Saturday, June 12, 2010

Review of van Fraassen's Scientific Representation

Here is a short review of van Fraassen's 2008 book Scientific Representation: Paradoxes of Perspective. It will eventually appear in the BJPS. I found the book to be very impressive, although I had trouble understanding the way in which van Fraassen deploys indexical judgment to avoid problems like the Newman problem which have sunk some versions of structuralism. As I put it in the review,
The central unresolved issue with van Fraassen’s empiricist structuralism is what his appeal to context in the solution of his “problems of perspective” comes to. I would distinguish the weaker claim that an ability is not the same as a description of that ability (p. 83) from the stronger claim that a given indexical proposition is distinct from all the propositions expressed by any scientific theory: “Is there something that I could know to be the case, and which is not expressed by a proposition that could be part of some scientific theory? The answer is YES: something expressed only by an indexical proposition” (p. 261). The stronger point seems to link having an ability to knowing an indexical proposition. But here van Fraassen says that even though what these essentially indexical propositions express is a crucial part of any account of representation, this is outside the scope of any scientific theory. As a result, it is not possible to arrive at a scientific theory of representation. This is much less plausible than the mere distinction between an ability and a description of that ability. The weaker claim allows for the possibility of a fully naturalistic theory of how we can think and locate ourselves with respect to our representations, i.e. the abilities which underlie our knowledge of the relevant indexical propositions. While linguistics and cognitive science are not adequate at this stage of science, it is hard to see why what these indexical propositions express would be beyond their scope. It is possible that van Fraassen takes his discussion in Part IV to undermine the demand for this sort of naturalistic completion of a scientific theory of scientific representation, but if this is his intention, then I have failed to follow the argument. It also possible that van Fraassen did not intend to exclude these indexical propositions from the scope of scientific investigation, but then he owes us a clearer account of how our abilities relate to our knowledge of indexical propositions.

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