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Structural Realism in Biology: A (Sympathetic) Critique

Discussion seminar

A College of Social Sciences and International Studies seminar
Date23 May 2013
PlaceByrne House

Speaker: Sahotra Sarkar (University of Texas at Austin)


Structural realism holds that ontological commitments induced by successful theories should focus on the structures rather than the objects posited by the theories. Thus structural realism goes beyond the empirical adequacy criterion of traditional (or constructive) empiricism. It also attempts to avoid the problems scientific realism faces in contexts of radical theory change accompanied by discordant shifts of posited theoretical objects. Structural realism emerged in the context of attempts to interpret developments in twentieth-century physics. In a biological context, Stanford (2006) provided pre-emptive criticism. French (2011, 2012) has recently attempted to answer those criticisms and extend structural realism to the biological realm. This paper argues that, though Stanford’s criticism may be misplaced, and structural realism fares much better than traditional scientific realism in biological contexts, it remains a promissory note. The promise is based on shifting the focus of the debate from the status of biological laws to that of biological organization, an issue that remains a live debate within biology.

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