Realism, Empiricism, Expansivism

Scientific realism is the philosophical doctrine which holds that what science describes is ultimately real (even if we cannot see it, such as electrons). The opposing view is empiricism which technically is a belief that all knowledge is based on only sensory experience but which translates into the position that we should only talk about the results of experiments and not read greater meanings into them (such as using them to say what is real). To this dichotomy I now want to add expansivism. That is to see a scene as about more than is physically present because of having qualities from how it fits with other scenes; it is to see experimental results expansively, as about what is fitting together, not just about what is physically real and pushed along.

We can especially see the difference when it comes to hypotheses. In scientific realism, a hypothesis is a conjecture about how the world really is, and the experimental results are thought to “confirm” (or not) that we have found a true piece of the puzzle. However, an empiricist is distrustful of making this extra “leap” into saying that we are proving how the world really is and prefers to limit the discussion to what is observed. (We saw that with Newton, “Hypotheses non fingo”; I do not contrive hypotheses).

But from a viewpoint of expansivism, what we are doing with our experiments is increasing (or expanding) the number of terms in which we can describe an event, so as to see more to it than is literally present but not in a way that claims to have found ultimate reality. Instead of searching for ultimate truth by which to deduce and make inferences, we are with our experiments finding how to increase what we can do over again in terms of more and more others, to elaborate and add more nuance to our actions, conclusions, and decisions.

That is possible because to see a scene expansively is to see it in terms of its relationships with other scenes, not just in terms of what is physically present, and we can often add to the number of scenes being related. And then we can understand the particulars in the scene in terms of these relationships.

An expansionist wonders, when the realist and empiricist (in their own ways) claim to see just the facts, how it is possible to really do that. How is it possible to know a specific incident except in the context of what else is going on? Knowledge is built up; elaborated.

As we have seen, science describes events expansively in reproducible ways. But in daily life, we can still describe events in terms of expansive phenomena (potential, logics, and features that do not exist physically) even without the reproducibility. That is the subject of the next chapter.