More on Frisch

More puzzlement about something in Frisch’s book. On p. 17:

These is disagreement between those who think that the domains of applicability of all scientific theories are essentially limited and those who have a hierarchical conception of science according to which the ultimate aim of science is to discover some universal theory of everything. My claim that classical electrodynamics is (and to the best of our knowledge will remain) one of the core theories of physics is independent of that debate… For, first, we need to distinguish between the content of a theory and our attitude toward that content. Even if we took the content of classical electrodynamics to be given by universal claims with unrestricted scope about classical electromagnetic worlds, our attitude can be that we accept or endorse those claims only insofar as they concern phenomena within the theory’s domain of validity.

Unlike Frisch, I do not see the point (other than the obvious rhetorical one of avoiding terminological disputes) of distinguishing between the content of a theory and our attitude towards it. Under Frisch’s account, that part of the content of the theory that encompasses claims about what the entire universe is like is irrelevant to our knowledge of the physical world, because we accept only claims of the theory that fall within the theory’s domain of validity. What, then, is the purpose of attributing these useless claims, which have no bearing on our knowledge of the world, to the content of the theory?

It may sound here like I am just arguing about terminology, but I do think this particular use of language, which is deeply entrenched in philosophy of physics, is pernicious. It is pernicious because by elevating some particular construal of the mathematical structure of the theory to be straightforwardly “the content” of the theory, one is led to an overemphasis on the mathematical structure as being informative about the world, while overlooking the informativeness inherent in how that structure fails to perfectly map onto the world. This terminology in effect provides a licence to focus solely on formal features of the mathematical structure as being the “essence” of the theory without seriously considering how the structure hooks on to the actual world, as opposed to how it hooks on to the philosopher’s possible worlds.

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2 Responses to More on Frisch

  1. wolfgang says:

    >> led to an overemphasis on the mathematical structure as being informative about the world

    I don’t know anything about Frisch, so just a comment about physics:

    Electrodynamics without an additional theory of matter is the theory of free e.d. waves and as such does not describe any real experiment or anything actually .

    (Of course electrodynamics *with* a classical theory of matter is inconsistent …
    finally, quantum theory suffers from the interpretation problem, so somehow our mathematical structures always fail to meet reality …)

  2. wolfgang says:

    sorry, the ” e.d. waves ” should have been ” e.m. waves ” , as in electro magnetic waves.

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