Scientific realism, one of the main positions in the philosophy of science, is a stance towards the ontology of scientific knowledge. Philosophers such as Stathis Psillos articulate it as the view that the world described by our best scientific theories is a largely accurate representation of a mind-independent reality. Scientific realism stands on three key three theses: the semantic view of theories (science’s objective is to produce true descriptions of the world), the epistemic view of theories (belief in the approximate truth of successful theories), and metaphysical realism (existence of a mind-independent world). Scientific realism is one of the central issues in philosophy of science. It is one of those issues that is highly interesting for scientists themselves. Who does not want to know whether their field matches the reality?
However, what if we push the boundaries of this discourse and introduce it into a domain that does not entirely conform to the traditional paradigms of science? What happens when we encounter a field that muddles the boundaries of natural and social sciences, a field that is not so much about definitive predictions as it is about exploring possibilities? This unconventional field is futures research.
Futures research presents a unique intersection with scientific realism. Its underlying methodologies, its focus on potentials rather than predictions, and its innate dependence on a range of heterogenous concepts and theories pose interesting questions when considered in the light of scientific realism.
In this post, we shall navigate through the connections and disconnections that potentially exist between scientific realism and futures research. The goal is to illuminate this unusual intersection and provide deeper understanding of how realism and futures research are connected.
The Dichotomy of Natural and Social Sciences within Scientific Realism
Scientific realism has generally been a view on theories in natural sciences. These theories easily fit into the category of ‘best theories’—those that, according to scientific realism, offer a close-to-accurate depiction of a world independent of our thoughts. On the flip side, social sciences, with their complex, changing, and context-dependent nature, struggle to fit this model.
Trying to place futures research on this scale is tricky. Futures research is closer to social sciences because it focuses on the dynamic interactions of social, technological, and environmental forces, not on fixed natural laws. Instead of describing a single future, it outlines a range of possible futures, each influenced by many complex factors. This approach challenges the level of control and exactness that scientific realism typically requires.
Lack of Future-Oriented Theories: A Hurdle or Potential Gateway?
Futures research does not supply direct theories concerning the future. It gives scenarios—conceptual tools that facilitate contemplation of various possible futures. The absence of definitive future-oriented theories constitutes a complication when attempting to apply the principles of scientific realism. Can we regard these scenarios as ‘truthful’ akin to scientific theories pertaining to natural phenomena? Given the intrinsic plurality and unpredictability of these scenarios, such a proposition seems strenuous.
This raises another possibility: Could futures research be conceptualized not as a science of the future, but a science of possibilities?
Futures Research: A Discipline of Possibilities
If we consider futures research as a study of possibilities, we may achieve a unique angle that could potentially harmonize it with the tenets of scientific realism. This perspective places emphasis not on forecasting exact future events, but rather on illuminating ‘possible worlds’. This concept, rooted in the philosophical field of modal logic, shifts our focus from the veracity of predictions to the extent to which these possible futures might exist in a world independent of our cognition.
This viewpoint could provide a novel avenue for discussing “possibilities” within scientific realism. In essence, it could allow us to ground these possibilities in theories and models that deserve realist reading. In other words, the possible futures outlined in this research could be considered ‘real’ in the sense that they represent plausible outcomes rooted in our current understanding of the world – as long as this understanding can be understood realistically. This could enable us to extend the notion of ‘reality’ as used in scientific realism to include a spectrum of potential futures.
However, this approach also invites its own set of challenges. Implementing this perspective practically may risk pushing the boundaries into the domain of the natural sciences. This could potentially cause tension given that futures research often deals with societal and technological phenomena that resist deterministic explanations offered by natural sciences. Moreover, futures research is inherently diverse, encompassing a wide array of methods and theories, some of which may resist a unified realist interpretation.
Scientific Realism and Methodologies in Futures Research
Futures research draws upon a diverse range of methodologies. One could contemplate whether the concepts and theories utilized in these methods, such as the Delphi method, warrant a realistic interpretation. Are the concepts that experts rely upon truthful reflections of a mind-independent world? This could lead us to ponder whether this allows a realistic reading to the scenarios they produce. If the experts use concepts that deserve realist reading, perhaps the scenarios that are produced on the basis of them also deserve realist reading. However, given the heterogeneity of these concepts and theories, and given how much the Delphi itself processes the concepts when producing scenarios, this proposition is far-fetched.
The No-Miracles Argument and Futures Research
The principal argument for scientific realism is the ‘no-miracles argument’, which says that the truth of theories is the best explanation for their empirical success. In other words, if our theories were not, at least approximately, true, their success would be a miracle.
In this light, one might ask: In what sense could the products of futures research be deemed empirically successful? What would this even mean within the context of the discipline? Futures research, with its emphasis on exploring a range of possibilities rather than making precise predictions, does not seem to have a clear-cut criteria for success akin to the natural sciences. The No Miracles can hardly serve as an argument for a realist stance in futures research.
Possibilities for Coexistence of Scientific Realism and Futures Research
Although futures research and scientific realism may appear to stand at odds with each other, a more nuanced perspective suggests that it may be premature to discard the possibility of their meaningful interaction. If we adopt the view of futures research as a ‘science of possibilities’ rather than a ‘science of future, we may open up a potential avenue for the application of scientific realism.
In this light, the ‘truth’ of futures research does not hinge on the accurate prediction of future events but rather on the mapping of a spectrum of plausible future scenarios, each of which could be grouned in possibilites that stem from more realistic research and that could be realized in specific context. This view may diverge from the traditional understanding of scientific realism, but it offers a way to bridge the gap between realism and futures research. This sets the stage for deeper, more sophisticated discussions on their interrelations.
This discussion of scientific realism in the context of futures research opens up a dialogue about the philosophy of science and its applicability to interdisciplinary fields. While there are apparent tensions and mismatches between these two domains, acknowledging these challenges helps to chart new territories in our understanding.
In conclusion, our ongoing analysis and study of these philosophical intersections, even with all their uncertainties and debates, contribute to our overall body of knowledge. The interaction between futures research and scientific realism offers a great opportunity for this kind of work. I hope this discussion prompts more thought and careful scrutiny in the field..