Clocks, God, and Scientific Realism

Zygon 37 (3):555-580 (2002)
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Scientists, both modern and contemporary, commonly try to discern patterns in nature. They also frequently use arguments by analogy to construct an understanding of the natural mechanisms responsible for producing such patterns. For Robert Boyle, the famous clock at Strasbourg provided a perfect paradigm for understanding the connection between these two scientific activities. Unfortunately, it also posed a serious threat to his realistic pretensions. All sorts of internal mechanisms could produce precisely the same movements across the face of a clock. Given God's immense creative capacities, Boyle realized that standard epistemological constraints could never ensure, not even to the least degree of probability, that scientific theories about the unobservable mechanisms of nature were descriptively accurate. Like most moderns, he fortified his epistemology theologically in order to retain his realistic stance. John Locke, however, took counsel from Ecclesiastes to repudiate Boyle's realism, while Samuel Clarke mobilized biblical images to dismiss the clockwork paradigm altogether.A contemporary review of this modern controversy reveals that there is still much to learn from the clock at Strasbourg. Among other things, the realism/antirealism issue is of central importance to understanding today's science, Nancey Murphy's protests notwithstanding. Moreover, the kind of realistic stance that is essential, not only to the truth but to the very intelligibility of certain types of scientific explanation, demands more than the critical realism of Ian Barbour. To be taken seriously, the models used in such contexts must be taken literally.



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