Scientific Realism and Primordial Cosmology

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Feraz Azhar, Jeremy Butterfield
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We discuss scientific realism from the perspective of modern cosmology, especially primordial cosmology: i.e. the cosmological investigation of the very early universe. We first (Section 2) state our allegiance to scientific realism, and discuss what insights about it cosmology might yield, as against "just" supplying scientific claims that philosophers can then evaluate. In particular, we discuss: the idea of laws of cosmology, and limitations on ascertaining the global structure of spacetime. Then we review some of what is now known about the early universe (Section 3): meaning, roughly, from a thousandth of a second after the Big Bang onwards(!). The rest of the paper takes up two issues about primordial cosmology, i.e. the very early universe, where "very early" means, roughly, much earlier (logarithmically) than one second after the Big Bang: say, less than 10^{-11} seconds. Both issues illustrate that familiar philosophical threat to scientific realism, the under-determination of theory by data---on a cosmic scale. The first issue (Section 4) concerns the difficulty of observationally probing the very early universe. More specifically, the difficulty is to ascertain details of the putative inflationary epoch. The second issue (Section 5) concerns difficulties about confirming a cosmological theory that postulates a multiverse, i.e. a set of domains (universes) each of whose inhabitants (if any) cannot directly observe, or otherwise causally interact with, other domains. This again concerns inflation, since many inflationary models postulate a multiverse. For all these issues, it will be clear that much remains unsettled, as regards both physics and philosophy. But we will maintain that these remaining controversies do not threaten scientific realism.

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Jeremy Butterfield

Jeremy Nicholas Butterfield FBA (born 1954) is a philosopher at the University of Cambridge, noted particularly for his work on philosophical aspects of quantum theory, relativity theory and classical mechanics. BiographyJeremy Butterfield obtained his Ph.D. from the Universit...

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