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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Is science merely fiction?

Hans Vaihinger (1852 – 1933) was a German philosopher who introduced the idea of “as if” into philosophy. His book, Die Philosophie des Als Ob (The Philosophy of ‘As If’), was published in 1911, but written more than thirty years earlier. He seems to have survived the publish or perish paradigm for thirty years.

In his book, Vaihinger argued that we can never know the true underlying reality of the world but only construct systems which we assume match the underlying reality. We proceed as if they were true.  A prime example is Newtonian mechanics. We know that the underlying assumptions are false—the fixed Euclidean geometry for example—but proceed as if they were true and use them to do calculations. The standard model of particle physics also falls into this category. We know that at some level it is false but we use it anyway since it is useful. Vaihinger himself used the example of electrons and protons as things not directly observed but assumed to exist. They are, in short, useful fictions.

Vaihinger’s approach is a good response to Ernst Mach’s (1838 – 1916) refusal to believe in atoms because they could not be seen.  In the end, Mach lost that fight but not without casualties.  His positivism had a negative effect on physics in many ways was a contributing factor in Ludwig Boltzmann’s (1844 – 1906) suicide.  The philosophy of ‘as if’ is the antithesis of positivism, which holds closely to observation and rejects things like atoms which cannot be directly seen. Even as late as the early twentieth century, some respectable physics journals insisted that atoms be referred to as mathematical fictions.  Vaihinger would say to proceed as if they were true and not worry about their actual existence. Indeed, calling them mathematical fictions is not far from the philosophy of ‘as if’.

The ideas of Vaihinger had precursors. Vaihinger drew on Jeremy Bentham’s (1748 – 1832) work  Theory of Fictions. Bentham was the founder of modern utilitarianism and a major influence on John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) among others.  ‘As if’ is very much a form of utilitarianism: If a concept is useful, use it.

The idea of ‘as if’ was further developed in what is known as factionalism. According to fictionalism, statements that appear to be descriptions of the world should be understood as cases of ‘make believe,’ or pretending to treat something as literally true (a ‘useful fiction’ or ‘as if’).  Possible worlds or concepts, regardless of whether they really exist or not, may be usefully discussed. In the extreme case, science is only a useful discussion of fictions; ie science is fiction.

The core problem goes back at least to Plato (424/423 BCE – 348/347 BCE) with the parable of the cave (from The Republic). There, he talks about prisoners who are chained in a cave and can only see the wall of the cave.  A fire behind them casts shadows on the wall and the prisoners perceive these shadows as reality since this is all they know. Plato then argues that philosophers are like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all. Unfortunately, Plato (and many philosophers after him) then goes off in the wrong direction. They take ideas in the mind (Plato’s ideals) as the true reality. Instead of studying reality, they study the ideals which are reflections of a reflection. While there is more to idealism than this, it is the chasing after a mirage or, rather, the image reflected in a mirage.

Science takes the other tack and says we may only be studying reflections on a wall or a mirage but let us do the best job we can of studying those reflections. What we see is indeed, at best, a pale reflection of reality. The colours we perceive are as much a property of our eyes as of any underlying reality. Even the number of dimensions we perceive may be wrong. String theory seems to have settled on eleven as the correct number of dimensions but that is still in doubt. Thus, science can be thought of as ‘as if’ or fictionalism.

But that is far too pessimistic, even for a cynic like me. The correct metaphor for science is the model. What we build in science are not fictions but models. Like fictions and ‘as if,’ these are not reality and should never be mistaken for such, but models are much more than fictions. They capture a definite aspect of reality and portray how the universe functions. So while we scientists may be studying reflections on a wall, let us do so with the confidence that we are learning real but limited knowledge of how the universe works.

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  • Wrong Assumptions vs Right Assumptions?
    Philosophy of science

  • SA Kiteman

    Science is not a fiction, it is a real process. Its goal is to remove as much fiction out of our models of the universe as possible.

  • Linda Russell

    Yes, models is a good metaphor, but I consider that we have to take into account the social conditions in which those models are constructed, the scientist is culturarly, socialy, historicaly and geographicaly embedded, or as Heidegger said, we our Beings-in-the-world

  • Science is content and process assumptions. Input, crank, output; validate or falsify. Obtain quality from the least jury-rigs. Falsify theory to nourish better theory. A fractal chiral universe breaks emergence scale, mocking what we know is true.

    Picasso broke representational art. Crap on canvas followed quality being ambiguous (perturbation theory, symmetry breakings; neutrino see-saw). Observation is the criterion.

    Quantum gravitation and particle theory suffer empirical failure by assuming photon rules, then unendingly curve-fit (dark matter; parity violations, SUSY). Insubordinately seek beauty in the dark, not where Official Truth shines brightest. Science replaces defective faith with empirical value.

  • If you call it ‘model’ or ‘fiction’ is not important – Vaihinger’s main insight was that our ‘models’ are actually inconsistent (this is the reason he called them ‘fiction’).
    He only knew the physics and mathematics of his time, so he did not know about Goedel and of course he did not know about the ‘standard model’. While the s.m. is the best we have it is nevertheless inconsistent – but one can live with that if one acts ‘as if’ it was a valid theory of reality.

  • LarryJayCee

    You could also compare Heisenberg’s matrix formulation of quantume mechanics with Schrodinger’s wave equation. Both describe the same thing, but Heisenber’s formulation uses only what is observable (the energy levels). In practice we tend to use formulations that make testable predictions easier to calculate.

  • Carlos Pronsato

    Humbly, I think natural philosophers (scientists) started thinking about the “as if” concepts when Locke-Berkeley-Hume-Schopenhauer… deny the existence of a material world independent of the mind.
    And, because scientists could not come up with counter arguments to this Modern Idealism they created Positivism which is Idealism in drags.
    The “as if” concept is nothing but a hierarchical system which posits Modern Idealism (mainly Berkeley-Kant’s version) on top. And science right after. I personally agree with this agreement.

  • Carlos Pronsato

    Beings-in-the-world is not everything. There is also the influence of other thinking (in the world) beings. Hans Vaihinger accepts (stands-on) Schopenhauer’s philosophy and from that enlightening stand point come up with the right conclusion: Science is valid road to get what the Will wants. And what is what the Will wants from all living creatures? Just to blindly reproduce. Schopenhauer’s philosophy in kind of depressing. But it is the only true philosophy.

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  • jmalmari

    great post! Usefulness is a good measure to find out if something is real. If something is useful it is already validated by the universe. Usefulness of atoms may be difficult to see by many, but that surely does not make them fiction, assuming the concept of realness is a shared one. Is atom not real to some who doesn’t see its usefulness?

  • Mike Will

    Science can be a tough business – Hippasus, Boltzmann, Turing, etc etc
    It’s important to remember that science is not equal to scientists, a lesson that is completely lost on the science bashers of pop culture. Scientists are people, subject to the same foibles as the rest of us, just less often hopefully.
    “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
    – Max Planck