scientific disagreement and scientific instrumentation. Both the strand on modelling and the historical strand on the history of the electron fed into our dissemination strategy that included two summer schools at Edinburgh to over 200 children (P6 and P7) in 2016 and 2018.
We delivered a total of 2 co-edited volumes, one single-authored monograph, one special issue of the European Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and over thirty articles in peer-reviewed journals and book chapters (please see under Publications in www.perspectivalrealism.org).
We also organised three main international conference (in July 2016, Dec 2018, April 2021) and five interdisciplinary workshops plus a range of additional knowledge exchange events. For the full list of activities please see the project website: https://www.perspectivalrealism.org/category/events/
The philosophical investigation at stake in this project is all the more relevant 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 perspectival pluralism in scientific inquiry and scientific knowledge production.
With all the publications we delivered and the number of events we organised (including knowledge exchange events such as summer schools for children aged 10-11, and two Edinburgh International Science Festivals events, as well as press releases in major national and international venues), we contributed to a systematic exploration of some of the methodological issues, problems and prospects related to perspectivism and its relation to realism in cutting-edge areas of contemporary scientific practice such as particle physics and cosmology.
More broadly, the research team tackled a number of important and inter-related issues along the way: from truth to scientific progress; from laws of nature to modelling and simulations; from the Kantian roots of perspectival knowledge to methodological issues related to perspectival modelling in cosmology and particle physics. The PI’s monograph "Perspectival Realism" (expected to be published in 2022 by Oxford University Press, US) lays out a novel view in philosophy of science that systematically starts with the practice of perspectival modelling to rethink the nature of the realist commitment in science. The view places center-stage historically and culturally situated epistemic communities in recounting how scientific knowledge is produced. The epistemological image that emerges is that of science as a social, collaborative and multicultural type of enquiry, rather than the product of any 'lone genius' or 'siloed' communities. See for a short summary the Cordis article: https://cordis.europa.eu/article/id/430475-placing-realism-in-perspective
CMS experiment at CERN visited in February 2018