A Reply to “The Destiny of Atomism in the Modern Science and the Structural Realism”, Elena Trufanova

Author Information: Elena Trufanova, Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences, eltrufanova@gmail.com

Trufanova, Elena. “A Reply to ‘The Destiny of Atomism in the Modern Science and the Structural Realism’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2016): 62-65.

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Image credit: Cezary Borysiuk, via flickr

The idea of atoms as “basic” elements of matter is one of the classical “thematic structures” as it was put by Holton (1988)—the ever-recurring idea that was present in human thought since ancient Greeks and Indians, disappearing for a while then coming back again. I have always seen Democritus’ atomism as a genius insight ahead of its time. This really shows how science does not always need to be empirical to be productive in the ways of explaining the world. Professor Mamchur warns after Heisenberg against interpreting Greek atomism as an origin of the modern science atomism, however the fact remains: even if the modern scientists do formulate new notion of atoms, they still come back in time in looking for the name itself to the ancient Greeks.

Nowadays atoms, as well as their parts—the particles that we now call elementary (and that can be found out to be not so elementary in a while)—are often referred to as examples of “socially constructed” elements of the modern science. Their very existence is questioned, mostly due to their “unobservable” nature. The main problem is indeed not the question of the atoms in particular, but the question of reality of the scientific objects in general. The unobservables are just a very good example because it is very easy to suggest that such things do not exist. This is in fact a typical naïve realism stance—I do not see or feel them hence they are not real.

However, as I teach my students and explain to them what the objective existence of matter means, I always give them the following example: we don’t feel the radioactive particles “piercing” our body, but our body starts to break apart nonetheless if the radiation level is high enough. That is if something is not given or is not accessible to our perception, it doesn’t mean we don’t have proof for its existence. We may try convincing ourselves that radiation is socially constructed, that what we call our scientific knowledge about radiation is totally wrong and has nothing to do with reality, but still there is some real phenomena behind the word “radioactivity” and the warning yellow-black sign—and this reality can hit us really hard.

Atoms, Quarks and Social Construction

Professor Mamchur starts her paper (2017) with considering the idea of linguistic origin of the atomistic idea which suggests that the idea of atoms comes from the alphabetic structure of Indo-European languages. She is not much convinced by this idea, though it could have added some wood to the flame in the so-called “science wars”. Atoms have since the ancient Greeks lost the status of the indivisible and basic elements, of the last bricks of matter, but we have quarks and gluons and elementary particles instead that have taken their place. Do we have them for real? Pickering (1999) says nay, we have just “constructed” them for our purposes. Pickering’s work became an easy target because the common sense cries to us—come on, for Heaven’s sake!—we know for sure that physics describe matter and matter is composed of atoms and their nuclei are built of quarks. What is more real than physical matter? How can quarks then be socially constructed?

According to Pickering, we have constructed the theory of matter that presupposes the idea of quarks. We could have constructed theory of matter differently, says Pickering, and thus our science could have been developing in the non-quark trend.

It is very easy to criticize this point of view without even giving it a second thought: the very idea that the structural elements of matter can be socially constructed seems ridiculous. But that is not exactly what Pickering meant. What he meant is: we do not know the physical reality behind our theories. This is the main challenge for the scientific realism in all its different varieties. This is what “science wars” was about—when we speak about the social processes or mental states most of us will agree that we can allow them to be considered as socially constructed, but the “solid” physical reality, as many would say, should be spared from the constructionist blow.

I am sympathetic with Hacking’s theory of “experimental” realism, even if, as Professor Mamchur suggests, it can be easily criticized. However, I see some other criteria that can be used when we talk about the reality of scientific objects that suggest that they are not just social constructions. Let us take quarks—if we say that they are purely theoretical, why do we classify them using the terms “flavours”, “colours”, and “generations”? There must be some characteristics that make us do this kind of sorting. The idea is that there are unexplained bits of information about quarks that we can study and explore. If quarks are purely theoretical constructions, if they were born in our minds, why don’t we hold complete information about them? Why is it possible for them to surprise us as we do our further research? Thus, the scientific objects are real if they are able to provide us with new unexplained data about them.

As Professor Lektorsky (2015, 21) puts it:

Theoretical knowledge often uses so-called ideal objects: material point, perfectly rigid body, incompressible gas … The scientists that suggest these objects are completely aware that they cannot be real. For example, the body volume of the object that has a mass cannot be a point. We should distinguish these objects from theoretical objects that refer to real referents: atom, electron, quark. It is useless to suppose that we can discover new qualities of ideal objects: these qualities are determined by the very means of constructing of these objects. But when we take real objects like atom, we can discover their new characteristics, build new theories about them, specify these theories, change them etc.

I would call these criteria “the criteria of the limited knowledge”—that is, if we have limited knowledge about a certain object, then it is probably real, because if it were our own construction we would have the complete knowledge about it.

Realism and Mutual Understanding

What is usually neglected by the supporters of the social constructionist approach is the fact that we do not really invent the scientific theories out of thin air, we are trying to explain certain natural phenomena. Our explanations may be faulty, but the phenomena are real anyway—they are “out there” in the world—maybe even beyond our reach, but they are still there.

Another very important point is made by Agazzi (2016, 18) when he speaks about the necessity of the clear distinction between

[T]he “things” of ordinary experience and the “objects” of the different sciences, though recognizing that precise links exist between them. Now, while it would be wrong to say that every science specifically deals with a particular domain of “things” (because any “thing” can become the “object” of several sciences) one can say that every science deals with whatever thing “from its own point of view” and it is owing to this particular point of view that it makes this thing one of its proper “objects”. Therefore, one could say that the objects of a science are the “clippings” obtained in things by considering them from the point of view of that science.

That is to say—scientific objects are not identical to the “things” that constitute our reality, but they reflect certain characteristics that exist in those things, they refer to reality.

Also, I do not see the argument of pessimistic induction as a substantial threat to realism. The natural phenomena we encounter are still there, they are still real, the change of the ontological set is like a different language: the table doesn’t cease to exist if we start calling it “tavola” or “Tisch”. This might be a crude analogy, but I hope it makes its point.

What I would like to underline in the conclusion of these fleeting remarks is that the question of scientific realism is not purely academic. I see it as a question of the possibility of mutual understanding. If we cannot agree that the physical world around us is real, how can we agree on anything else, how can we understand each other? We have to start from some basic foundations, and I feel like physical world is a good place to start—it shows us that whatever our cultural or social differences are we still live in the same world (Trufanova 2017).


Agazzi, Evandro. “The Truth of Theories and Scientific Realism.” In Varieties of Scientific Realism edited by Evandro Agazzi, 49-68. Springer International Publishing, 2017.

Holton, Gerald. Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Lektorsky, Vladislav. “Konstruktivizm vs Realism” (“Constructivism vs Realism”).  Epistemology & Philosophy of Science 43, no.1, (2015): 20-26. (in Russian).

Mamchur, Elena. “The Destiny of Atomism in the Modern Science and the Structural Realism.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 1 (2017): 93-104.

Pickering, Andrew. Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Trufanova, Elena. “Uskol’zayushchaya Real’nost’ i Sotsial’nye Konstruktsii” (“Elusive Reality and Social Constructions.” Philosophy of Science and Technology 22, no. 1 (2017) (in Russian).

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