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International Studies in the Philosophy of Science Vol. 22, No. 1, March 2008, pp.

5–20

Theory Change, Structural Realism, and the Relativised A Priori
Dan McArthur
djmc@yorku.ca 0 Prof. 00000March DanMcArthur 2008 ; daniel.mcarthur@sympatico.ca Taylor International 10.1080/02698590802280860 CISP_A_328253.sgm 0269-8595 Original Open 2008 1 22 Society and Article (print)/1469-9281 Francis Studies Foundation in the Philosophy (online) of Science

In this paper I claim that Quinean naturalist accounts of science, that deny that there are any a priori statements in scientific frameworks, cannot account for the foundational role of certain classes of statements in scientific practice. In this I follow Michael Friedman who claims that certain a priori statements must be presupposed in order to formulate empirical hypotheses. I also show that Friedman’s account, in spite of his claims to the contrary, is compatible with a type of non-Quinean naturalism that I sketch. Finally I also show that Friedman’s account needs amending because it cannot provide a rational account of theory change. I accomplish this by arguing for a structural realist view of theory change. I show how this view fits well with an account like Friedman’s and helps it deal with the problem of theory change and in retaining its superiority over Quinean naturalism. 1. Introduction In this paper I argue for the superiority of Friedman’s account of the role of the a priori in science over so-called naturalist views, specifically those ‘holistic naturalist’ views that take all the statements of science to be empirical. However, I also contend that Friedman’s view is not trouble free. Specifically, I claim that in spite of its utility in characterising the role of a priori statements, it cannot fully address the question of the rationality of theory change, a problem Friedman shares with Kuhn. I thus amend Friedman’s view in order to retain its advantages while avoiding its difficulties with theory change. This will be done by arguing for the compatibility of Friedman’s view with structural realism which offers a more promising way of looking at theory change. I will also show, in spite of Friedman’s anti-naturalistic leanings, that this amended version of Friedman’s account is compatible with certain non-holistic versions of naturalism. I outline the form that this argument will take and make it clear exactly what I mean by holistic and non-holistic naturalism below.
Dan McArthur is at the Department of Philosophy, York University. Correspondence to: Department of Philosophy, York University, 625 Atkinson Building, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3, Canada. E-mail: djmc@yorku.ca and daniel.mcarthur@sympatico.ca ISSN 0269–8595 (print)/ISSN 1469–9281 (online) © 2008 Open Society Foundation DOI: 10.1080/02698590802280860

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The term ‘naturalism’ is used very broadly and has been used to describe any position that takes philosophy and science to be in some sense continuous. Nevertheless, the term is usually used in a narrower sense, i.e. to describe those views motivated in large measure by the linguistic holism of Quine. Such a position informs some characteristic naturalistic views such as those of Laudan (1990, 1996), Rouse (2002) or Cartwright (1999). All these views deny that certain classes of statements are presupposed or are a priori in any sense. However, a closer look at scientific practice reveals serious shortcomings in holistic naturalism’s ability to account for scientific practice, specifically the role of a priori knowledge. Nevertheless, following some recent arguments by Stump and others I will argue that a form of naturalism, conceived broadly, can accommodate a robust role for a priori knowledge that is compatible with Friedman’s recent work on the role of the a priori in science. After sketching the outline of this wider sort of naturalism, I will take on the question of the rationality of theory change. This question of course has long plagued accounts of comprehensive theory change and any plausible view must be able to account for such change. I will show that Friedman’s proposed solution, that theory change is a communicatively rational process, cannot adequately avoid charges of irrationalism. In the last sections of the paper, I will nevertheless argue that this weakness does not require abandoning a role for the a priori in scientific frameworks in favour of a return to holistic naturalism. I will defend this claim by showing that a structural realist attitude to theory change is both compatible with a position like Friedman’s and that it can help us reformulate an account of framework change that can avoid the charges of irrationalism that plague Friedman’s view. 2. The Relativised A Priori As I just noted, most recent naturalists find their inspiration in Quine’s linguistic holism. For Quine, the rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction leaves us a picture of science where all the propositions of science face the tribunal of experience as a corporate body. That is, no body of statements can be a priori, or can have a purely philosophical justification. In fact, no qualitative difference exists between any of the statements of science (in the last analysis) since they are all, at least in principle, refutable by experience. This includes the propositions of logic and mathematics too, since these can be rejected given inconsistency with experience. In practice of course some statements are reserved from refuting evidence, but for Quine and his contemporary followers this is just the result of psychological commitment, not because of any feature of the statement. This sort of linguistic holism motivates a robust naturalism. After all, if every statement is, at the end of the day, empirical, then philosophy just becomes a part of science and the two can be seen as part of the same enterprise. However, appealing as the view is, recently some commentators such as Friedman (1997, 1999, 2001), Tsou (2003) and myself (2005) have moved away from this view because of its inability to capture certain features of scientific theories and the particular roles that certain statements play within them. The question that motivates critics of holism is not whether or not psychological commitment accounts for the differences between statements in a framework.

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Very briefly, according to Friedman, certain statements within scientific frameworks in fact enjoy something other than strong psychological commitment. These particular statements must be assumed in order to interpret the other statements in the framework. Such statements operate in an a priori fashion since they need to be presupposed in order to formulate empirical hypotheses in the first place. Moreover they need to be assumed so that an interpretation can be made of observations so that their consistency with hypotheses can be determined. For Friedman such a priori statements can be identified in contemporary physical theory. When sciences like mathematical physics are considered, this a priori component is easy to identify. As Friedman observes, ‘The mathematical background of Einstein’s theory functions as a necessary presupposition of that theory, as a means of representation or a language … without which the theory could not even be constituted or envisioned in the first place’ (Friedman 1997, 12). This a priori mathematical background forms a basis of a framework that coordinates empirical laws with observations and tests. This mathematical background does not face the ‘tribunal of experience’ on the same footing as empirical generalisations or observation statements. In fact, this background is a necessary a priori presupposition needed to formulate the empirical generalisations in the first place. Nevertheless, Friedman is not returning to a position exactly like Carnap’s even though the kinship between the two is obvious. Friedman argues for a relativised conception of the a priori that does not require an analytic/synthetic distinction that is defined outside of the framework in the way that Carnap’s notion does. For Carnap a priori statements are only revised in a new formal language. Friedman does not attempt to formally define a universal scientific meta-language. This is so because Friedman holds that the constitutive principles are not unrevisable, they represent a relativised a priori that differs between theoretical frameworks and examples abound in the history of physics (cf. Friedman 2001, 35–39). According to Friedman, for example, Euclidean geometry functions as the basis of a mathematical framework that permits empirical generalisations such as the law of universal gravitation. Euclidean geometry coordinates the mathematical structure of Newtonian physics with experience. It is true of course that classical absolute space, and eventually even Euclidean geometry was replaced by the new mathematical basis of relativistic physics. Thus, the a priori framework for classical physics was eventually revised. But rejecting the basic assumptions of classical physics meant adopting a completely new framework, special relativity, with its wholly new and different relativised constitutive a priori principles. In the framework of special relativity, for example, empirical theories such as Maxwell’s equations presuppose Euclidean spatial geometry, Lorentzian mechanics and Minkowski space-time, which together play the a priori constitutive role. We witness a similar framework change again in the shift to general relativity. In general relativity the constitutive role is played by the manifold conception of the structure of space-time that admits a Reimannian metrical structure, which the theory identifies from the distribution of energy and mass (cf. Friedman 2001, 79–80). This view can be extended to contemporary fundamental physical theories as well. For example, in ‘standard model’ particle physics all possible decays and interactions

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are governed by a small set of conservation laws. Empirical hypotheses about the results of a decay or a collision presuppose these laws. In these cases, what makes conservation laws take on their a priori role is not the degree of psychological commitment that they enjoy but their particular role in the scientific framework. They must be presupposed in order for the rest of the framework to be deployed empirically. If such a picture is at all accurate, then there is more to say about the nature and structure of scientific frameworks that Quinean naturalism can accommodate. If Friedman’s view is correct, then it represents a serious problem for Quinean holism. The central feature of the position is its rejection of the Quinean claim that the parts of a scientific framework cannot be differentiated. Specifically, and most importantly it represents a rejection of the claim that, within a framework, every statement is empirical, including those of mathematics or logic. The specific feature of the view that makes it different from holism is that, within a framework, certain statements can be identified as having a functionally a priori role. This need not imply, as Kant’s view does for example, that there exist classes of statements that are immune from revision, or that basic framework assumptions such as those of logic and mathematics are never in any sense revisable on the basis of experience. The view also need not imply a complete rejection of philosophical naturalism, just the particular variety associated with Quinean holism. Naturalism, recall, in the broadest sense is simply the view that science and philosophy are continuous and that science need not be held accountable to extra scientific restrictions imposed by philosophical fiat. If one agrees that within science one finds a robust role for constitutive a priori principles, relativised to their frameworks though they might be, one can agree that some statements can have a priori basis and still be a naturalist. Although Friedman does not consider himself to be a naturalist, Stump (2003) has recently argued for such a position. For Stump, a position that is naturalist, fallibilist and empiricist can in fact recognise a role for a functionally a priori component in science. This is so because many of Quine’s main arguments against traditional accounts of the a priori do not hold against a fully relativised and functional account of the a priori such as Friedman’s. This is so because for any scientific framework in question, scientific theory determines what statements are to be taken as a priori. The designation is not made by some theory of language or meaning that applies to all frameworks. Moreover, the functional a priori does not require that some aspects of knowledge remain permanently untestable, only that some aspects of a scientific theory be ‘accepted conditionally’ (Stump 2003, 1157). Thus, the sort of functional account of the a priori such as the sort advocated by Stump or Friedman can even admit the proposition that mathematics and logic are in some sense empirical. But, this is only so ‘in the extremely tenuous sense that the general theory that classified them as a priori is itself an empirical theory’ (Stump 2003, 1158). 3. Communicative Rationality, Relativism and Theory Change If we regard the a priori concepts found in science as a relativised a priori as Stump and Friedman suggest, a fairly congenial compromise position emerges. Although Friedman

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(unlike Stump) does not see his view as any sort of compromise with naturalism, by adopting his view of the a priori we need not wholly abandon all aspects of philosophical naturalism, just the strong account of holism that we find in Quine and his followers. Nevertheless, Friedman and Stump’s view of the a priori has its difficulties. One consequence of adopting such a position is accepting the clear kinship it has with Kuhn’s account of theory change. Both views accept that scientific concepts are interpreted relative to basic framework assumptions, the relativised a priori in Friedman’s case. Likewise, it immediately demands of its adherents an answer to a classic objection to Kuhn’s view, specifically, how can theory change be considered to be rational? This is a pressing difficulty for Kuhn given his well-known claim that rationality is internal to the paradigm, or framework, and his claim that paradigms are incommensurable. Thus, in spite of his many attempts to distance himself from the sort of conceptual relativism latent in his internalist view, Kuhn never provides a clear answer to the charge that theory change is, on his account, irrational. Thus, in what remains of this paper, I will address Friedman’s attempt at providing a non-irrationalist account of framework change. Stump and Freidman of course are not univocal in their views about the relativised a priori. Stump for example has very little to say about the rationality of theory change. His general view in fact seems to be that framework rejection is in the last analysis empirical. For him frameworks are replaced along with their relativised a priori assumptions when the framework in general becomes empirically unsuccessful. Friedman on the other hand sees the picture as quite a bit more complicated and in some sense is somewhat more consistent with the role pictured for the a priori. A priori propositions structure the interpretation of empirical observations. Thus their eventual rejection cannot be an entirely empirical affair. It is, as we shall see below, his appeal to a third ‘philosophical’ level of discourse and to Habermas’s concept of collective rationality that prevents framework change from being irrational. We will consider Friedman’s notion of a philosophical discourse level first. While Stump is silent on the question of framework change and its rationality, Friedman asserts that a more detailed look at the relation between the various types of sentences in a framework can defuse the relativistic implications of a thesis like Kuhn’s. For Friedman a framework can be seen in terms of three levels. Empirical statements comprise the first, the second level is comprised by the relativised a priori statements that coordinate our understanding of the empirical statements. However there is a third level, this the level of philosophical debate. For Friedman the adoption of a framework and its background a priori assumptions takes place against a background of philosophical debate that can last for centuries and sets the general background of inquiry. This level of discourse forms a common background against which frameworks are adopted. An illustrative example is the long philosophical debate over whether space is an absolute empty background in which events take place or whether space itself is defined relative to the events that take place within it. This debate has its origins in the debate over absolute space between Newton and Leibniz but continued all through the period of classical physics through the work of Mach and others. Seen this way

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Einstein’s rejection of Newtonian absolute space was not the presentation of a new and incommensurable concept with (from the classical point of view) no rational basis. Rather it can be seen as a reasonable and well-precedented Machian/Leibnizian move in the long-standing debate between relative and absolute space. Thus while this shared set of philosophical concerns may not have rationally mandated the move to the Einsteinian conception of relative space, it nevertheless rendered his move as a comprehensible and reasonable option well worth considering on it empirical merits (Friedman 2001, 106). Thus not only does the appreciation of the various levels of discourse, empirical, a priori and philosophical establish the roles various sorts of statements have in scientific enquiry, it also helps to eliminate the threat of Kuhnian incommensurability. It also establishes the possibility, as we shall see below, of regarding framework change as a communicatively rational process between scientists who may differ in many foundational and even a priori assumptions. Friedman’s recourse to the postulated third level of philosophical discourse is intended to explain how Habermas’s notion of communicative rationality can function in the context of theory change. Science, he claims, cannot really be characterised as instrumentally rational because different practitioners might not share the same goals such as prediction vs. causal explanation. It is nevertheless a communicatively rational enterprise. Parties working within a framework or paradigm share common assumptions and tools and can, through a process of negotiations, arrive at shared conclusions. The shared recourse to a stable level of philosophical discourse is especially important for Friedman in facilitating collective rationality. Different parties converge on new frameworks after a process of discussion and compromise. The solution arrived at is viewed as at least reasonable to all since everyone at least began the process from the same shared set of assumptions, even if the new framework brings in a set of new assumptions. And everyone has recourse to the philosophical level of discourse in any event. Thus, it is true that the shared assumptions and central features of a new paradigm might not be compatible with the old, as was the case with the change from Euclidean Geometry in the shift from classical to relativistic physics. Nevertheless, Friedman contends that a clear historical continuity can be traced from the point of view of the new framework. The new framework can outline the historical origins of current concepts that might seem incompatible or irrational when viewed strictly from the older perspective. For Friedman, moreover, this can be done in a non-anachronistic, non-Whiggish manner (Friedman 2001, 60). There is some prima facie appeal to Friedman’s approach. Different frameworks do emphasise differing goals and different constitutive concepts, and therefore a new framework might not seem immediately rational from the point of view of the old. If we are to avoid the irrationalist or relativistic consequences of Kuhn’s views, then the rationality of theory change must be conceivable from at least a communicatively rational perspective. However, difficulties remain with Friedman’s proposal and his appeal to communicative rationality and a shared philosophical level as it stands leaves his account open to the same sort of relativistic charges that apply to Kuhn’s position.

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The main problem with Friedman’s answer to the question of theory change is his view that the rationality of a new framework is still something that must be constructed in retrospect. In Friedman’s main example, the case of the transition of Euclidean geometry of classical physics to the infinitesimally Euclidean geometry of relativistic physics, the historical continuity is evident, rendering a strong Kuhnian incommensurability with its relativist implications unnecessary. However, simply tracing the historical evolution of a concept does not necessarily mean that the transition from, say, Euclidean to infinitesimally Euclidean geometry was itself a rational step seen from anything other than the point of view of the current framework. In fact it does not even show that there was more in the transition than the sort of psychological conversion described by Kuhn. This is an especially pressing point since within a framework what counts as rational derives from the paradigmatic assumptions that establish the communicative base. How might a specific new framework be seen as a rational option from the point of view of those who have not yet adopted it? And as we shall discuss at a later point, this can even be the case where adherents of different frameworks are familiar with a similar philosophical level of discourse. In other words how can Friedman’s claims of rational continuity between frameworks be shown to be more than Whiggish or anachronistic? Let us put the matter in slightly different terms. If the framework establishes the interpretation of all the constituents of the theory, and it determines what is reasonable (in the sense Friedman has in mind), then the adherents of a given framework will always be free to interpret its historical origins as rational. Indeed, such an approach might provide a decidedly poor and anachronistic reading of previous frameworks. If this is so, how can an account of framework change rebut charges of Kuhn-style irrationalism? At this point a holist might use this difficulty with Friedman’s view to argue for the superiority of their own view. No statement in the holist view is immune to revision (although some are rarely modified), thus changes to one or several statements do not really represent the sort of radical conceptual change envisioned by Kuhn or Friedman. Friedman’s difficulty with conceptual change introduces much graver problems, a holist might argue, than it solves with its account of the a priori. Thus, if Friedman’s view is to sustain its claim to be a better account of science than holistic naturalism, it must not be open to charges of irrationalism with regards to theory change since the holist can claim to avoid this problem altogether. However in a later section of this paper I will answer such criticism by sketching an approach to theory change that is compatible with Friedman’s view that can also provide a rational account of theory change. But before this takes place it is worthwhile to consider and address some existing literature that criticises Friedman’s view. Doing so will assist with the presentation of a plausible position that addresses the issue of theory change while still retaining a role for the a priori. Marc Lange has contended that Friedman overstates the degree of comprehensive conceptual change that takes place when new frameworks are adopted. For Lange the concepts that Friedman conceives as changing with the framework actually evolve over time and thus the problematic break between frameworks never really occurs. To

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provide an example, Lange notes ‘it may therefore make less sense to speak of Maxwell’s theory undergoing “meaning change” than to speak of the theory as itself highly ambiguous … capable of being precisified in a variety of different ways’ (Lange 2004, 705). Furthermore Lange disputes the sharp distinctions between Friedman’s three levels of discourse, empirical, a priori and philosophical. Philosophical notions such as unity and parsimony are always present when theories are considered, not just in times of revolutions. As Friedman admits, debates over the nature of space characterise the whole period of classical physics. Likewise the relation between a priori and empirical statements evolves over time, and a priori principles need not be presupposed to make sense of data. Newton’s second law was formulated before the calculus even though Friedman views the latter as conceptually prior (Lange 2004, 706). However this criticism can be deflected when we consider that frameworks evolve over time, and that Friedman need not suppose that the opposite is true. Making sense of the second law, for Friedman, requires the calculus because this permits us to make sense of instantaneously changing magnitudes. But, Lange notes, if the calculus is required to make sense of the second law, how is it that the second law was presented and used successfully before calculus was formulated? The question is easy to answer. At first Newton presented acceleration using relatively rough and imprecise aggregational methods. While this permitted some successful use of the second law, the calculus made this easier, quicker and more precise. Its introduction facilitated more successful applications of the law and over time it came to be assumed as prior. Thus, the mature classical physics of Maxwell’s day was much more highly evolved than in its original form in Newton’s time. While Friedman’s view may well be sketchy on how concepts evolve into their a priori status, it is certainly not inconsistent with the sort of account I have just provided. Nevertheless, I will take up the evolution of the relative status of scientific statements again at a later point. There it will emerge that structural realism (a view I later will argue for) can be of assistance in marrying Friedman’s account to a more plausible account of the evolution of statements. Nevertheless, Lange’s criticism of Friedman’s view of conceptual revolutions can still be motivated given his assertion that the notion of revolutionary change is overstated. Friedman’s account of revolutions, and the recourse to a shared philosophical level of discourse, is meant to counter claims about the irrationality of framework change and the incommensurability of differing frameworks. As I noted earlier, if Friedman is correct that framework change is as comprehensive as he claims, his notion of shared recourse to a philosophical level of discourse is probably not enough to counter the implications of a view like Kuhn’s. After all, even if the adherents of differing frameworks can mutually understand shared philosophical considerations, from the point of view of different frameworks these considerations apply strictly speaking to quite different things. Thus, even a shared philosophical background might not provide the ground for an agreement on when it is reasonable to change frameworks. One could be tempted at this point to reason along Lange’s lines and suppose the apparent threat of the irrationality of framework change arises from exaggerating the differences between frameworks and the comprehensiveness of instances of framework change. However, in the next section I will present a

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perspective, structural realism, that is compatible with Friedman’s view but can answer the difficulties that I have presented. 4. Structural Realism Structural realism (SR) is quite an old view, dating to Poincaré (1905) and before. However, the position has been revived recently by Worrall (1989) and the view has been since defended in several forms by a very large number of commentators such as Chakravartty (1998, 2003), Ladyman (1998; French and Ladyman 2003a, b) and me (McArthur 2003, 2006). In this discussion I follow Chakravartty’s suggestions that develop from Worrall’s basic presentation of the position.1 However, I will also draw from some of my own previous work. SR is a view of theory change. It asserts that equations, which are retained across instances of theory change, pick out relations that are at least approximately true. This, supporters claim, forms the explanation for why such equations are in fact retained. However, while SR commits to knowledge of structure (i.e. the equations that describe relations) it does not commit to knowledge of any ‘nature’ of the entities in the retained equations that goes beyond the relations the entities engage in. Thus, for structural realists such as Worrall, the view represents a compromise position. It accommodates major conceptual breaks in our understanding of theoretical constituents at the time of theory change while avoiding the difficulties of conceptual relativism that attach to the early views of Kuhn. For the structural realist, the history of science is replete with instances where, despite the conceptual disruptions introduced by theory change, equations are retained in new theories. The explanation is that while many of the features of the entities named by equations might undergo revision in a theory or framework change, the relations picked out by the surviving equations do exist. Thus, while SR picks out continuity between old and new theories, it also recognises that much of the constituents named by theories do not survive. Examples of such entities are plentiful and include things such as the ‘ether’, ‘caloric’ ‘phlogiston’, etc. A useful presentation of SR for my purposes is Chakravartty’s (1998). He defines the properties of a theoretical entity as its dispositions for the law-like interactions that it engages in. And he contends that what can be known about a theoretical entity are those properties that are utilised in its detection. That is, science provides knowledge of those causal regularities (expressed in law-like terms, i.e. as equations) that are involved in experimental interaction with the entity. Since the constituents of theories are defined in terms of their interaction properties, i.e. structurally, and since some of these survive theory change, some continuity exists between old and new theories. Nevertheless, as I have pointed out elsewhere, SR places no restriction on a new theory adding new interaction properties or recontextualising old properties along with sets of new ones (McArthur 2003). So, while supporting a continuity of at least some law-like statements between different domains, structuralists can accommodate the sort of comprehensive conceptual changes that take place in instances of framework change. They can even accept two thus related theories referring to largely different ontologies since the view is only committed to the structural relations, that is,

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stable material interactions, that hold in either theory. In fact as I have argued in earlier publications, a structural realist can actually take a deflationary stance to the theoretical entities in current theory, and is in no way committed to a theory’s whole ontology (McArthur 2003, 2006). A structural realist can take a theoretical entity to exist or to simply be a mathematical stopping point used to generate predictions. The structural realist need only be committed to the notion that something, however understood, stands in the relations picked out by well-confirmed equations that survive theory change. Thus, a structural realist of this sort has no difficulty accounting for structural relations being recontextualised in a new theory with very different ontological features. One fairly classic example of such a comprehensive framework change that retains equations in the context of a major shift in theoretical ontology is the shift from Fresnel’s theory of light to Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory. The theories are quite different ontologically; light is a wave through the elastic ether for Fresnel. For Maxwell, light is not a wave through the ether at all, but a variation of the charge strength in the electric/magnetic field. However, light’s interaction properties, used in experiments in both theories, remain the same, i.e. light propagates as a transverse wave described by the same equations in both theories. When we take this approach to SR we are in a position to use it to ameliorate Friedman’s view in a way that lets it answer the possible objections to it that I outlined earlier. Recall that recourse to Freidman’s shared philosophical level is not enough to render theory change rational. As I noted above, between frameworks even the subjects of the philosophical level of discourse can be viewed as applying to entirely different things. SR can help deflect this concern. For the structural realist, different frameworks share mathematical structures, such as Maxwell’s equations, that also serve to accommodate the same empirical data. This is especially so if we regard the equations as referring to empirical dispositions, i.e. interaction properties, as I suggested above. Maxwell’s equations serve to recover the same data regardless of the framework. In this sense even dramatic re-interpretations of an equation’s terms do not alter the fact that different frameworks appeal to the same structures to accommodate the same empirical dispositions. In fact Lange’s point, quoted above, that ‘it may therefore make less sense to speak of Maxwell’s theory undergoing “meaning change” than to speak of the theory as itself highly ambiguous … capable of being precisified in a variety of different ways’ is very amenable to a structural realist reading. Nevertheless, SR does recognise, in a way that Lange does not, that such re-evaluations do occur and can be quite comprehensive, as was the case with the shift from classical to relativistic physics. In the next section I will consider in some detail the ways in which SR can help us better understand theory change and Friedman’s account of the role of the a priori. 5. Structural Realism and the Rationality of Theory Change Recall that the major difficulty with Friedman’s proposal to understand theory change as a communicatively rational process is the fact that it produces a Whiggish understanding of theory change. That is, it defines the rationality of theory change solely in

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retrospect and potentially anachronistically. The reason for this, as we saw, is Friedman’s fully internal account of rational framework change (including the philosophical level). What is necessary to truly avoid the irrationalist implications of Friedman (or Kuhn’s) account is to establish criteria for theory change that are genuinely extra-theoretic. That is to say, if we are to avoid irrationalism then we need to identify features that any plausible new framework must possess. SR presents a straightforward account of such features. In the version of SR that I sketched above, the properties of a theoretical entity are defined by the dispositions for law-like behaviour that they confer. For a structural realist of this sort, the properties that are preserved across instances of theory or framework change are those dispositions for law-like behaviour that are utilised in experimental interactions. These ‘interaction properties’ are expressed as the mathematical equations that survive at least as limiting cases in new theories. A structural realist view of theory change, then, asserts that while much of the theoretical entities of an old theory might disappear, interaction properties do survive. That is to say, a significant change can take place in theoretical ontology. A structural realist, as we have seen, is not committed to the interpretation of an entity named in an equation that is given by any particular theory, neither is a structural realist committed to the truth of any particular theoretical ontology. Thus, a structural realist can be quite sanguine about considering any proposed new framework to be rational so long as it preserves established interaction properties at least as limiting cases. A ready example of just such a change is the case of Kepler’s equations describing planetary motion that survive in Newton’s much more comprehensive theory of universal gravitation. These equations express the ‘interaction properties’ whereby we can predict planetary motion. Moreover, the change from Kepler’s theory of planetary motion to Newton’s must count as the sort of comprehensive framework, or paradigm change that Kuhn or Friedman has in mind since the two theories have quite different ontologies. Newton’s theory incorporates planetary motion as part of a more comprehensive theory replete with a universal non-mechanical gravitational force quite absent in Kepler’s celestial mechanics. Nevertheless, the essential structure for the calculation of orbital period is preserved in the new theory. This particular ‘interaction property’ then represents stable structure that persists across instances of theory change. And, as we have already seen, perhaps the most discussed example of such interaction properties surviving instances of theory change is the change from Fresnel’s wave theory of light to Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory. Here the interaction properties in question are represented by Fresnel’s account of light propagating as a transverse wave through the elastic ether. For Maxwell light does not propagate through the elastic ether in this way, but nevertheless propagates as a transverse wave. In either case though, the surviving equations describe properties that confer dispositions for specific laboratory results. Very famously, for example, these include Poisson’s use of Fresnel’s equations to predict that light diffracting around the edge of a disk ought to constructively interfere to create a bright spot in the centre of the disk’s shadow (a disposition later confirmed by Arago). And of course a structural realist can regard the change from Fresnel’s to Maxwell’s theory as rational not simply because Fresnel’s theory led to what

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we currently regard as rational, pace Friedman, but because it preserves the interaction properties found in Fresnel’s theory. Moreover, this is also the case with the shift from Maxwell’s theory to modern quantum mechanical theories of light, where Fresnel’s equations still hold as limiting cases. Let us apply the lessons learned from a structural realist reading of theory change to Friedman’s discussion of theory change as a communicatively rational process. For Friedman the rationality of theory change comes from the communicatively rational process whereby a previous theory change can be seen as rational because it led ultimately to the adoption of the current framework wherein scientific rationality is defined (Friedman 2001, 93–105). However, as we saw earlier, this answer does not seem to escape the charge that this amounts to Whiggish historiography, that the history of theory change is rewritten to show it leading to what now counts as rational. What an account like Friedman’s needs then in order to avoid charges of Whiggishness or irrationalism is extra framework criteria that can help determine what sort of alternative framework can count as rational. A structural realist reading of theory change can serve in this role. If my arguments here are correct then SR can provide an account, external to a given framework, of what sort of framework can be rationally considered as an alternative. A structural realist can view a comprehensive theory change as perfectly rational so long as the new framework preserves, even just as limiting cases, the well-confirmed interaction properties of superseded theory. Moreover, a structural realist can even recognise that new frameworks can come with greatly different relativised constitutive principles. Consider the shift from classical to relativistic mechanics from a structural realist perspective. As Friedman argues, Newton’s laws of motion among other things serve a constitutive a priori role in classical mechanics (Friedman 2001, 26). These laws no longer function in a constitutive role but serve as limiting cases within the much different framework of special relativity. The case is similar with conservation laws; in classical mechanics mass is a conserved quantity, and this assumption plays an important constitutive role. In current relativistic physics, mass is not a conserved quantity, but interaction properties associated with it, such as the properties of elastic collisions at low velocity, serve as approximating limits in the application of the more general principle of the conservation of mass/energy. Friedman’s account of theory change can only show the change from classical to relativistic physics to be rational in retrospect. It cannot account for how relativistic physics might seem rational from the point of view of classical physics. After all, a framework that abandons basic a priori principles such as the conservation of mass or the laws of motion can hardly seem rational from Friedman’s account since these determine what is rational, on his account, for classical physics. However, a structural realist is not as limited in what counts as rational and can take any stance toward current theory. Thus, major revisions in foundational, even constitutive, a priori principles can be seen as rational from a structural realist perspective, so long as the putative new framework preserves well-confirmed interaction properties. Thus, SR can provide the extra-framework criteria that provide a forward-looking account of rationality in theory change. It also imposes limits on what sort of framework can be

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entertained as a candidate in the communicatively rational process that Friedman describes. Candidate frameworks can vary in theoretical ontology or constitutive a priori principles, but they must preserve well-confirmed interaction properties at least as limiting cases. From the structural realist point of view, cases of framework change such as the shift from classical to relativistic physics, or from Kepler’s to classical physics can be seen as rational, and not just in retrospect. The new frameworks in these cases preserve important, well-confirmed interaction properties and can, thus, be seen as rational alternatives even from the point of view of the older framework in question. One criticism that might be levelled against my argument is that a defender of Friedman’s account of the a priori cannot make easy recourse to SR because of the nature of Friedman’s constitutive principles which might be said to be more general than the specific equations picked out by SR. While Friedman’s view certainly identified broad features (such as Euclidean geometry or the calculus) as forming parts of the constitutive framework, he nevertheless does pick out specific mathematical formulations such as the ones identified by SR. A good example is Newton’s second law that for Friedman is an important part of the a priori framework of classical physics. This is retained in contemporary physics as a special case and this is exactly the sort of mathematical continuity picked out by SR. It is true of course that the second law no longer forms part of the constitutive framework since it is derivable from the new framework. But this does not rob a supporter of my position of recourse to it, since its changing role does not alter the fact that it is retained and the empirical situations it accommodates persist in the new framework. One important feature of SR that can help make theory change rational in a way that the communicatively rational features of the philosophical level of discourse do not is that it fixes the empirical dispositions that are similarly accommodated across frameworks. These dispositions persist as a common problem set which render frameworks comparable even if the relative relation of statements to each other alters when a framework changes. Thus while a supporter of SR has no problem accommodating the role of some statements as functionally a priori in some frameworks, such as the second law, she has no problem dealing with the fact of such a statement not having such a role in a new framework. Consider again the second law; in Newton’s physics it is assumed in order to formulate any hypothesis that can be made about accelerating objects. This is no longer so in contemporary physics, which recognises situations where this is not the case. However, a large class of cases (indeed the large majority) do exist where the law is still empirically satisfactory. Additionally while a supporter of SR can recognise the utility of Freidman’s identification of a class of statements as functionally a priori, there is no problem for a supporter of Friedman’s adopting a structural realist view of theory change. This is so for the reason that SR simply focuses on the mathematical continuity across frameworks (such as the persistence of the second law) but in no way denies that they might have different relative roles with regards to each other in different frameworks. Consider the following speculative example. In contemporary high energy physics, all collisions and decays are governed by a set of conservation laws. However, these are not

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simply empirical hypotheses obtained from observing collisions and decays but in fact they are a consequence of the symmetry group representation of the standard model. If this were to be altered in some future framework change (that did not for example use the same symmetry group representations), the new framework still needs to accommodate the same observation set that was accommodated by the conservation laws. While these would no longer perhaps form part of the constitutive framework, they would still persist as a class of empirically adequate hypotheses that apply in certain cases. Just as a supporter of Friedman has no problem pointing to the new role of the second law in relativistic physics, she would have no problem with what SR would say about the survival of the conservation laws in some new framework. SR and Friedman’s view compliment each other well. Together we see not only a rational account of theory change but also a good account of how formerly a priori concepts might survive without this status in a new theory. And as we saw earlier in the discussion of Lange’s criticism concerning the relation of the calculus to the second law, Friedman’s position can well benefit from a more nuanced account of the evolution of concepts. As we have just seen, SR can be of assistance with this. 6. Conclusion The important feature of SR that addresses the problem of rationality in theory change is its de-emphasis on theoretical ontology and its focus on interaction properties. Nevertheless, a structural realist is free to accept, or merely provisionally adopt, the theoretical ontology and constitutive a priori assumptions of any given framework, providing it is empirically successful. That is to say, SR can easily accommodate the role of constitutive a priori principles in scientific frameworks in a much more satisfactory way than can holistic theses about psychological commitment. A structural realist can for instance accommodate the fact that certain statements must be assumed in order to formulate empirical theses in a given framework, such as the a priori use of Euclidean space-time and Newton’s laws of motion in classical physics. Nevertheless, since a structural realist is not committed to the idea that the internal features of a framework wholly define scientific rationality, she can consider it rational to entertain the adoption of a rival framework that might make very different assumptions. As we saw earlier, what makes a theory change rational, for the structural realist, is not the retention of a priori principles, but the retention of interaction properties at least as limiting cases. In conclusion then, while there is much to be said for the proposal that versions of naturalism based on Quinean holism cannot account for the history of the natural (and especially the mathematical) sciences, it demands that the question of the rationality of theory change be addressed. Friedman’s proposals about understanding framework change as a communicatively rational process are also intriguing in that they describe a consensus-building process which in many ways describes the process whereby a scientific community comes to accept new foundational assumptions. Nevertheless, Friedman’s proposals by themselves cannot finally answer charges of irrationalism in a way that is more satisfactory than Kuhn’s own attempts to answer such charges, and

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they cannot rebut charges that they lead to a Whiggish view of the history of science. However, if my arguments in this paper are correct, SR can serve to provide a sufficiently externalist account of theory change that can rebut charges of Whiggishness and irrationality while still preserving Friedman’s central insights about the role of constitutive a priori principles in scientific frameworks. Acknowledgements I would like to thank Corey Mulvihill, Jon Tsou and Idil Boran for their useful comments on early drafts. I would also like to thank the philosophy faculty of Carleton University for their comments and for inviting me to present an early draft as part of their 2005 colloquia series. I also thank the attendees of the 2005 Canadian Philosophical Association Congress, where I also presented a draft. I would also like to thank the editor and two anonymous referees for their very extensive comments on earlier drafts. Notes
[1] Although a review of the current literature on SR is beyond the scope of this paper, some further comment is warranted on the version I follow. Worrall’s (1989) view is that science gives us knowledge of structure and not nature. This has been subject to much criticism because, according to Psillos (1995, 2001) and others, it includes a difficult to sustain distinction between structure and nature. Worrall’s ‘nature’, according to Psillos, becomes undefinable, and this causes Psillos to doubt the plausibility of SR. Chakravartty (1998) accepts this criticism and avoids the difficulty by identifying objects and their nature in terms of their properties that are used in laboratory interactions. Ladyman (1998) on the other hand proposes a much stronger version of SR and asserts that there are no objects at all, only structure. However, this view is highly problematic. As Psillos (2001) and I also (McArthur 2006) note, it tries to maintain a notion of isomorphism without the idea of paired objects. Cao (2003) has pointed out that by defining everything in terms of structure it can stifle the quest for deeper structures and causes. Furthermore, I have argued that since it makes all relations internal, it suffers from regress problems (McArthur 2006). Given all this, I have chosen a version of SR that seems to lack the problems of Ladyman’s view and also avoids the difficulties Psillos has noted with Worrall’s position. SR is controversial, of course, as Psillos’s writings attest, but it is entertained in a sufficiently wide way to be a candidate for my purposes, and I think the version I have chosen to follow avoids most of the criticism current in the SR literature.

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