A Central Issue in Philosophy of Science and Science Education

There are many fundamental philosophical issues raised by science that can
also be raised in science classrooms. Some of these philosophical features of
science have been discussed in Chapter 4, when dealing with ‘Metaphysics
and Air Pressure’, in Chapter 5, when dealing with ‘Philosophy in the
Classroom’, in Chapter 6, when elaborating ‘Pendulum Motion’, and in
Chapter 7, when elaborating ‘Priestley and Photosynthesis’, and others will
be discussed in Chapter 11, when dealing with the ‘Nature of Science’.
Pleasingly, philosophy does not have to be brought into science classrooms,
as it is already there; it just needs to be identified and discussed in a way
whereby students can themselves begin to appreciate the philosophical
dimension of science and to take beginning steps in thinking philosophically;
philosophy is not an added burden for teachers: it is part of the subject they
teach. Any philosophy-of-science textbook, anthology or encyclopedia will,
for example, have chapters on: theory change, experimentation, idealisation,
scientific revolutions, laws, reduction, metaphor, analogy, models, causation,
explanation, values, methodology, observation, truth, approximate truth and
so on. These philosophical features can be identified and elaborated in the
classroom when teaching routine topics such as evolution, genetics, oxidation,
mechanics, relativity, electricity, paleontology, photosynthesis and so on. The
features or aspects can appropriately be pointed to when students make
enquiries, conduct experiments, collect data, propose and appraise hypotheses
and so on.
Likewise, philosophy is present in most of the theoretical issues that engage
teachers, curriculum writers and administrators: religion, multiculturalism,
discipline structure and so on. One such theoretical issue, constructivism, was
outlined in the previous chapter and leads naturally into discussion of a
central philosophical issue that has echoed through the history of science, and
that bears significantly upon what is taught about the nature of science:
namely, the debate between realists and anti-realists over the aims of science
and the reality and knowability of theoretical entities postulated in scientific
theories to explain events and phenomena. This fundamental debate has
echoes in many of the other disputes in philosophy of science and is frequently
played out in science education, with strong-voiced researchers and teachers
found on both sides of the realist/non-realist fence. The discussion can be
Chapter 9
appreciated, and joined, by teachers and students alike, in a way that displays
the philosophical dimension of science.
The Realist/Anti-Realist Divide
The basic realist conviction is that the world and our knowledge of it are two
different things; how we learn about something and the thing itself are
identical. Man is not the measure of all things, as Protagoras might not have
said. Bas van Fraassen provides a succinct statement of realism. It is the
following view:
Science aims to give us, in its theories, a literally true story of what the world is
like; and acceptance of a scientific theory involves the belief that it is true.
(van Fraassen 1980, p. 8)
It needs to be noted that the arguments developed here will be about scientific
realism and anti-realism; they will not be about ‘global’ anti-realism of the
kind found in philosophical idealism and scepticism. In idealism, it is
contended that nothing is real beyond the cognising subject; the external
world is a mirage. In scepticism, it is contended that there is ‘an objective
reality’ (as constructivists are wont to say), but that we can have no access to
it, even the sensible world (tables, chairs, trees) is forever beyond our
knowledge. No scientists, and few philosophers of science, hold these global
anti-realist positions, and they are irrelevant to science teachers. However,
some scientists and many reputable philosophers of science defend scientific
anti-realism, and it is this view that will be appraised in this chapter. It should
also be noted that the central, and perhaps only, debate is about what scientific
theories tell us or do not tell us about the world. The arguments are about
explanatory, unobservable, theoretical constructs and entities such as magnetic
field, electron, gravitational attraction and the like. The philosophical
arguments are usually not about the observational claims of science, at least
not directly about data and meter readings; they are about their explanations.
It is useful to recognise that there is a ‘Wittgensteinian’ family of realist
positions.1 They all share:
• an ontological commitment to the reality and independence of the world;
external things and events, including unobservables, exist independently
of the cognising subject;
• a semantic commitment to the linkage of scientific claims to external things
and events; science makes claims about the world;
• an epistemological commitment; namely, that science has made some
truthful, or approximately truthful, claims about entities and processes
in both the observed and unobserved world, the former being the everyday
world revealed by ordinary vision (billiard balls, fish, clouds, etc.), the
latter the world indicated by instruments and inference (molecules, atoms,
magnetic fields, proteins, etc.);
330 Realism and Anti-Realism
• an axiological commitment that the aim and purpose of science is to pro –
duce statements and theories about the world that are true; other purposes,
such as utility or economic gain, are secondary, or just by-products of
Likewise, there is a family of anti-realist positions that are united by their
rejection, sometimes for different reasons, of one or all of the realist’s onto –
logical, semantic, epistemological and axiological claims. The anti-realist family
includes positivism, empiricism, instrumentalism, constructivism, constructive
empiricism, idealism and, of course, the whole gamut of post-modernisms.
Anti-realists believe that scientific knowledge is confined to the world of
experience or sensory phenomena, and that any postulated theoretical entities
that go beyond such experience have to be treated only as aids, tools, models
or heuristic devices for coordinating sensory or observable phenomena,
but they do not have any existence. Further, the aim of science is to produce
theories that predict phenomena and connect economically – usually math –
ematically – items of experience.
Elaboration, refinement and defence of each of the realist and anti-realist
positions can be read in the references footnoted below. Consistent with the
overall methodology of this book, here the debate will be elaborated using
historical examples that are also recognisable to science teachers, examples
that are ubiquitous in school textbooks and curricula.3 From the ancient
astronomical debate about crystalline spheres, through the instrumentalist
position urged upon Galileo by Cardinal Bellarmine, the bitter debates between
Newtonians and Cartesians over the reality of gravitational attraction, the
equally heated eighteenth-century arguments over the existence of ‘imponderable fluids’ such as caloric, and the debates about the reality of atoms that
engaged Ernst Mach and others in the nineteenth century, to the controversy
between the realist Einstein and the instrumentalist Bohr over the Copenhagen
interpretation of quantum mechanics – the issue of a realist versus anti-realist
interpretation of scientific theory has been at the centre of philosophical
debate about science.
Astronomy: How the Heavens Work
All human societies since their beginnings have sought to understand the
fabric of the heavens – stars, planets, Sun, Moon, comets and so on. This
understanding has been a variable mix of religion, metaphysics, cosmology,
mythology, astrology and astronomy – if one might loosely use the modern
term. In most societies, most of these elements are present together, with, at
different times and in different places, one or other having more or less
prominence. The history of astronomy, which is a common school subject, at
least as far as the transformation from heliocentric to geocentric understanding
of the solar system is concerned, is a nice thread on which to lay out the basic
contrast between realist and anti-realist understandings of science (and
Realism and Anti-Realism 331
additionally recurring themes, such as the roles of mathematics and technology
in science, the ‘interpretation’ of human observations, conflicting sources of
authority and truth in science, and much more). The AAAS, in introducing
its astronomy section in Science for All Americans, says:
To observers on the earth, it appears that the earth stands still and everything
else moves around it. Thus, in trying to imagine how the universe works, it made
good sense to people in ancient times to start with those apparent truths. The
ancient Greek thinkers, particularly Aristotle, set a pattern that was to last for
about 2,000 years: a large, stationary earth at the center of the universe, and –
positioned around the earth – the sun, the moon, and tiny stars arrayed in a perfect
sphere, with all these bodies orbiting along perfect circles at constant speeds.
(AAAS 1989, p. 112)
This is a nice and satisfying phenomenal picture of the heavens, but ancient
natural philosophy (or nascent science) conjectured about causes and
mechanisms. This is where realists and anti-realists began to separate.
Platonic Empiricism and Aristotelian Realism
The beginnings of the enduring realist versus anti-realist understanding of
science can be seen in debates in the ancient world about planetary dynamics
or the mechanism of their motion. First Anaximander (c.488–428 BCE), then
Eudoxus (c.409–356 BCE), Callippus (370–300 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322
BCE) proposed that the regularly moving planets were embedded in rotating
crystalline spheres that kept them moving steadily and at fixed distances from
each other, from the Earth and from the stars, which themselves were
embedded in an outmost sphere defining the limits of the world. Retrograde
and ‘speeding’ and ‘slowing’ motions were accounted for by increasing the
number of spheres, with twenty-six being postulated by Eudoxus, thirty-three
by Callippus and forty-seven by Aristotle, in order to accommodate ever
more astronomical observations.4 These increasingly complicated mechanisms
were required in order to ‘save the appearances’ of the heavenly bodies as
seen from Earth.
There is scholarly dispute over just how realistically the pre-Aristotelians
interpreted their postulated spheres, but, with Aristotle’s Metaphysics and On
the Heavens, they were clearly given a physical existence, being composed of
the unchanging fifth element, the ether. These were the ‘crystalline’ spheres
of later natural philosophy. The spheres, of course, needed their own mover,
and, for Aristotle, this was the Prime Mover, later identified as God in the
Hellenistic–Christian tradition.5
However, astronomical reaslism was not without its anti-realist challenges.
Plato legitimised non-realistic interpretations of natural philosophy. This is
known from the commentaries of Simplicius (490–560 CE), the neo-Platonist,
who says of Plato that he,
332 Realism and Anti-Realism
lays down the principle that the heavenly bodies’ motion is circular, uniform, and
constantly regular. Thereupon he sets the mathematicians the following problem:
What circular motions, uniform and perfectly regular, are to be admitted as
hypotheses so that it might be possible to save the appearances presented by the
(Duhem 1908/1969, p. 5)
Astronomers and mathematicians were asked by Plato for a model of the
movement of heavenly bodies that would conform to, and enable predictions
about, astronomical phenomena – daily motion of the Sun, monthly motion
of the Moon, times of rising and setting of the planets, changes of season,
planetary regression, periods of the planets, time of the equinoxes and other
matters. The model was not meant to conform to reality; it needed only to
conform to the metaphysical principle that required heavenly motions to be
circular and to be consistent with, and predict, astronomical events; the
mathematical model was just a calculating device.
Plato’s pupil, Eudoxus, took up this challenge. Thomas Heath writes:
It does not appear that Eudoxus speculated upon the causes of these rotational
motions or the way in which they were transmitted from one sphere to another;
nor did he inquire about the material of which they were made. . . . It would appear
that he did not give his spheres any substance or mechanical connection; the whole
system was a purely geometrical hypothesis, or a set of theoretical constructions
calculated to represent the apparent paths of the planets and enable them to be
(Heath 1913/1981, p. 196)
Later, Claudius Ptolemy (90–168), in his famous Almagest, rejected the
spheres in favour of a mathematical and instrumentalist astronomy. His
planets moved in circular cycles, epicycles and deferents, which were so
configured as to ‘save the appearances’ as catalogued by astronomers. He
retains Plato’s metaphysical privileging of circular motion, but the Aristotelian
robust realism of extant crystalline spheres was abandoned in favour of
mere geometric construction and, at best, just formal acknowledgement
of mechanisms such as planetary souls or intelligences. After acknowledging
Aristotle’s division of philosophy into theoretical and practical branches,
Ptolemy notes that, ‘Aristotle quite properly divides also the theoretical into
three intermediate genera: the physical, the mathematical, and the theological’
(Ptolemy 1952, p. 5). Ptolemy embraces mathematics and shuns the first and
the last, saying:
the other two genera of the theoretical would be expounded in terms of conjecture
rather than in terms of scientific understanding: the theological because it is in
no way phenomenal and attainable, but the physical because its matter is unstable
and obscure, so that for this reason philosophers could never hope to agree on
Realism and Anti-Realism 333
them . . . only the mathematical, if approached enquiringly, would give its
practitioners certain and trustworthy knowledge.
(Ptolemy 1952, pp. 5–6)
Arthur Koestler (1905–1983) describes the situation as follows:
Astronomy after Aristotle becomes an abstract sky-geometry, divorced from
physical reality. . . . It serves a practical purpose as a method for computing tables
of the motions of the sun, moon, and planets; but as to the real nature of the
universe, it has nothing to say.
(Koestler 1964, p. 77)
Some in this instrumentalist tradition were epistemologically anti-realist
about planetary mechanisms, saying that such mechanisms might exist, but
we just do not have access to them. Others were ontologically anti-realist about
mechanisms, saying that there are no grounds for postulating their existence.
All, of course, were realists about planets and heavenly bodies; it would be
another 2,500 years before it became fashionable to think that bodies came
in and out of existence, depending on who was thinking about, or postulating,
However, anti-realism did not carry the day. Because Aristotle provided an
overarching philosophical and ‘scientific’ system within which his planetary
dynamics neatly fitted, his realist astronomy, with its real concentric spheres,
lived on for the subsequent 1,500 years.6
Copernican and Galilean Realism Against Osiander’s
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), in his Six Books Concerning the
Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (Copernicus 1543/1952), resurrected the
ancient realist programme in astronomy. Copernicus believed that both
astronomy and physics should propose hypotheses that both answered Plato’s
demand for predictability and for saving the phenomena, but also were in
accord with how the world was. To this end, he revived the ancient but
overlooked heliocentric, moving-Earth model of Aristarchus of Samos.
Copernicus, in the Dedication of his book to Pope Paul II, says of the Ptolemaic
tradition that:
Those, on the other hand who have devised systems of eccentric circles, although
they seem in great part to have solved the apparent movements by calculations
which by these eccentrics are made to fit, have nevertheless introduced many things
which seem to contradict the first principles of the uniformity of motion.7
As Copernicus lay dying, Andreas Osiander (1498–1552), the Lutheran
scholar charged with arranging publication of the Revolutions, inserted a
334 Realism and Anti-Realism
preface that is the embodiment of empiricist and instrumentalist understanding
of scientific theory. It says in part:
For the astronomer’s job consists of the following: To gather together the history
of the celestial movements by means of painstakingly and skilfully made
observations, and then – since he cannot by any line of reasoning reach the true
causes of these movements – to think up or construct whatever hypotheses he
pleases such that, on their assumption, the self-same movements, past and future
both, can be calculated by means of the principles of geometry. . . . It is not
necessary that these hypotheses be true. They need not even be likely. This one
thing suffices, that the calculation to which they lead agree with the result of
(Duhem 1908/1969, p. 66)
This instrumentalist preface is remarkably like the statement of Ernst von
Glasersfeld quoted in the last chapter: ‘our knowledge is useful, relevant, viable
. . . if it stands up to experience and enables us to make predictions . . . [it]
gives us no clue as to how the “objective” world might be’. This similarity is
not surprising: constructivism is an instrumentalist epistemology, as George
Bodner, an American constructivist, so frankly admits:
The constructivist model is an instrumentalist view of knowledge. Knowledge is
good if and when it works, if and when it allows us to achieve our goals. . . . A
similar view was taken by Osiander, who suggested in the preface of Copernicus’
De Revolutionibus [that] ‘There is no need for these hypotheses to be true, or
even to be at all like the truth; rather, one thing is sufficient for them – that they
yield calculations which agree with the observations’.
(Bodner, 1986, p. 874)
Galileo (1564–1642) adopted the Copernican hypothesis sometime around
1600. The hypothesis was, of course, scientifically and theologically controversial. In 1615, the illustrious Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621)
proposed to Galileo the sort of empiricism and instrumentalism that Osiander
had deviously thrust upon Copernicus. The Cardinal said:
It seems to me that [you] are proceeding prudently by limiting yourselves to
speaking suppositionally and not absolutely, as I have always believed Copernicus
spoke. For there is no danger in saying that, by assuming the earth moves and
the sun stands still, one saves all the appearances better than by postulating
eccentrics and epicycles; and that it is sufficient for the mathematician. However
it is different to want to affirm that in reality the sun is in the center of the world
. . . this is a very dangerous thing.
(Finocchiaro 1989, p. 67)
However, Galileo did not embrace the instrumentalist olive branch offered
by Bellarmine: he maintained a resolute realism about the Copernican
Realism and Anti-Realism 335
hypothesis. In his Two Chief World Systems (1633), he repeats Copernicus’s
claim against Ptolemy that:
However well the astronomer might be satisfied merely as a calculator, there was
no satisfaction and peace for the astronomer as a scientist . . . although the celestial
appearances might be saved by means of assumptions essentially false in nature,
it would be very much better if he could derive them from true suppositions.
(Galileo 1633/1953, p. 341)
Galileo’s realism was underwritten and reinforced by his telescopic
observations. The story is fairly well known.8 As Galileo writes, in 1610:
About 10 months ago a rumor came to our ears that a spyglass had been made
by a certain Dutchman by means of which visible objects, though far removed
from the eye of the observer, were distinctly perceived as if nearby.
(Galileo 1610/1989, p. 36)
In the same year, he built his own telescope and made his monumental Moon
and Jupiter observations. Contemporary empiricists and instrumentalists
simply denied the reality of what Galileo communicated; they maintained that
what he saw was entirely a product of his own eyes and the dubious technology
of the new instruments.
Additionally, Galileo’s claims violated the 2,000-year-old metaphysical
commitment to an ontological separation of the heavenly and the terrestrial
realms. The former was unchanging, perfect and incorruptible; the latter was
changing, imperfect and corruptible. The realms had nothing in common.
Galileo’s Moon drawings could not be interpreted realistically, as they showed
the Moon to be like the Earth and, likewise, showed that Jupiter itself had
moons: science and metaphysics were at odds. Galileo’s seventeenth-century
opponents used versions of what 400 years later would become commonplace
in science-education constructivist writing: ‘we have no independent access
to reality; we do not know what is really there’.9 Galileo’s response to
philosophical scepticism was to train his telescope on nearby churches, towers
and ships outside the harbour and ask if what was seen corresponds, or nearly
so, to what is seen with the naked eye, with any shortfall being made good
by improvement of the instrument. Thus, the truth of his metaphysics-defying
astronomical claims was established by empirical demonstrations. This is a
recurring motif in the history of science.
Classical Physics: Newton’s Realism and Berkeley’s
Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was a realist in the tradition of Aristotle and
Galileo. He proposed a mechanism (gravitational attraction) that moved the
planets and that underwrote the celestial laws of planetary motion uncovered
336 Realism and Anti-Realism
by Kepler, and the terrestrial laws discovered by Galileo. His realism underlies
his insistence on the reality of absolute space and time, in contradiction to
those who maintain that only relative space and time exist, the space and time
of our experience. In his Scholium on ‘Space and Time’, Newton says:
But because the parts of space cannot be seen, or distinguished from one another
by our senses, therefore in their stead we use sensible measures of them. . . . And
so, instead of absolute places and motions, we use relative ones; and that without
any inconvenience in common affairs; but in philosophical disquisitions, we ought
to abstract from our senses, and consider things themselves, distinct from what
are only sensible measures of them.
(Newton 1729/1934, p. 8)
Newton was also a realist about forces: when a body accelerated, including
moving steadily in an orbit, there was a real force acting upon it: something
was making the body accelerate. Forces were not just mathematical conveniences or conventions useful in linking together successive locations of a
moving body. Force was responsible for the body moving; it had the same
ontological status as the body moved. Although, in free fall and planetary
motion for instance, only the accelerating body could be seen, Newton believed
that a real, unseen force was responsible for the acceleration. Famously, the
mechanical philosophers Huygens and Leibniz rejected such forces: for them,
forces only arose from contact, from the collision of bodies. In contrast,
Newton remained realistic about these forces; for him, force was a theoretical
construct postulated to explain observational occurrences;10 it was not, to use
a methodological concept common in psychology, an intervening variable that
merely linked variables in a mathematical manner (Meehl & MacCorquodale
1948); nor was it, as Mach would later claim, a mere convenience for the
economy of thought.
Bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753), in his 1721 De Motu, continued this
empiricist attack on the reality of gravitational attraction, but in addition he
argued against the reality of forces more generally. Berkeley said:
Force, gravity, attraction and similar terms are convenient for purposes of
reasoning and for computations of motion and of moving bodies, but not for the
understanding of the nature of motion itself.
(Berkeley 1721/1901, p. 506)
This is an extension of his earlier, 1710 Principles of Human Knowledge idealist
argument for the non-reality of extrasensory existence. There he had said:
All the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which
compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind
– that their being is to be perceived or known . . . let anyone consider those
arguments which are thought manifestlyto prove that colours and tastes exist only
Realism and Anti-Realism 337
in the mind, and he shall find they may with equal force be brought to prove the
same thing of extension, figure, and motion.
(Berkeley 1710/1962, pp. 67–71)11
Atomism: Realist and Non-Realist Interpretations
Atomic theory is a wonderful exemplar of the 2,500-year dispute between
realist and instrumentalist/empiricist/constructivist interpretations of the aims
of science and of the interpretation of scientific theory. Modern atomic theory
straddles many scientific domains and disciplines; it inexorably connects
science with philosophy; it underlies much modern domestic, communications,
medical, industrial and military technology; it appears in senior (and some
junior) science curricula around the world – thus it is appropriate for the thesis
of this book to examine how historical and philosophical considerations can
contribute to its better understanding and, subsequently, to students’ enriched
understanding of the nature of science.
The US Next Generation Science Standards mention atoms in their ‘crosscutting’ concepts, saying:
For example, the stability of the book lying on the table depends on the fact that
minute distortions of the table caused by the book’s downward push on the table
in turn cause changes in the positions of the table’s atoms. These changes then
alter the forces between those atoms, which lead to changes in the upward force
on the book exerted by the table.
(NRC 2013, p. 100)
This is a deceptively simple realist picture that can be considerably enhanced
and made more interesting and challenging by historical and philosophical
input. When science teaching is informed by HPS input, the ‘blind faith’
component of science learning, so obvious in the preceding quotation, can be
diminished, the sense of connection to an important tradition can be enhanced,
and students’ own epistemology or embryonic theory of knowledge can be
cultivated. Some points in the history of atomism, and its associated philosophical debate, will be mentioned here in order to give a sense of the contribution
of HPS to classroom teaching. Pleasingly, there is an embarrassment of riches
when it comes to studies on the history and philosophy of atomism.12
Origins of Atomism
Atomism had its origin in pre-Socratic philosophy, specifically in the
materialism of Leucippus and Democritus, who maintained that the basic
constituent of all matter was little unseen material atoms and nothing apart
from atoms and the void existed. Democritus is rightly praised for attempting
‘natural’, rather than mythical, animistic, religious, anthropomorphic or
teleological explanations for natural events and processes, and for recognising
that there is more to the world than meets the eye.
338 Realism and Anti-Realism
Alan Chalmers (2009), in a recent comprehensive study of the history of
atomism, sees two basic problems with ancient atomism: first, such atomic
explanations always follow the event: they do not predict experience or events,
rather they just provide ‘explanations’ after the fact; second, the offered
explanations are not determinate: there could be any number of permutations
of atomic shapes and sizes that could equally be claimed to ‘explain’ the event
or property. For Chalmers, this early atomism was philosophical not scientific
atomism; it amounted to ‘hand-waving’ that did not guide any fruitful practice:
‘Rather than being a source of and inspiration towards a viable scientific
atomism, philosophical atomism constituted a barrier to it that needed to be
transcended’ (Chalmers 2009, p. 265).
As is well known, the atomist’s disordered, chaotic, purposeless, mechanical,
‘bumping together’ worldview was supplanted by Aristotle’s ordered, teleological, purposeful, ‘organismic’ conception of nature. The latter seemed so
much better to fit people’s own experience of intentionality, striving and
orderly growth of all things around them. Oak seeds, no matter how much
they were shaken around, turned into oak trees, not tomato plants or mice;
there seemed to be something internal to the seed apart from atoms, something
that ‘governed’ its growth and interaction with its environment. Aristotle
developed a systematic philosophical edifice in which Matter, Form, Act and
Potential were the basic categories, and these were to guide Aristotelian
natural philosophy (science) for the following 2,500 years.
Seventeenth-Century Atomism
The seventeenth-century natural philosophers associated with the scientific
revolution did resurrect versions of ancient atomism in their struggles with
dominant Aristotelianism. Galileo was among the first to again embrace
atomistic ontology. This was first and most famously stated in his The Assayer
(Galileo 1623/1957), where he advances invisible ‘atomic’ motions as the cause
of heat. He says:
But first I must consider what it is that we call heat, as I suspect that people in
general have a concept of this which is very remote from the truth. For they believe
that heat is a real phenomenon, or property, or quality, which actually resides in
the material by which we feel ourselves warmed.
(Galileo 1623/1957, p. 274)
Galileo believed that it was the shape, size, motion and collisions of minute,
unseen ‘atoms’ or corpuscules that determined all outward and perceivable
states, processes and phenomena. There was no place here for unfolding
Aristotelian Form or Potential. As will be seen in Chapter 10, the Roman
Catholic Church immediately recognised the threat that such resurrected
ontology posed to its own ensemble of philosophical/theological teaching.
Robert Boyle (1627–1691) famously promoted the Corpuscularian or
Mechanical philosophy, but was careful to insulate theology from its reach.
Realism and Anti-Realism 339
So the eternal soul, the mind, the bestowing of Grace, the activity of angels
and the rest of Christendom’s rich constellation of existing things were beyond
the reach of Boyle’s new (or old) system, where everything was either atoms
or void. Newton, the greatest of all seventeenth-century scientists, was a
champion of the New Philosophy or the recovered Mechanical Worldview.
Beginning in his student days, Newton embraced Galileo’s mathematical
methods, his Copernicanism, his experimentalism, his rejection of Aristotle’s
physics, his rejection of scholastic philosophy and his embryonic atomism.13
Ernst Mach’s Instrumentalism
Ernst Mach (1838–1916) carried the empiricist and instrumentalist standard
in the great philosophical war at the turn of the twentieth century: the reality
or non-reality of atoms and molecules, the meaningfulness or meaninglessness
of the atomic hypothesis. Mach’s first public refutation of atomism was in his
1872 History and Root of the Principle of the Conservation of Energy. There,
he held the hypothesis to be useless, saying that it contributed nothing to what
phenomenal knowledge already told us. Mach argued:
But let us suppose for a moment that all physical events can be reduced to spatial
motions of material particles (molecules). What can we do with that supposition?
Thereby we suppose that things which can never be seen or touched and only
exist in our imagination and understanding can have the properties and relations
only of things which can be touched. We impose on the creations of thought the
limitations of the visible and tangible. . . . In a complete theory, to all details of
the phenomenon details of the hypothesis must correspond, and all rules for these
hypothetical things must also be directly transferable to the phenomenon. But then
molecules are merely a valueless image.
(Mach 1872/1911, p. 49)
Mach did not have an aversion just to atoms; he was quite catholic in his
refusal to reify any theoretical construct. He said of Newtonian gravitational
attraction, for instance, that it was not just unknowable, but there was no
such thing: gravitation was merely a human construct useful for the economy
of thought and for the mathematisation of particular experimental relationships. Mach recognised Berkeley and Hume as like-minded philosophers
(although his ideas were developed in advance of his reading them).
Max Planck’s Realism
Mach’s greatest adversary was Max Planck (1858–1947), who, for a time, as
with nearly all the physicists of his generation, shared Mach’s empiricist
viewpoint (Heilbron 1986, pp. 44–46). Richard Miller notes about these
constructivist efforts to retain the successful theories but not be committed
to their referents, that:
340 Realism and Anti-Realism
Most characteristic methods and outlooks of modern philosophy of science can
be traced to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when philosophically
minded physicists and chemists, especially in Austria and Germany, tried to show
how the fruits of classical mechanics, Maxwellian electrodynamics and atomistic
chemistry could be retained without commitment to the distinctive entities of each
(Miller 1987, p. 351)
Planck, during his Machian phase, opposed Boltzmann’s atomic interpretation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. After his own 1900 work on
black-body radiation, he converted to the realist and atomist camp. As with
many converts, he became more of a realist than most realists – he maintained
that atoms were as real as planets, and probably looked the same except scaled
down (Toulmin 1970, p. 24).
Planck’s first public rejection of Mach’s ideas occurred in his 1908 lecture
‘The Unity of the Physical World-Picture’, which he gave in Leyden at the
invitation of Lorentz (reproduced in Toulmin 1970). Planck says, against
Mach’s fundamental claim that science has to be anchored in our psychological
elements or experiences, that: ‘The whole development of theoretical physics
until now has been marked by a unification achieved by emancipating the
system from its anthropomorphous elements, in particular from specific sense
impressions’ (Toulmin 1970, p. 6).
He also criticised the thesis of Mach’s acclaimed history of physics, The
Science of Mechanics, saying:
When the great masters of the exact sciences introduced their ideas into science:
when Nicolaus Copernicus removed the earth from the center of the universe
. . . when Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravitation . . . when Michael
Faraday created the foundations of electrodynamics . . . ‘economical’ points of
view were certainly the last to fortify these men in their battle against traditional
attitudes and overriding authorities. No: it was their unshaken faith, whether
based on artistic or religious foundations, in the reality of their [atomic] worldpicture.
(Toulmin 1970, p. 26)
Planck finished his lecture with the claim that Machian empiricism was
antithetical to the progress of science:
If the Machian principle of economy were ever to become central to the theory
of knowledge, the thought processes of such leading intellects would be disturbed,
the flights of their imagination would be paralyzed, and the progress of science
might thus be fatally impeded.
(Toulmin 1970, p. 26)
These, of course, were provocative words, and, notwithstanding his 72
years, Mach responded. His reply, titled ‘The Guiding Principles of My
Realism and Anti-Realism 341
Scientific Theory of Knowledge’, was published in 1910 (reproduced in
Toulmin 1970). Mach, in polemical style, says of Planck and his supporters
that they,
are on the way to founding a church. . . . To this I answer simply: If belief in the
reality of atoms is so important to you, I cut myself off from the physicists’ mode
of thinking, I do not wish to be a true physicist, I renounce all scientific respect
– in short: I decline with thanks the communion of the faithful. I prefer freedom
of thought.
(Toulmin 1970, p. 37)
Some Philosophical Considerations
This sketch of the history of debate between realist and anti-realist accounts
of astronomical mechanisms and of atomism shows that some basic
distinctions are important in order to discuss the issue; approaching the subject
with too limited, black and white contrasts will not allow the nuances of the
history to be appreciated. The sketch also illustrates one of the central themes
of this book: the close relationship between science and philosophy, and the
importance of understanding both fields in order to understand the history
of either, and indeed to properly understand the scientific theories discussed
or taught.
Empiricist Arguments Against Realism
The three most powerful arguments that empiricists urge against realists are:
first, the ‘idleness’ argument; second, the ‘graveyard’ argument; and, third,
the ‘underdetermination’ argument. Arguably Larry Laudan (1984) and Bas
van Fraassen (1980) have provided the most wide-ranging critiques of realism,
and van Fraassen has given the most sophisticated restatement of empiricism
and instrumentalism as a viable philosophy of science. Van Fraassen says that:
To be an empiricist is to withhold belief in anything that goes beyond the actual,
observable phenomena, and to recognize no objective modality in nature . . . [it]
involves throughout a resolute rejection of the demand for an explanation of the
regularities in the observable course of nature, by means of truths concerning a
reality beyond what is actual and observable.
(van Fraassen 1980, p. 202)
The first, ‘idleness’, argument was stated by Mach and was succinctly
expressed by Carl Hempel (1905–1997) in his famous paper ‘The Theoretician’s Dilemma’ (Hempel 1958/1965). Hempel states that empiricists
(Braithwaite, Carnap, Feigl and others) regarded all scientific terms as
belonging to either of two realms: the observable or the theoretical. The
function of theories was to deductively explain or inductively enjoin observations, so that, given one set of observations, a second set could be predicted.
342 Realism and Anti-Realism
Realists believed that these explanations worked because of connections in
the world between the theoretical entities and processes they postulated and
visible events. The postulated theoretical entities behaved in a law-like manner
(hence, excluding angels and spirits from the class of scientific theoretical
entities). After quoting the behaviourists Hull and Skinner on the subject, he
then poses the theoretician’s dilemma as follows:
If the terms and principles of a theory serve their purpose they are unnecessary
. . . if they do not serve their purpose they are surely unnecessary. But given any
theory, its terms and principles either serve their purpose or they do not. Hence
the terms and principles of any theory are unnecessary.
(Hempel 1958/1965, p. 186)
The theoretical terms – ‘force’, ‘field’, ‘caloric’, ‘intelligence’, ‘class’, ‘gene’
and so on – occupy scientific space but pay no rent. After due elaboration,
Hempel criticises and rejects this argument, saying that the supposed
observational bed-rock is ‘a fiction’ (Hempel 1963, p. 701), and that, as well
as deductive explanations of phenomena, theories have to provide for inductive
expansion of claims, and this cannot be done using just observational terms
(Hempel 1963, p. 700).
The second, ‘graveyard’, argument against realism has traditionally been
most convincing. It was given sharp formulation by Larry Laudan (Laudan
1984), who points out that the history of science is littered with discarded
theoretical entities that earlier were firmly ensconced in the best and most
successful science of their time – crystalline spheres, caloric, phlogiston,
humours, the ether and so on – all these theoretical terms were assumed to
be referential. It turns out they were not. And Laudan adds that there is no
reason to think that our best current candidates for truth will have a different
fate. This is his ‘pessismistic meta-induction’ (PMI) argument against realism
(Laudan 1984).
The third, ‘underdetermination’, argument appeals to the fact that
theoretical terms are always underdetermined by the evidence available, and,
consequently, the same evidence will also support other extant or potential
theoretical entities. So, the evidence provides no special basis for any particular
referential claim.
Defending Realism
Realists have offered defences against the empiricist arguments outlined above,
and the thrust of these can be readily understood and utilised in classroom
discussion and elaborations.14 Hilary Putnam’s ‘no miracles’ argument is
widely endorsed:
The positive argument for realism is that it is the only philosophy that doesn’t
make the success of science a miracle . . . [realism] is part of any adequate scientific
description of science and its relations to its objects.
(Putnam 1975, p. 73)
Realism and Anti-Realism 343
Other realists (Psillos 1999, 2011) have outlined how Laudan’s PMI
argument can be accommodated.
First, by making burial conditions more stringent and, hence, reducing the
number of tombs in the graveyard; not just any old discarded theory is allowed
burial, but only well-confirmed theories whose confirmation came from
prediction of novel facts. Empirical adequacy is not just passive agreement
with facts or phenomena – astrology and natural theology are both capable
of that – but to be buried in the scientific section of the cemetery requires that
the theory has made novel, confirmed predictions that result from its recourse
to its postulated theoretical entities. This step thins out the number of graves
on which to base the pessimistic induction.
Second, by checking whether the buried theories are indeed dead. The
realist assuredly needs to acknowledge theory change, even for substantial
and successful theories, but it is always an open question as to what degree
the new theory retains elements or entities from the old theory it replaced.
To the degree in which there is continuity in theory change, then to that degree
the grounds for PMI are further diminished.15 Fresnel’s theory of light
warranted burial in the scientific cemetery (it was widely endorsed, successful
and made confirmed predictions), but, although buried, parts of the theory
did live on and inform subsequent nineteenth-century optics, so it could be
exhumed and not take up so much cemetery space. Laudan has an argument,
but it is not the lay down misère that it is oft taken to be by anti-realists.
Ian Hacking (1983) has cautioned that, if science is conceived as simply a
representation of the world, then the empiricist arguments are so strong that
realism has no satisfactory reply; realism has to look to new forms of
justification. He finds these in the success of scientific intervention and
experimentation. On the reality of electrons, Hacking endorsed a scientist’s
observation: ‘So far as I’m concerned, if you can spray them, then they are
real’ (Hacking 1983, p. 23). Hacking provides philosophical support for this
practitioner’s intuition, as does Allan Franklin, who argues that the ongoing
success of experimental practice confirms modest realism:
Supporting a realist position does not, however, mean that I believe in either the
absolute truth of the laws or in the ‘real’ existence of the entities. It means only
that I think we have good reasons for believing in the truth of the laws and in
the existence of the entities.
(Franklin 1999, p. 160)
It is useful to delineate some of the forms that realism can take in order to
clarify what is being defended in the name of realism, and what is not being
defended. Leplin (1984, p. 1) provides a comprehensive list of theses that span
the range of realist philosophical positions. He points out that realists can be
said to be affirming one of a number of slightly different theses, these being:
1 The best current scientific theories are at least approximately true.
2 The central terms of the best current theories are genuinely referential.
344 Realism and Anti-Realism
3 The approximate truth of a scientific theory is sufficient explanation of
its predictive success.
4 The approximate truth of a scientific theory is the only possible explanation of its predictive success.
5 A scientific theory may be approximately true even if referentially
6 The history of at least the mature sciences shows progressive approximation to a true account of the physical world.
7 The theoretical claims of scientific theories are to be read literally, and so
read they are definitively true or false.
8 Scientific theories make genuine, existential claims.
9 The predictive success of a theory is evidence for the referential success
of its central terms.
10 Science aims at a literally true account of the physical world, and its
success is to be reckoned by its progress towards achieving this aim.
A strong form of realism might hold the combination of theses 1, 2, 4, 7
and 10. A modest form of realism might, for instance, hold the combination
of theses 6, 8 and 9. Modest realism is, in effect, saying that science aims to
provide a true account of a world that is beyond and independent of our own
mental states, and that well-proven scientific theories are approximately true,
their postulated explanatory entities do exist – successful scientific theories
‘latch on to the world’.16
Howard Stein argues for the importance of attending to fine detail in the
realism/anti-realism debate:
When the positions are assessed against the background of the actual history of
science, (a) each of the contrary doctrines, interpreted with excessive simplicity,
is inadequate as a theory of the dialectic of scientific development; (b) each, so
interpreted, has contributed in important instances to actual damage to
investigations by great scientists (Huygens, Kelvin, Poincaré); whereas (c) in both
the theoretical statements and the actual practice of . . . the most sophisticated
philosophers/scientists, important aspects of realism and instrumentalism are
present together in such a way that the alleged contradiction between them
(Stein 1989, p. 47)
With recognition of this caution, modest realism can be supported. It maintains
the following:
• Theoretical terms in a science attempt to refer to some reality.
• Scientific theories are, to whatever degree, successful in their attempts at
• Scientific progress, in at least mature sciences, is due to their being
increasingly true.
Realism and Anti-Realism 345
• The natural world that science investigates is independent of our thoughts
and our minds.
The debate between realists and anti-realists over the status of scientific theory
– whether theoretical statements about unobservables are meant to refer to
real, existing entities, and to what degree do they so refer – has been canvassed
for a number of reasons. First, it has so dominated the history of philosophical
reflection on the nature of science that it ought to feature in school discussions
of this subject. Second, school textbooks frequently endorse one or other of
the views, but with very little understanding of the historical or philosophical
issues involved. Familiarity with the debate allows teachers to be more critical
of the texts and widen students’ appreciation of this core matter. Third,
constructivism is decidedly empiricist and instrumentalist in its view of science
and the goals of scientific enquiry; indeed, in many cases, where it is asserted
that people can only know about their experiences, it is outrightly positivist,
despite this word being a term of abuse among educators. These empiricist
commitments flow over to classroom practice, where it is commonly held,
indeed, it is almost the default position among educators, that, ‘constructivism
is the most mature epistemological theory’, and that successful science
teaching can be judged by how many students adopt the position (Roth &
Roychoudhury 1994, p. 28; Tsai 1999, p. 1219). Realism is by no means as
discredited and without support as is commonly believed, and it is salutary
for educators to recognise this. Such recognition would lessen the amount of
constructivist indoctrination that occurs in teacher education and school
1 There are countless books and articles discussing realism and anti-realism. The online
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good starting point for both history and
literature. Two classic books are, in support of realism, Psillos (1999) and, for antirealism, van Fraassen (1980). Four anthologies in which both sides of the argument
can be found are: Churchland and Hooker (1985), Cohen et al. (1996), Leplin (1984)
and Nola (1988).
2 Although these commitments are listed separately, they are connected. A realist
ontological claim about an entity needs to be linked with an epistemological claim about
its properties; the former cannot be held without the latter. To do so would be equivalent
to saying goblins exist, but nothing is known or can be said about them.
3 In Chapter 12, it will be shown that this is the most efficacious way of bringing HPS
into teacher education programmes.
4 There are many sources for ancient astronomy, but see at least: Clagett (1957, Chapter
7), Heath (1913/1981) and Sambursky (1956, Chapters 3, 4).
5 For the Christian tradition’s arguments from motion to motion’s God, see Buckley
6 Recall that Copernicus’s 1543 revolutionary treatise was titled On the Revolutions of
the Heavenly Spheres.
7 The Dedication is much anthologised. See Matthews (1989, pp. 40–44).
346 Realism and Anti-Realism
8 See Drake (1970, Chapter 7) and van Helden (1985).
9 As two constructivists write: ‘Generally, constructivists recognise a reality that exists
independently of cognising beings, but hold that direct access to this reality is forever
elusive’ (Roth & Roychoudhury 1994, p. 6). This particular constructivist claim is
elaborated, and convincingly criticised, in Kitcher (2001) and Nola (2003).
10 On this topic, see Cohen (2002).
11 It is noteworthy that Ernst von Glasersfeld nominates 1710 as one of the greatest years
in the history of philosophy, on account of its being the year of publication of Berkeley’s
book, and also noteworthy that he mentions The Principles as the first philosophy book
he read while a refugee in Ireland during the Second World War. Not surprisingly, the
echo of Bishop Berkeley can be heard in much contemporary constructivist discussion.
12 Among excellent recent works are: Chalmers (2009), Pullman (1998), Pyle (1997) and
Siegfried (2002). An older and rewarding work by a Thomist philosopher is van Melsen
13 For Newton’s early scientific and philosophical formation, see Herivel (1965) and
Westfall (1980, Chapters 3–5).
14 See, for instance, Boyd (1984), Hooker (1985, 1987), McMullin (1984), Musgrave
(1996), Psillos (1999, 2011), Schlagel (1986) and Snyder (2005).
15 Alberto Cordero has well argued this case (Cordero 2013).
16 The idea of approximate truth, or ‘verisimilitude’ as Popper called it, has its problems,
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