Truth is the aim of inquiry, but what kind of truth is “scientific truth” is matter of debate. First of all: does scientific inquiry really aim at truth? Instrumentalists and anti-realists of various stripes would deny this. Even admitting that truth is the goal of scientific inquiry, are scientific theories and hypotheses “true” or “false” in the same way ordinary propositions are? What are the relations between “ordinary” truth and “scientific” truth, or between the “manifest image” and the “scientific image”? Other questions concern the nature of scientific truth: should we construe it as correspondence to facts, as realists do? Or is it better understood in a pragmatic and/or epistemic way, for instance as the ideal limit of inquiry or as ideal rational acceptability? Or, maybe, a deflationary approach to truth would be more appropriate? Moreover, it seems clear that, even if truth is one cognitive goal of inquiry, there are others as well: to mention but a few, accuracy, approximate truth, empirical adequacy, high probability, confirmation, truthlikeness or verisimilitude, knowledge, understanding, and so on. What are the relations between truth and these other “cognitive values” or “theoretical virtues”? Is there a unique set of values guiding all kinds of scientific activity, at all different levels (experimental, observational, theoretical, and so on)? Or different goals characterize different levels?
The ones above are some of the central issues at the core of the modern debate on scientific realism/antirealism. Popper 1962, 1972, 1983 defends a realist view of scientific progress and inquiry and a Tarskian view of truth as correspondence (Tarski 1943). In the same years, Sellars 1963 defends a strong form of realism influenced by the Perceian view of ideal science (Peirce 1932). Peirce’s thought is an inspiration for both critical and fallibilist realists like Niiniluoto 1999 and Musgrave 1993 and for anti-realists like Putnam 1981 and Rescher 1973, who defend epistemic or pragmatic views of scientific truth. Other anti-realists, like Van Fraassen Bas 1980, Laudan 1984 or Fine 1984, deny that truth has a relevant role to play in scientific methodology. Levi 1967 proposes a decision-theoretic view of inquiry where truth is one of the central cognitive ‘utilities’ at play; this ‘cognitive decision theory’ has been developed in different directions (Niiniluoto 1987).
Niiniluoto 1999 provides an illuminating survey and discussion of the main positions in the realism/antirealism debate and of the corresponding conceptions of scientific truth. Another useful survey is in the first chapter of Kuipers 2000.
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