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is a description of the world. Thus, we should think that the sentence
Electrons have
negative charge
is true if the world is a certain way and false otherwise. Call this view about
the semantic content of scientific claims
Descriptivism contrasts with a view frequently labeled
. Contra the
descriptivist, the instrumentalist does not think that scientific claims should be understood as
descriptions. Rather, the instrumentalist notices that an aim of science is the provision of
affordances for action. If one’s aims are pragmatic in nature, then truth and falsity may be
beside the point. Thus, the instrumentalist denies that scientific claims are in the business of
describing the world. Instead, scientific claims serve to give us enough purchase on a
phenomenon to allow for its successful manipulation. The instrumentalist, unlike the
descriptivist, thinks that scientific claims are neither true nor false.
It is important to specify the scope of the instrumentalist’s claim. Given the possible
range of sentences that might express a scientific claim, it is deeply implausible to be an
instrumentalist about scientific claims
. Consider the following sentence:
Canadian geese are a migratory bird
. Expressed in the right context, this looks like a
quintessential scientific claim. It is difficult to see how one could maintain that the sentence
Most 2014 cars have airbags
is descriptive while being an instrumentalist about the sentence
Canadian geese are a migratory bird
. In order to be a descriptivist about one sentence but an
instrumentalist about the other, one must draw a principled distinction between the two, but it
is difficult to see how one could do this.
Generally speaking, the instrumentalist holds that sentences that appear to make
claims about
theoretical entities
lack a truth-value. As a rough gloss, a theoretical entity is
any entity that cannot be directly observed. Thus,
negative charge
are both
theoretical entities while
Canadian geese
, and
are not. It is
prima facie
plausible to think that one can observe Canadian geese, migration patterns, and airbags in a
sense that one cannot observe electrons or negative charge. Much of the plausibility of
instrumentalism rests on this notion of something being
directly observable
. This is not the
place to explore the plausibility of distinguishing between those entities that are, and those
entities that are not, directly observable. It will have to suffice to note that this distinction is
widely considered to be difficult, if not impossible, to draw.
Contemporary creationists aim to show that “every bit of the Biblical story of creation
given in the early chapters of Genesis is supported fully by the best of modern science”
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
, Creationism). If successful in this project, the
creationist will have provided a scientific vindication of creationism. Importantly, a scientific
vindication of creationism can only count in favor of theism if one accepts the realist’s
semantic commitments. If one is an instrumentalist, the scientific vindication of creationism
tells us nothing about the nature of the world.