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Alternative Approaches to Scientific Realism (12 - 14 April 2021)

Idea & Motivation

There has been a recent move in philosophy of science towards views that in some sense reject the strict dichotomy between realism and anti-realism, or otherwise situate themselves between these two extremes. These include varieties of structuralism, perspectivalism, and pluralism/relativism, and have been applied across various scientific domains, including physics, mathematics, biology, cognitive science, and computer science. It seems plausible that each of these views might share some motivations and have in mind a similar target, i.e. the idea that there is an attitude we could hold towards our scientific theories that is somehow ‘less’ demanding than full-blown realism, and yet somehow ‘more’ rigorous than full-blown anti-realism. This conference will bring together representatives of each of these viewpoints, in order to compare the respective progress made by each approach, and to develop a shared foundation for the future development of alternatives to traditional scientific realism and anti-realism.

Please note that this conference will take place via Zoom: details will be sent to all registered participants prior to the start of the event (see ‘Registration’ below). Watch selected lectures @ Youtube.


For information about practical matters and registration, please contact the co-organisers, Joe Dewhurst ( and Neil Dewar (


In order to register for the conference, please send an email to Joe Dewhurst ( with the subject line: Registration: Alternative Approaches.

Invited Speakers

Sindhuja Bhakthavatsalam earned a PhD in Philosophy and Science Studies from UC San Diego in 2015 and has since been an Assistant Professor at California State University, Northridge. She is interested in the general philosophy of science, particularly debates around scientific realism, theory choice, and values in science. Recently she has been looking at issues at the interface of philosophy of science and science education, particularly narratives of 'nature of science' in US K-12 science standards.

Ana-Maria Cretu is a Visiting Research Associate at the University of Bristol. Her work is in History and Philosophy of Science, principally within two overlapping areas. On the one hand, she is interested interested in scientific classifications, real patterns, disagreements, and scientific instruments. On the other hand, the historical case studies she investigated -- in physics, astrophysics, and biology -- led her to examine issues arising from the history of science such as the ethical, epistemic, and political implications of the history of human computers, epistemic appropriation, typecasting, and feminism.

Fiona Doherty is a temporary lecturer at the University of Stirling. Her research focuses on the history of analytic philosophy (especially philosophy of mathematics), and applications of that history to contemporary philosophical issues. Most recently she has been working on developing a form of mathematical structuralism inspired by the early work of David Hilbert, and applying this to a variety of issues including computational implementation and individuation.

Martin Kusch is Professor of Philosophy of Science and Epistemology at the University of Vienna. Before moving to Vienna in 2009, he was Professor for History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. He is a Fellow of the Finnish Academy of Science, and a member of the Academia Europaea as well as the Institut International de Philosophie. He has published in the philosophy of the natural and social sciences, epistemology, philosophy of language and mind, philosophy of technology, the history of German and Austrian philosophy as well as the sociology of scientific knowledge. From 2014 until 2019 he was PI of an ERC Advanced Grant Project entitled "The Emergence of Relativism". His current work relates to this project, e.g. (as author) RELATIVISM IN PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE (due out in 2020, CUP); THE FIRST RELATVIST: A STUDY OF GEORG SIMMEL (in prep.); (as editor), THE ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK ON RELATIVISM (due out in 2020); (as co-editor), THE EMERGENCE OF RELATIVISM (Routledge 2019), SOCIAL EPISTEMOLOGY AND EPISTEMIC RELATIVISM (Routledge, 2020).

James Ladyman is Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bristol. His work has primarily been in general philosophy of science and philosophy of physics. He has worked extensively on scientific realism, constructive empiricism and structural realism. He also works on scientific representation, physicalism, the relationship between the special sciences and physics, naturalised metaphysics, the philosophy of information and computation, and the philosophy of mathematics. He works with Stuart Presnell on the foundations and philosophy of Homotopy Type Theory and its application to physics, with Karoline Wiesner on complexity science, and with Nello Cristianini on AI and Big Data. He is also interested in the impact agenda and science policy. He is co-editor of Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics.

Michela Massimi is Professor of Philosophy of Science in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, affiliated with the Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Astronomical Society, and elected Member of the Academia Europaea. Her primary research interests are on philosophy of science, the history and philosophy of modern physics, and Kant's philosophy of nature. She is currently working on an ERC-funded project on perspectival realism.

James Read is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and a Tutorial Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford. His research is focussed in the philosophy of physics: in particular, in the foundations of spacetime theories and the interpretation of symmetries. On the latter topic, he has defended a realist attitude towards symmetry-related models of physical theories, against various 'perspectival' and 'structural' alternatives.

Noah Stemeroff is an Azrieli postdoctoral fellow and Dan David scholar at Tel Aviv University. He holds a PhD in the philosophy of science from the University of Toronto. His research is principally in the philosophy of physics and mathematics. Recently, he has been exploring the historical development of differential geometry and dynamical spacetime theories from the perspective of a neo-Kantian philosophy of science.

Billy Wheeler is Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Science and Society at VinUniversity, Hanoi, Vietnam. He holds a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge. His interests are interdisciplinary and lie at the intersection of philosophy, science and technology. He is particularly interested in the metaphysical and epistemological aspects of computing, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. This year he was awarded a Seed Research Grant from VinUniversity to investigate the philosophical and ethical implications of Industry 4.0 technologies from the perspective of East Asian philosophical traditions.


12 April 2021

Time (CEST)Event
11:00 - 12:00 Billy Wheeler: How Realist is Informational Structural Realism?
12:00 - 12:15 Break
12:15 - 13:15 Fiona Doherty: Hilbertian Structuralism
13:15 - 14:00 Lunch Break
14:00 - 15:30 James Ladyman: It is not all just a matter of perspective

13 April 2021

Time (CEST)Event
14:00 - 15:30 Martin Kusch: Relativism in the Study of Science
15:30 - 15:45 Break
15:45 - 16:45 Ana-Maria Cretu: Perspectival Instruments
16:45 - 17:00 Break
17:00 - 18:00 Sindhuja Bhakthavatsalam: Pragmatic Scientific Realism: Values, Aims, and Stances

14 April 2021

Time (CEST)Event
13:00 - 14:00 Noah Stemeroff: Cassirer on the Methodology of Science
14:00 - 14:15 Break
14:15 - 15:15 James Read: Geometrical objects and perspectivalism
15:15 - 15:30 Break
15:30 - 17:00 Michela Massimi: From data to phenomena



Sindhuja Bhakthavatsalam: Pragmatic Scientific Realism: Values, Aims, and Stances

In this paper I endorse a pragmatic rationale for adopting a scientific realist position. Following ideas of van Fraassen (2002) and Chakravartty (2017), I propose taking scientific realism as a stance (as opposed to a belief about scientific theories). I focus on the pragmatic (as opposed to epistemic) gains of a realist stance for the philosopher of science. The philosopher adopting the realist stance I advance is committed to the (pragmatic) aims of making sense of and 'feeling at home' with scientific pursuit. Given these aims, and given a need for 'pragmatic coherence' (Chang 2016), the appropriate stance to take toward (successful) scientific theories seems to be a realist one. After advancing these general arguments, I present the views of Duhem (1906), Wylie (1986), Fine (2009), and Psillos (2011) and argue that all of them have at different points advocated for non-epistemic (philosophical) values and advanced a range of pragmatic arguments for (some version or other of) scientific realism in view of certain specific (philosophical)

Ana-Maria Cretu: Perspectival Instruments

Despite its potential implications for the objectivity of scientific knowledge, the claim that ‘scientific instruments are perspectival’ has received little critical attention. Yet understanding ‘who’s point of view?’ instruments might depend upon is invaluable to understanding how scientific knowledge is obtained. This paper shows that whilst the unqualified claim that ‘scientific instruments are perspectival’ is epistemically unproductive, once finer-grained notions of perspectives are taken into account, perspectivism can be used to develop new strategies for resolving well known epistemic problems in relation to scientific instruments, such as conceptual relativism and

Fiona Doherty: Hilbertian Structuralism

I argue that David Hilbert adopted a form of non-eliminative structuralism in his early work. Furthermore, I show that his variety of structuralism can nullify a recent source of objections to non-eliminative structuralism which issues from distinct but structurally identical objects such as the complex roots of -1. Last but not least, I will examine the prospects for Hilbertian structuralism in the philosophy of

Martin Kusch: Relativism in the Study of Science

In my talk I will explain two relativist approaches in the study of science, one from philosophy of science (van Fraassen), the other from the sociology of science (Barnes and Bloor). I shall compare and contrast the two approaches and identify some problems and open questions. I shall also briefly sketch how I see the relationship between relativism, perspectivism and pluralism.

James Ladyman: It is not all just a matter of perspective

It is argued that pluralism about science is wrong on epistemological, metaphysical and methodological grounds. Hence, if perspectivalism entails pluralism it should be rejected. On the other hand, the scale relativity of ontology for which Ladyman and Ross argue in Every Thing Must Go (2007), motivates their reference to perspectives in their naturalised metaphysics. It is argued that the combination of ontic structuralism and rainforest realism in their theory of real patterns combines our perspectives on the world at different scales into an overall picture, in keeping with the unity of science but without resorting to eliminativism or reductionism.

Michela Massimi: From data to phenomena

This paper takes some steps in clarifying the ontology of nature that perspectival realism licenses. I identify three main insights of three philosophical traditions: empiricism, realism and constructivism. The empirical roots of our scientific knowledge, its modal nature and its pertaining to us as epistemic agents are all important insights emerging, respectively, from these three traditions. I explain and articulate how a perspectival realist ontology of nature has the promise and potential to deliver on all of

James Read: Geometrical objects and perspectivalism

I explore the perspectivalism which results from rejecting the Andersonian geometrical object paradigm in physics. I argue that endorsement of this perspectivalism is compatible with rejection of other versions of the

Noah Stemeroff: Cassirer on the Methodology of Science

In this talk, I will present an account of Cassirer's (1923) critique of the realist justification of the methodology of modern mathematical physics and discuss some potential issues that this critique poses for the structural and perspectival realist. I will argue that, despite the diversity of physical theories, there is a shared mathematical framework that underwrites the methodology of modern physics. However, the question remains whether this shared mathematical framework can support the realist claim of continuity or inter-translatability required by the structural and perspectival realist. The convergence of scientific claims secured within the methodology of scientific progress does not, on its own, entail that these claims correspond to the world, as opposed to, say, the constitutive framework of scientific thought. This is the essence of Cassirer's neo-Kantian critique of scientific realism. Against Cassirer, I will consider whether the mathematical framework underwriting the methodology of physics can be taken to map onto the fundamental structure of reality. top

Billy Wheeler: How Realist is Informational Structural Realism?

Informational Structural Realism (ISR) has been presented by Luciano Floridi and others as an alternative form of structural realism that can overcome many of structural realism's shortcomings. The essential idea behind ISR is that nature is ultimately informational in nature and scientific theories present data structures that represent this information. In this talk I assess whether ISR is able to reconcile the two most important arguments in the realism-antirealism debate: the "no miracles argument" and the "pessimistic meta-induction". I argue that compared to traditional structural realism ISR fails to achieve this. Floridi's commitment to Levels of Abstraction prevents any explanation of content-preservation through theory change, and his definition of information as "strongly semantic" nullifies the force of the no miracles argument. Despite this, I believe structural realism can be improved by a turn to focus on information. If we define information using algorithmic information theory a better reconciliation of the above arguments can be made and a more realist version of ISR results. top