Scientific constructivism versus scientific realism: do we come up with our laws as a way to impose structure upon reality, or do our laws really capture the fabric of reality? Many of us dare to believe that science, via its rigorous methodology, describes the world as it really is. For suppose it does not. How then is it possible for physical laws to predict what will happen in the world given certain initial conditions to such an extreme level of precision? That would be a coincidence that is almost impossible to imagine.
However, over the course of many centuries, laws have been refuted, and new laws have come into existence. So it seems fair to say that our laws not necessarily give an optimal picture of the world as it is.
An interesting position that deals with this dilemma is structural realism. Structurual realism claims that our scientific laws capture the structure of reality, but not necessarily the objects the theory presumes. An example is Fresnel laws on the reflection of light. Fresnel postulated laws about the reflection of light, and he assumed the existence of an ether – some sort medium through which light moves – for doing so. Years later Maxwell postulated his laws of electromagnetism, which overlap Fresnel’s laws. However, Maxwell got rid of the ether. What we see here is two theories that latch on to the same structure in reality, hence Fresnel’s laws are still correct. But the objects that are being constructed in the process are not necessarily real.
These are all interesting questions, which I could write about for hours. But I give the floor to the Institute of Arts and Ideas with Episode 8 of their series ‘Philosophy For Our Times’: ‘Unnatural Laws’: