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Philosophy of Science

A New Vision of Science

Fritz Wallner
University of Vienna

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ABSTRACT: Traditional convictions regarding science (such as universalism, necessity and eternal validity) are currently in doubt. Relativism seems to destroy scientific claims to rationality. This paper shows a way to keep the traditional convictions of scientific knowledge while acknowledging relativism. With reference to the practicing scientist, we replace descriptivism with constructivism; we modify relative validity with the claim to understanding; and, we offer methodological strategies for acquiring understanding. These strategies we call strangification, which means taking a scientific proposition system out of its context and putting it in another context. We can thus see the implicit presuppositions of the given proposition system by means of the problems arising out of the application of this procedure. Such a change in the understanding of science holds important consequences.

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There is a personal background for the new understanding of science I am proposing in this article. These ideas that are now comprised within the notion Constructive Realism have been developed over the last twenty years during interactions and in cooperatio with other scientists. Now I am giving them my voice for a couple of short arguments why this new understanding isneeded today. It should be mentioned that the dialogue with my former friends from the Vienna Circle hs, to some extent, been important in this process. The Vienna Circle was so complex and encompassed so many different ideas that some traces of what I am argueing can be found there. Presently, however, my own understanding of sciencehas departed crucially from what is usually considered as the Vienna Circle's stance toward science. Without being aware of it, the Vienna Circle was the last great attempt for a rational metaphysics of science. It was trying to establish a correspondence of purified human mind with the world. Probably, this is why they argued so sharply against traditional, i.e. irrational metaphysics.

Contrary to the declared position of most of the Vienna Circle's members, however, Constructive Realism does not struggle against metaphysics. I appreciated very much the example of Erwin Schrödinger because it has wonderfully shown in which degree a scientist is influenced by his metaphysical background. Checking the bckgound of scientific doing one is getting a lot of impressions about metaphysical world.comcepts, metaphysical concepts of knowledge etc. If we lay aside our apprehension to touch metaphysics, science can even bepushed forward by it. In fact we should have many metaphysics. They are offereing unusual perspectives and this is exactly what science needs to progress. The real use of metaphysics is that they make excellent sparring partners for what we call strangification (see below).

Why do we need this change now?

In the course of the last decades, in Europe at least, we have experienced that science is more and more loosing its cultural value. This was one of the major sources for developing Constructive Realism. Why does science in the later part of the 20th century loose its influence on culture?

One reason is that intercultural dialogues have shown

1.) that European Science is deeply connected to European metaphysics and

2.) that there are different metaphysics possible and equaliy valid or not valid.

In Constructive Realism, any kind of doctrinal ontology (e.g.talking of a metaphysical system as being valid or non valid) is deliberately abandoned in favour of an unconditional observation of what has been constructed in this specific metaphysics.

Furthermore in the last thirty of fourty years, we have also got a lot of informations on history of science. Thomas Kuhn, for instance, has shown that there is more that one way to rationality.

Other reasons are social processes that started in Europe during the 1960s. Democratization and liberalization did not stop before the doors of the universities, but changed its structure by taking away part of the hierarchies. Before that, European science was strictly based on hierarchies. It was through loosening the grip of these hierarchies that the coexistence of different ways of thinking and different methods became possible. this, however, can easily be misunderstood as an invitation to post-modern relativism.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the introduction of computers to the natural sciences had a major impact for the general development. The exchange of information is facilitated and the working speed of science is much higher today than it was twenty years ago. On the other hand, the individual scientist is more and moreloosing the inellectual connection with the result. The structure he or she is imposing onto the computer provides some rules for mastering data (information) and the result is telling him what can be done or not done. But where is the knowledge?

In the 1980s in Vienna all this made us a bit sullen. The aim of our intellectual effort did not reach the high level we would have liked it to have. We worried about how we could possibly change the understanding of science so that we could keep its cultural goal - knowledge -it has been designed for.

The factual starting point for Constructive Realism came in 1989 when I was urged to improve the self-understanding of natural sciences in Austria by holding seminars for university teachers. Thereby I was confronted with a lot of complaints

-about science not resulting in knowledge,

-about science becoming irrelevant and ununderstandable,

-about the debacle of philosophy of science in respect to its normative claims.

As a result, scientist who felt themselves not understood and not supported by traditional philosophy of science, had turned to irrational metaphysical philsophy.

On the other hand, the practice of science, especially of natural science, was and is doing very well. At this point, we develped the idea that there is a difference between scientific action and scietific thinking. Similarily there is a difference between choice and the argumentation for choice. There is no good reason to assume that making a choice automatically leads to knowledge, even if this choice is successful in respect to teh object. Then you have a toy, I would say, to master some aspects of nature. This is a lot but it is not knowledge. It was one of the biggest mistakes in European history to have teh judicial instance for knowledge entrusted to empirical success.

In the words of Thomas Kuhn, if you have solved the puzzles you have got the knowledge, This conviction is metaphisically loaded to a high degree. It comes out of a specific metaphysics of the unity of mind. Constructive Realism does not presume a unity of mind. There are only signs, nothing else.

In Vienna, we were curious about what would happen if we discarded the assuumption of the unity of mind. Furthermore, we consciously took the choice to divide scientific action, i.e. scientific practice from scientific knowledge. When looking to scientific practice, there is a good motivation - at least for the activities in natural sciences - to refer to the term "to construct" . I am not argueing for a Kantian constructivism. In our context, construction means that scientist are arranging informations by the help of a framwork. Nothing else is meant with the notion "to construct a microworld". Having constructed a microworld, we are able to master a sum of phenomena. But still there is no knowledge at this point. You have just got a new ability to solve problems.

Using the word "construction" we are replacing the conviction that science is describing the world. Constructive Realism is fiercly doubting this commonconviction. There is an interesting linguistic aspect in the word description. In a mathematical sense, for instance, description means just to repeat with other means. At this point, however, you have not arrived at knowledge. For getting knowledge it is needed that you integrate something into your linguistic frame, i.e. to translate it. If you are not able to translate a language of description then you do not understand it. Thus, translation is the point of proof for understanding.

After having replaced description by construction, the second suggestion is therefore to leave the usual proceeding of philosophy, i.e. interprete texts , to apply logical languages and so on. Even after Wittgestein, all these activities fall under the common misunderstanding that somehow you are getting insight sand knowledge by doing philosphy. I am suggesting another way which is more like a consulting or coaching approach for scientists. What we are doing in Constructive Realism is not telling ideas about the structure of the world. We do refer to some concepts and some structures but just for enabling scientists to make this translation jump they have not been able to do before.

The one concept we refer to invariantly is the distinction between two types of reality: By "Wirklichkeit" (environment or given world), we understand the world we are living with."Realität"(reality) means our cognitive world being the result of a process of construction. The differentiation between reality and environment is not aimed at a relativism of knowledge. Nor is it aimed at giving up idea of knowledge at all. Its purpose is to avoid surrendering ourselves to the success of our constructs in the environment. The environment cannot be understood. We can only master environment with the help of our constructions of reality. If they serve us well for gaining control over the environment, we keep them. If they do not, we discard them. When it comes to knowledge, however, we can only refer to reality, i.e. to what we have constructed. Very few scientists would disagree that the objects of scientific activity are not given objects. Rather they are highly artificial objects and result from complicated scientific and technical activities. These artificial objects are held together by a framework which itself is invented freely. The together of such objects we call microworlds. Perhaps, the most famous example is the "relativity theory".

Therefore we have to be careful in the use of terms. We must say, science is directed to something which is in some sense without nature. Reality is the systematical together of the microworlds that mankind - in a specific point in time - has elaborated.

There is no good argument that there is no given world. But the given world must have a different function in the life of human beings than reality. With the given world we are connected by life. The give world is never doubted. For reality, this is not the case. Im experimenting with our constructions we have some degrees of freedom. Idf we mess up with the given world, however, we risk our lives.

The given world is the world we are living with both in the sense of biology and in the sense of culture. Therefore a good term for these aspects is "enviroment" as this term is stressing the aspects of working together and of mutual influence parts etc. If you adop this conceptional terminological difference between reality and environment, then you become able as a scientist to tell the difference between mastering nature and understanding the world (=knowledge).

How can scientists become able to find their way from handling nature towards knowledge? They have to understand that puzzle-solving is only one part of the picture. In the terminology we have suggested it would be mastering nature. The other aspect of science, i.e. knowledge, is only available if you are free in respect to the specific languages you are using. It is our experience that this freedom is only possible through interdisciplinary efforts. In Constructive Realism, interdisciplinarity serves the funtion to leave on's own linguistic framework and embark on a different one.

The way to get out of your scientific skin is called strangification. Strangification is the central methodological proposal of Constructive Realism and is discussed in detail by Slunecko in this volume. In short, strangification means to take a proposition system out of its framework and into the framework of another scientific microworld. The first "success" of this movement is probably confusion. In the first moment you are not able to understand what happens. Therefore you ask where this confusion is coming from. At this moment you see that the confusion is coming from different background informations scientist have for using a language. The confusion resulting from strangification is due to the fact that language use in science is only possible if you follow of a lot of rules which are not explicitly formulated. Strangification, thus, gives you insight into rules another science is implicity working by.


Mankind constructs tools for mastering nature. These tools are judged by whether they are helpful for mastering nature. this kind of science is totally instrumentalistic. Thereby the original aim of European science, i.e. achieving knowledge, gets out of sight. At this point, Constructive Realism steps in, suggesting a framework by which scientists should be pushed forward and enabled to take care about their knowledge job again. This knowledge job cannot be accomplished by simply checking (or purifying) the proposition system and by assuming that this proposition system is somehow coherent or connected with the give world, respectively that it is describing the given world. From the standpoint of Constructive Realism the relation between proposition systems and understanding is not so obvious. What proposition systems describe are microworlds. Microworlds are artificial worlds. They are poor worlds in relation to the given world, i.e. its qualities are reduced, but they have a clear purpose. Constructive Realism is taking the proposition systems as they are, assuming that if they do not work, scientists throw them away by themselves. Instead of trying to purify them, Constructive Realism is discussion the relations between the multitude of possible microworlds. Evidently, for this discussion a multitude of different proposition systems is requested (at least two) and the traditional idea of an inherent unity of science is give up.

This discussion is facilitated with the help of a methodological proposal called strangification. Strangification is not contemplative reflection but a combined activity of translation and action. After all, it is activities that are serving (but not fully explaining) the connection of the human being to the environment. By strangification you find the demarcations of your proposition systems, you get insight into your presuppositions and into the relations between the microworlds and the environment. In other words, you gain knowledge and you understand what you have done to the world with your presuppositions.

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