Reaction Paper on Fred Chernoff (2009), Torsten Michel (2009), Justin Cruicksank (2004), Jodi Azzouni (2004) on Scientific Realism

General Expression

Debate on scientific realism is inseparable from the debate about realism. “For van Fraassen, the problem with scientific realism is not its commitment to the cumulatively and reliability of science, but rather that it adds metaphysics to empirical knowledge for no empirical gain” (Forbes 2018) p. 99. This paper is aimed to give reaction to four authors which are Fred Chernoff, Torsten Michel, Justin Cruicksank and Jodi Azzouni. This debate about ontology in scientific realism has brought up by the four articles. Among the four articles, I can find three similarities or three key points from the paper which are ontological, language and observable and non-observable. I will break it down it one by one.

The first one is the ontological part.  As we know there are three fields in philosophy which are ontology, epistemology, and axiology. Although I would not discuss the epistemology and axiology term. Ontology is referring to a study of our existence and the fundamental nature of reality or being. Believe about the nature of reality, therefore, can determine what can be known about it, for instance, the question in ontology usually related to what is true, what exists and what is real? However, epistemology and methodology are driven by ontological beliefs. All four author emphasize ontology to explain and criticized the position of scientific realism. Both Chernoff and Michel underline the emerge of ontology in the international relation which one should put first. Some scholar claims to put ontology first, the debate put by Chernoff;

Social science is the study of social objects’, justifies the conclusion that ‘those objects must be identified before philosophical positions are taken regarding how we may come to make knowledge claims about them (Chernoff 2009) p. 372

Michel also put the dispute as for the center of his article:

Fundamental to all of them are the central assumptions about the things and entities we are trying to understand and their relation to human existence… ‘we should bring ontological considerations to the forefront of our reflections about the status of the knowledge that we produce in our research… the purely philosophical debates it engendered… (Michel 2009) p.398

But Chernoff argues theoretical ontology prior to settling various questions in the methodology and epistemology of science (Chernoff 2009) p.372 and reject the idea of putting the ontology first. Furthermore, he argues about the ontology fallacy:

They say that we must settle on which objects – both pre-theoretical and theoretical – belong in our ontology before we can inquire into what we know about them. These claims are mistaken and commit the ontological fallacy. The only way we can justify any existence claim for a theoretical object is by the superiority of a theory which postulates it, and the only way we can show the superiority of a theory is by having answered important questions of (natural or social) scientific methodology. (Chernoff 2009) p. 391

While Michel claim ontology and epistemology are always intertwined and cannot be conceptualized independently of one another (Michel 2009) p.408.

My response: it is understandable if scholars try to criticize scientific realism by asking the existence (ontology) instead of the relationship between the researcher and what we know or question like “how do we know what we know” (epistemology). Because if it does not exist in the first place and no one believes in the existence, there will be no relationship at all. We tend to avoid discussing something we don’t believe it’s existed. In the case of Michel and Chernoff because they are from international relation, I think it is not proper to attack scientific realism from the ontological part, since international relation its self is a very broad science and the relation among country is very abstract, unique and unpredictable. For example, during the cold war, The United State does not admit giving Afghanistan’s weapon to fight Uni Soviet. Just because The United State does not acknowledge their involvement it does not mean they are not involved.

Science in the 21st century has developed so much because of the tools like technology, therefore, we should be more optimistic about something that we don’t understand about and give a chance and time to scientific realism scientist to bring the evidence to the table. Even some theories in the past have been shown to be erroneous. History provides a clear example of how non-believer treats the first frontier like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. But over time they can prove the truth of their findings. In my view competition is good for the development of science itself because competition will bring the best from the scientist. Although some researcher does not realize they are competing. But the debate should be on the epistemology level not in the ontology. The rivalry among scholars had better if the rivalry is in showing the most convincing evidence it will be more substantial rather than asking the existence.

The second common resemblance word use by four scholars is language. Language is crucial to understand the human existence so these delicate differences in definition are significant and sometimes problematic. As Michel argue language is crucial here since it is not just a set of ‘labels that can be compared with the world (Michel 2009) p. 418. While Crunsank describe:

The philosopher could clarify scientific language by ensuring this was in conformity with the reality beyond our knowledge; together with clarifying the objective of science, and delimiting science from non-science, by ensuring it told us about a reality beyond our knowledge. (Cruickshank 2004) p. 573

In line with Cruinkshank, Michel tries to point out the importance of language, especially in international relation field.

Both, however, see language as a tool that can be used to describe something or designate meaningful connections between processes in the world. This view of language has been the dominant one throughout the modern period and can be found in almost all accounts in IR as well… language is one of the object supremely constituted by consciousness, and that actual languages are very special cases (Michel 2009) p. 409-410

Resonate with other scholars, Chernoff quote Wight around the importance of language “The fact that something is socially constructed and dependent on concepts, beliefs, language use, and so on, does not mean it is not real” (Chernoff 2009) p. 385.

My response: I do agree with the four articles argument that language is important. But I could not find what seems to be offered by the four articles regarding this problem. At least they can point out that they don’t have this problem in their own field.  So, my assumption is language barriers perhaps also experienced by another epistemology approach. It is very possible that positivist, scientific realism, pragmatism, and interpretism develop a specific term for their own interest. Perhaps I would suggest, we can use the neutral language like mathematics to explain something. Secondly, I would suggest the importance of operational definition. In carry out a study, a researcher must have a clear definition. Scientific realism has a responsibility to bring their thoughts to its clarity and completeness of definitions and assumptions to prevent different interpretation.

For me, language is part of understanding and expressing something. So, the question will be broader, to what extent could be the act of understanding? Understanding may be related to mentality. Maybe we don’t understand why dog bark, birdsong, why cat makes a sound. But we can understand from their tones whether their scare, happy, or just tries to communicate among them. I can differentiate my cat tone when it’s hungry or when it’s feeling threatened. I believe we can build this mentality among scientist, try to understand each other rather than attack each other because other scientist considered does not use the “scientific language”.

The last part of the key points among the four papers is observable and non-observable. This part is closely related to language. To find the commonality in science by using language, the scientist believes they should have the same object to discuss, and the object should be observable. What we observe is partially a matter of what we believe about what we see, and if what we believe is due to factors independent of what we see the pressure is placed on the claim that observation is a process independent of the ways in which we think it operates (Azzouni 2014) p. 385. Chernoff stressed there are philosophical difficulties distinguishing precisely observables from non-observables.

States is one of the objects on ontology in political science. Michel gives a great example of how state became part of a debate in this ontological part. He said

It is obvious that states would cease to exist as unobservable structures when humans cease to exist. Therefore, it seems that there must be a third way to conceptualize the ‘reality’ of unobservable in the social world – states do not simply exist nominally in our minds but neither do they exist ‘really’ in the world ‘out there’ p. 414-415.

And as Azzouni said the line between the observable and non-observable shift from time to time. Something we can’t understand before because we don’t have the right tool to see it, then shifting when we generate more tools to observe and understand some phenomena such states. I do agree with Chernoff description about non-observable objects such as ideas, love, anger, universals. These things are sure, we can debate on the being because the form is only on our head and we can have a different interpretation of these objects.

My response:

God give us eye, ear, hand, nose, tongue as the five senses but I also want to put heart so instead of five senses we have six senses. Sometimes we only see a thing in one dimension only with our eyes or our hand. We need to use multidimensional senses to observe an object using all the senses, not just one or two as we call it theory-laden. Possibly the problem is not the object but people may be unaware of being mistaken in assessing their own interest. In term of scientific realism, perhaps the problem is not whether the object is observable and non-observable, but the criticism has their own interest. I must underline Michel argument from the quotation above humans cease to exist. Perchance this is tricky, human want to be acknowledged so does scientist.   

The problem becomes more complicated in political science because in political science the object is human, power, decision making, public policy and value, and the situation is easily manipulated. What I mean with manipulated is, it can show you many sides. For example, for me, power is something unobservable, but when we see some action from actors or institutions someway the power will be observable. Power is easily manipulated, they can control their compliance through coercion, influence, authority, force. How far we can observe power is how far power wanted to reveal itself. So there always be an observable and non-observable part of the power.


The four paper has given the argument that scientific realism needs to have a responsibility by put metaphysic in empirical knowledge. That is why the four-articles main argument is the ontological fallacy in scientific realism. Speculation about the non-observable world, of course, will raise doubt among scientist but the unobservable entities do exist should be supported by evidence and prove by scientific realism. The language of science is one of the problems facing by scientific realism. The four articles tacking the language of science literally, and its truth conditions as unbiased, does therefore not amount to scientific realism.

At the beginning of their research, scientist driven by their curiosity. The curiosity drives them to do an experiment, the experiment itself can be successful but mostly ended with failure. When scientific realism scientist tries exploring or investigate something, curiosity drives them to dismantle the component of a phenomenon whether they can put it back together or not. To another researcher, this kind of thing considers as destruction, but for scientific realism scientist, it will be easier for them to understand the mechanism by dismantling the component one by one. Most scientist doesn’t try to understand and value another scientist way of thinking. Instead of trying to understand why they think like that, it is easier for us to blame or attack them just because we have different ideas. President Harvard Derek Bok once said if you think education is expensive you should try the cost of ignorance.

The scientific realism maybe outnumbers by positivism or scientific anti-realism known as SARism, and when they outnumber the majority easily blame them to put the world in order, the way they wanted it. But I think this is not good for the development of science itself. We should respect the exquisite of nature of another scientist curiosity. This point argument will lead us to the axiology part, what is the purpose of science. In addition, it’s worth pointing out how that I do believe in giving criticism we will not only absorb the information send by the criticism but also the emotion. I think we should give criticism in a good manner and thoughtful way. Compassion and understanding may cause a heart to soften but harshness, intense criticism, and insult will only drive the truth further away and the science world to be more compartmentalized.



Azzouni, Jody. 2014. “Theory, Realism.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Sep. 2004), pp. 371- 392 55(3): 371–92.

Chernoff, Fred. 2009. “The Ontological Fallacy : A Rejoinder on the Status of Scientific Realism in International Relations.” : 371–95.

Cruickshank, Justin. 2004. “A Tale of Two Ontologies : An Immanent Critique of Critical Realism 1.”

Forbes, Curtis. 2018. “The Future of the Scientific Realism Debate: Contemporary Issues Concerning Scientific Realism.” Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science 9(1): 1–11.

Michel, Torsten. 2009. “Pigs Can ’ t Fly, or Can They ? Ontology, Scientific Realism and the Metaphysics of Presence in International Relations.” 1: 397–419.


Category: Thoughts