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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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