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Monday, August 15, 2011

Paul Feyerabend

Against Method :Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge

Paul Feyerabend's text, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, remains among the more contentious and influential philosophical works of the past decades.

Feyerabend was already a well-known philosopher of science by the time it first appeared in essay form (1970; the book version was published 1975), a one-time student and sometime follower of Karl Popper at the London School of Economics, and a lecturer (and then professor) at Berkeley since 1958.

A free spirit in mind and action, he moved radically away from Popperian theories of scientific progress and formulated an anarchic theory of his own. His approach has -- somewhat too simplistically -- been reduced to the idea of: "Anything goes." (Though, in fact, he expressly states that "'anything goes' does not express any conviction of mine".)

Paul Feyerabend argues that science is being taught quite as religion was taught a hundred years ago. He says, "Scientific 'facts' are taught at a very early age and in the very same manner in which religious "facts" were taught only a century ago."

Paul Feyerabend states that he wants to liberate society from ideology. This sounds like Jiddu Krishnamurti, because Krishnamurti often said the same thing! More specifically Feyerabend says, "I want to defend society and its inhabitants from all ideologies, science included." But what exactly is ideology?

In science, however, the experts predict or control events by using certain repeatedly verifiable theories. For example, using Newtonian theory scientists predict lunar and solar eclipses. Scientists do not believe an eclipse is a "sign from God," but instead is as regular and as predictable an event as the falling of a feather you've just let slip out of your grasp. Through the foregoing consideration an essential difference between a religion and a science is clearly defined.

Science is an essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.

This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes.

For example, we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories and/or well-established experimental results. We may advance science by proceeding counter-inductively.

In his books Against Method and Science in a Free Society Feyerabend defended the idea that there are no methodological rules which are always used by scientists. He objected to any single prescriptive scientific method on the grounds that any such method would limit the activities of scientists, and hence restrict scientific progress. In his view, science would benefit most from a "dose" of theoretical anarchism. He also thought that theoretical anarchism was desirable because it was more humanitarian than other systems of organization, by not imposing rigid rules on scientists.

The consistency condition which demands that new hypotheses agree with accepted theories is unreasonable because it preserves the older theory, and not the better theory. Hypotheses contradicting well-confirmed theories give us evidence that cannot be obtained in any other way. Proliferation of theories is beneficial for science, while uniformity impairs its critical power. Uniformity also endangers the free development of the individual.

There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge. The whole history of thought is absorbed into science and is used for improving every single theory. Nor is political interference rejected. It may be needed to overcome the chauvinism of science that resists alternatives to the status quo.

No theory ever agrees with all the facts in its domain, yet it is not always the theory that is to blame. Facts are constituted by older ideologies, and a clash between facts and theories may be proof of progress. It is also a first step in our attempts to find the principles implicit in familiar observational notions.

As an example of such an attempt I examine the tower argument which the Aristotelians used to refute the motion of the earth. The argument involves natural interpretations - ideas so closely connected with observations that it needs a special effort to realise their existence and to determine their content. Galileo identifies the natural interpretations which are inconsistent with Copernicus and replaces them by others.

The new natural interpretations constitute a new and highly abstract observation language. They are introduced and concealed so that one falls to notice the change that has taken place (method of anamnesis). They contain the idea of the relativity of all motion and the law of circular inertia.

Initial difficulties caused by the change are defused by ad hoc hypotheses, which thus turn out occasionally to have a positive function; they give new theories a breathing space, and they indicate the direction of future research.

In addition to natural interpretations, Galileo also changes sensations that seem to endanger Copernicus. He admits that there are such sensations, he praises Copernicus for having disregarded them, he claims to have removed them with the help of the telescope. However, he offers no theoretical reasons why the telescope should be expected to give a true picture of the sky.

Nor does the initial experience with the telescope provide such reasons. The first telescopic observations of the sky are indistinct, indeterminate, contradictory and in conflict with what everyone can see with his unaided eyes. And, the only theory that could have helped to separate telescopic illusions from veridical phenomena was refuted by simple tests.

On the other hand, there are some telescopic phenomena which are plainly Copernican. Galileo introduces these phenomena as independent evidence for Copernicus while the situation is rather that one refuted view - Copernicanism - has a certain similarity with phenomena emerging from another refuted view - the idea that telescopic phenomena are faithful images of the sky. Galileo prevails because of his style and his clever techniques of persuasion, because he writes in Italian rather than in Latin, and because he appeals to people who are temperamentally opposed to the old ideas and the standards of learning connected with them.

Such 'irrational' methods of support are needed because of the 'uneven development' (Marx, Lenin) of different parts of science. Copernicanism and other essential ingredients of modern science survived only because reason was frequently overruled in their past.

Galileo's method works in other fields as well. For example, it can be used to eliminate the existing arguments against materialism, and to put an end to the philosophical mind/body problem (the corresponding scientific problems remain untouched, however).

The results obtained so far suggest abolishing the distinction between a context of discovery and a context of justification and disregarding the related distinction between observational terms and theoretical terms. Neither distinction plays a role in scientific practice. Attempts to enforce them would have disastrous consequences.

Finally, the discussion in Chapters 6-13 shows that Popper's version of Mill's pluralism is not in agreement with scientific practice and would destroy science as we know it. Given science, reason cannot be universal and unreason cannot be excluded. This feature of science calls for an anarchistic epistemology. The realisation that science is not sacrosanct, and that the debate between science and myth has ceased without having been won by either side, further strengthens the case for anarchism.

Even the ingenious attempt of Lakatos to construct a methodology that (a) does not issue orders and yet (b) puts restrictions upon our knowledge-increasing activities, does not escape this conclusion. For Lakatos' philosophy appears liberal only because it is an anarchism in disguise. And his standards which are abstracted from modern science cannot be regarded as neutral arbiters in the issue between modern science and Aristotelian science, myth, magic, religion, etc.

Moreover, these standards, which involve a comparison of content classes, are not always applicable. The content classes of certain theories are incomparable in the sense that none of the usual logical relations (inclusion, exclusion, overlap) can be said to hold between them. This occurs when we compare myths with science. It also occurs in the most advanced, most general and therefore most mythological parts of science itself.

Thus science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without having ever examined its advantages and its limits. And as the accepting and rejecting of ideologies should be left to the individual it follows that the separation of state and church must be supplemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution. Such a separation may be our only chance to achieve a humanity we are capable of, but have never fully realised.

Feyerabend's position is generally seen as radical in the philosophy of science, because it implies that philosophy can neither succeed in providing a general description of science, nor in devising a method for differentiating products of science from non-scientific entities like myths. It also implies that philosophical guidelines should be ignored by scientists, if they are to aim for progress. To support his position that methodological rules generally do not contribute to scientific success, Feyerabend provides counterexamples to the claim that (good) science operates according to a certain fixed method. He took some examples of episodes in science that are generally regarded as indisputable instances of progress (e.g. the Copernican revolution), and showed that all common prescriptive rules of science are violated in such circumstances. Moreover, he claimed that applying such rules in these historical situations would actually have prevented scientific revolution. One of the criteria for evaluating scientific theories that Feyerabend attacks is the consistency criterion. He points out that to insist that new theories be consistent with old theories gives an unreasonable advantage to the older theory. He makes the logical point that being compatible with a defunct older theory does not increase the validity or truth of a new theory over an alternative covering the same content. That is, if one had to choose between two theories of equal explanatory power, to choose the one that is compatible with an older, falsified theory is to make an aesthetic, rather than a rational choice. The familiarity of such a theory might also make it more appealing to scientists, since they will not have to disregard as many cherished prejudices. Hence, that theory can be said to have "an unfair advantage". Feyerabend was also critical of falsificationism. He argued that no interesting theory is ever consistent with all the relevant facts. This would rule out using a na├»ve falsificationist rule which says that scientific theories should be rejected if they do not agree with known facts. Feyerabend uses several examples, but 'renormalization' in quantum mechanics provides an example of his intentionally provocative style: "This procedure consists in crossing out the results of certain calculations and replacing them by a description of what is actually observed. Thus one admits, implicitly, that the theory is in trouble while formulating it in a manner suggesting that a new principle has been discovered" (AM p. 61). Such jokes are not intended as a criticism of the practice of scientists. Feyerabend is not advocating that scientists do not make use of renormalization or other ad hoc methods. Instead, he is arguing that such methods are essential to the progress of science for several reasons. One of these reasons is that progress in science is uneven. For instance, in the time of Galileo, optical theory could not account for phenomena that were observed by means of telescopes. So, astronomers who used telescopic observation had to use 'ad hoc' rules until they could justify their assumptions by means of optical theory. Feyerabend was critical of any guideline that aimed to judge the quality of scientific theories by comparing them to known facts. He thought that previous theory might influence natural interpretations of observed phenomena. Scientists necessarily make implicit assumptions when comparing scientific theories to facts that they observe. Such assumptions need to be changed in order to make the new theory compatible with observations. The main example of the influence of natural interpretations that Feyerabend provided was the tower argument. The tower argument was one of the main objections against the theory of a moving earth. Aristotelians assumed that the fact that a stone which is dropped from a tower lands directly beneath it shows that the earth is stationary. They thought that, if the earth moved while the stone was falling, the stone would have been 'left behind'. Objects would fall diagonally instead of vertically. Since this does not happen, Aristotelians thought that it was evident that the earth did not move. If one uses ancient theories of impulse and relative motion, the Copernican theory indeed appears to be falsified by the fact that objects fall vertically on earth. This observation required a new interpretation to make it compatible with Copernican theory. Galileo was able to make such a change about the nature of impulse and relative motion. Before such theories were articulated, Galileo had to make use of 'ad hoc' methods and proceed counter-inductively. So, 'ad hoc' hypotheses actually have a positive function: they temporarily make a new theory compatible with facts until the theory to be defended can be supported by other theories. Together these remarks sanction the introduction of theories that are inconsistent with well-established facts. Furthermore, a pluralistic methodology that involves making comparisons between any theories at all forces defendants to improve the articulation of each theory. In this way, scientific pluralism improves the critical power of science. Thus Feyerabend proposes that science might proceed best not by induction, but by counterinduction. According to Feyerabend, new theories came to be accepted not because of their accord with scientific method, but because their supporters made use of any trick – rational, rhetorical or ribald – in order to advance their cause. Without a fixed ideology, or the introduction of religious tendencies, the only approach which does not inhibit progress (using whichever definition one sees fit) is "anything goes": "'anything goes' is not a 'principle' I hold... but the terrified exclamation of a rationalist who takes a closer look at history." (Feyerabend, 1975). Feyerabend considered the possibility of incommensurability, but he was hesitant in his application of the concept. He wrote that "it is hardly ever possible to give an explicit definition of [incommensurability]" (AM, p.225), because it involves covert classifications and major conceptual changes. He also was critical of attempts to capture incommensurability in a logical framework, since he thought of incommensurability as a phenomenon outside the domain of logic. In the second appendix of Against Method (p. 114), Feyerabend states, "I never said... that any two rival theories are incommensurable... What I did say was that certain rival theories, so-called 'universal' theories, or 'non-instantial' theories, if interpreted in a certain way, could not be compared easily." Incommensurability did not concern Feyerabend greatly, because he believed that even when theories are commensurable (i.e. can be compared), the outcome of the comparison should not necessarily rule out either theory. To rephrase: when theories are incommensurable, they cannot rule each other out, and when theories are commensurable, they cannot rule each other out. Assessments of (in)commensurability, therefore, don't have much effect in Feyerabend's system, and can be more or less passed over in silence. In Against Method Feyerabend claimed that Imre Lakatos' philosophy of research programmes is actually 'anarchism in disguise', because it does not issue orders to scientists. Feyerabend playfully dedicated Against Method to "Imre Lakatos: Friend, and fellow-anarchist". One interpretation is that Lakatos' philosophy of mathematics and science was based on creative transformations of Hegelian historiographic ideas, many associated with Lakatos' teacher in Hungary Georg Lukacs.

Role of science in society

Feyerabend described science as being essentially anarchistic, obsessed with its own mythology, and as making claims to truth well beyond its actual capacity. He was especially indignant about the condescending attitudes of many scientists towards alternative traditions. For example, he thought that negative opinions about astrology and the effectivity of rain dances were not justified by scientific research, and dismissed the predominantly negative attitudes of scientists towards such phenomena as elitist or racist. In his opinion, science has become a repressing ideology, even though it arguably started as a liberating movement. Feyerabend thought that a pluralistic society should be protected from being influenced too much by science, just as it is protected from other ideologies. Starting from the assumption that an historical universal scientific method does not exist, Feyerabend argued that science does not deserve its privileged status in western society. Since scientific points of view do not arise from using a universal method which guarantees high quality conclusions, he thought that there is no justification for valuing scientific claims over claims by other ideologies like religions. Feyerabend also argued that scientific accomplishments such as the moon landings are no compelling reason to give science a special status. In his opinion, it is not fair to use scientific assumptions about which problems are worth solving in order to judge the merit of other ideologies. Additionally, success by scientists has traditionally involved non-scientific elements, such as inspiration from mythical or religious sources. Based on these arguments, Feyerabend defended the idea that science should be separated from the state in the same way that religion and state are separated in a modern secular society. He envisioned a 'free society' in which 'all traditions have equal rights and equal access to the centres of power'. For example, parents should be able to determine the ideological context of their children's education, instead of having limited options because of scientific standards. According to Feyerabend, science should also be subjected to democratic control: not only should the subjects that are investigated by scientists be determined by popular election, scientific assumptions and conclusions should also be supervised by committees of lay people. He thought that citizens should use their own principles when making decisions about these matters. In his opinion, the idea that decisions should be 'rationalistic' is elitist, since this assumes that philosophers or scientists are in a position to determine the criteria by which people in general should make their decisions.

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