Structuralism (philosophy of science)

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Structuralism (also known as scientific structuralism or as the structuralistic theory-concept) is an active research program in the philosophy of science, which was first developed in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s by several analytic philosophers.


  • Structural realism—in its metaphysical version, championed by the philosopher of science James Ladyman—is the deepest explanation I know, because it serves as a kind of meta-explanation, one that explains the nature of reality and the nature of scientific explanations.
  • This reality crisis has grown so dire that Stephen Hawking has called for a kind of philosophical surrender, a white flag he terms "model-dependent realism", which basically says that while our theoretical models offer possible descriptions of the world, we'll simply never know the true reality that lies beneath. Perhaps there is no reality at all.
    But structural realism offers a way out. An explanation. A reality. The only catch is that it's not made of physical objects. Then again, our theories never said it was. Electrons aren't real, but the mathematical structure of quantum field theory is. Gauge forces aren't real, but the symmetry groups that describe them are. The dimensions, geometries and even strings described by any given string theory aren't real—what's real are the mathematical maps that transform one string theory into another.
  • Weirdly, although the beauty of physical theories is embodied in rigid mathematical structures based on simple underlying principles, the structures that have this sort of beauty tend to survive even when the underlying principles are found to be wrong. A good example is Dirac’s theory of the electron. Dirac in 1928 was trying to rework Schrödinger’s version of quantum mechanics in terms of particle waves so that it would be consistent with the special theory of relativity. This effort led Dirac to the conclusions that the electron must have a certain spin, and that the universe is filled with unobservable electrons of negative energy, whose absence at a particular point would be seen in the laboratory as the presence of an electron with the opposite charge, that is, an antiparticle of the electron. His theory gained an enormous prestige from the 1932 discovery in cosmic rays of precisely such an antiparticle of the electron, the particle now called the positron. Dirac’s theory was a key ingredient in the version of quantum electrodynamics that was developed and applied with great success in the 1930s and 1940s. But we know today that Dirac’s point of view was largely wrong. […] Yet the mathematics of Dirac’s theory has survived as an essential part of quantum field theory; it must be taught in every graduate course in advanced quantum mechanics. The formal structure of Dirac’s theory has thus survived the death of the principles of relativistic wave mechanics that Dirac followed in being led to his theory.
    So the mathematical structures that physicists develop in obedience to physical principles have an odd kind of portability. They can be carried over from one conceptual environment to another and serve many different purposes, like the clever bones in your shoulders that in another animal would be the joint between the wing and the body of a bird or the flipper and body of a dolphin. We are led to these beautiful structures by physical principles, but the beauty sometimes survives when the principles themselves do not.
  • It is important to keep straight what does and what does not change in scientific revolutions, a distinction that is not made in Structure. There is a "hard" part of modern physical theories ("hard" meaning not difficult, but durable, like bones in paleontology or potsherds in archeology) that usually consists of the equations themselves, together with some understandings about what the symbols mean operationally and about the sorts of phenomena to which they apply. Then there is a "soft" part; it is the vision of reality that we use to explain to ourselves why the equations work. The soft part does change; we no longer believe in Maxwell's ether, and we know that there is more to nature than Newton's particles and forces.
    The changes in the soft part of scientific theories also produce changes in our understanding of the conditions under which the hard part is a good approximation. But after our theories reach their mature forms, their hard parts represent permanent accomplishments. If you have bought one of those T-shirts with Maxwell's equations on the front, you may have to worry about its going out of style, but not about its becoming false. We will go on teaching Maxwellian electrodynamics as long as there are scientists. I can't see any sense in which the increase in scope and accuracy of the hard parts of our theories is not a cumulative approach to truth.

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