Constructive empiricism is the view that (a) science aims to produce theories that are empirically adequate rather than true, where a theory is empirically adequate precisely if what it says with respect to the observable phenomena (those entities and processes that can be directly observed by the unaided human eye) is true; and (b) that to accept a theory involves no more belief than that it is empirically adequate. It is a view originally articulated—and almost exclusively defended—by Bas van Fraassen and is one of the most highly developed and influential alternatives to scientific realism in the contemporary literature. A principal innovation of the position is that, in contrast to earlier empiricist programs that attempted to distinguish between the observational and theoretical vocabulary of our scientific language, the constructive empiricist’s distinction between observable and unobservable phenomena is an empirical distinction and is consequently to be investigated by the very scientific theories to which it applies. Articulating such an epistemic policy has immediate philosophical consequences, and as such constructive empiricism is a wide-ranging philosophy of science, intimately connected to specific views regarding the logical structure of a scientific theory, the nature of explanation, and a deflationary account of physical modality and the laws of nature. It has also gradually emerged that constructive empiricism is intended as part of van Fraassen’s broader reconception of epistemology more generally and is to be articulated within the framework of his epistemic voluntarism—an ongoing project concerning our notions of rationality and inference and of the nature of empiricism. Most recently, van Fraassen has begun to recast constructive empiricism as a form of empiricist structuralism, a development emerging from his work on scientific representation.
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