The philosophy of particle physics

It is rarely thought about in the mainstream, but issues in science, from its methodology to their meaning, are regular fields of debate among philosophers.  One of the most contentious of these is the question of the nature of unobservable entities. What are unobservable entities? They are objects or particles that cannot be directly viewed at all. Such objects include electrons and other infinitesimally small subatomic particles.  The reason there is a debate concerning such particles is the fact that they cannot be directly observed.  The only way to “observe”, or rather detect, electrons is through a cloud chamber in which the trails of the electrons can be observed.
    There is a wing of the philosophy of science, called the anti-realists, that contends that a scientist is not justified in believing that electrons truly exist, because they are impossible to observe directly through empirical means.  By this reasoning we can never know that whether electrons are real things or simply convenient models that happen to fit the observed pattern.
    The scientific community, who generally ascribe, either explicitly or implicitly, to the other wing of the philosophy of science, the realists, largely ignores such an argument as this.  After all, physicists assume electrons exist for use in practical experiment application on a regular basis. Physicists use electrons to generate new phenomena.  It certainly seems farfetched to claim that we can use an entity we are not convinced really exist to generate and test other novel predictions.  
For this reason, the skeptic position has largely fallen by the wayside from the perspective of the scientific community.  Rather, the vast majority of experimental scientists generally ascribe to the realist school, though in practice it can be said that they tend to think little about the philosophical justifications of their work.
    A contemporary example of this divide over the reality of unobservable objects can be seen in the form of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator.  One of the great ambitions of the LHC is to detect empirically some of the minute subatomic particles currently described now only in theoretical models.  Such particles, like the Higgs-Boson, the particle attributed with being the source of mass, if identified by the LHC could revolutionize the discipline of particle physics.This ambition seems to be a perfectly legitimate one, but if we look at it from the perspective of anti-realist thinkers, the indentifying of these directly unobservable particles has reduced significance.  Fortunately for the operators of the LHC, the overwhelming majority of physicists, and people in general, are willing to accept the existence of such things so long as they are detectable by some means, even if those means be to an extent indirect.
    Ultimately, the realist position held by the scientific community at large seems to be perfectly justified in its position.  Electrons and other “unobservables” serve a great deal of practical purpose, and so long as they do there is no practical reason to question their validity.  This debate is interesting not so much for the practical arguments posited by the anti-realists, but rather because it highlights the generally understated value of philosophy in the realm of scientific enquiry.  
Often science portrays itself as purely an empirical venture, yet normative judgments regarding such things as what even qualifies as an explanation abound in scientific discourse.  The philosophy of science remains a fruitful, if overlooked, branch of philosophy and does serve a clear purpose in helping establish issues of debate within the scientific community, helping it to come to consensus and to consider issues that might well be overlooked otherwise.