Is there a genuine distinction between observable and unobservable entities? Why does it matter? How, and why, might one distinguish between theoretical and observational statements in science?
I have decided to tackle both these questions because they feed into and relate to one another. They emphasize different aspects of a prevalent debate, all aspects of which I wish to touch on. Whether the question of a distinction between observable vs unobservable entities is synonymous to the question of a distinction between theoretical vs non-theoretical statements is itself a matter of debate. Quine advocates semantic ascent, the shift in which the language we use to refer to the world becomes something we talk about in its own right. Semantic ascent is a shift from questions about objects to questions about words or statements. He says we should ‘drop the talk of observation and talk instead of observation sentences, the sentences that are said to report observations’ (The roots of Reference). So obviously Quine thinks the two questions are equivalent. They have often been treated as equivalent questions, or at least not distinguished too carefully. I agree with Van Fraassen that we should at least note and respect the differences between the two ways of talking about what might be the same issue, and not make the category mistake of talking about theoretical entities, just for clarities sake. At any event Paul M Churchland disagrees with Quine that the two debates are parallel , He says “we agree (Churchland and Van Fraassen) that the observable/unobservable distinction is entirely distinct from the nontheoretical/theoretical distinction”. This disagreement / confusion as to the very terrain, layout of the questions of the debate, arises because there is the ordinary language question of how do we naturally apply the terms ‘observed’ and ‘observation’, as well as the question of whether a principled O/T distinction can or should be drawn; as Gerry Fodor’s Granny says: “True there is an epistemologically important distinction, that it’s reasonable to call ‘the’ observation inference distinction, and that is theory relative. And, also true, it is this theory-relative distinction that scientists usually use the terms ’observed’ and ‘inferred’ to mark. But that is quite compatible with there being another distinction, which it is also reasonable to call ‘the’ observation /inference distinction which is also of central significance to the philosophy of science, and which is not theory relative.” It is this second principled O/T distinction that I will focus on as opposed to the ordinary language distinction, I do not think ordinary language arguments bear on the question of whether there is or should be a principled distinction. Although examining what inclines us one way or another in ordinary language usage may clarify factors that also influence us in an overall distinction, such as naturalness, entrenchment, flexibility and plasticity. After semantic ascent the question of whether there is an O/T dichotomy becomes one of whether all observation reports presuppose some theory. This slightly ignores the question of the ontological status of the entities, whether observed or unobserved, but this will come up when I tackle the subsidiary part of each question the “why make a distinction, for what purpose?”or “why does it matter if a distinction presents itself?”I think the strategy of semantic ascent is useful and justified since the debate takes place in at least two domains, the perceptual/cognitive (internal) and the observational/inferential (public)“The strategy of semantic ascent is that it carries the discussion into a domain where both parties are better agreed on the objects (viz., words) and on the main terms connecting them. Words, or their inscriptions, unlike points, miles, classes and the rest, are tangible objects of the size so popular in the marketplace, where men of unlike conceptual schemes...
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