Scientific understanding: truth or dare?

H.W. de Regt

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


It is often claimed—especially by scientific realists—that science provides understanding of the world only if its theories are (at least approximately) true descriptions of reality, in its observable as well as unobservable aspects. This paper critically examines this ‘realist thesis’ concerning understanding. A crucial problem for the realist thesis is that (as study of the history and practice of science reveals) understanding is frequently obtained via theories and models that appear to be highly unrealistic or even completely fictional. So we face the dilemma of either giving up the realist thesis that understanding requires truth, or allowing for the possibility that in many if not all practical cases we do not have scientific understanding. I will argue that the first horn is preferable: the link between understanding and truth can be severed. This becomes a live option if we abandon the traditional view that scientific understanding is a special type of knowledge. While this view implies that understanding must be factive, I avoid this implication by identifying understanding with a skill rather than with knowledge. I will develop the idea that understanding phenomena consists in the ability to use a theory to generate predictions of the target system’s behavior. This implies that the crucial condition for understanding is not truth but intelligibility of the theory, where intelligibility is defined as the value that scientists attribute to the theoretical virtues that facilitate the construction of models of the phenomena. I will show, first, that my account accords with the way practicing scientists conceive of understanding, and second, that it allows for the use of idealized or fictional models and theories in achieving understanding.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3781-3797
Number of pages17
Issue number12
Early online date11 Sept 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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