November 18, 2022 at 6:02 pm #248604
Reading: Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method
Discussion opens on January 1, 2023. Please try to have the discussion follow the suggested pace below.
The slow pace is to accommodate for people’s schedules and to promote slower reading and detailed discussion.
Suggested pace for Schedule:
- Parts 1-9 by January 01, 2023
- Parts 10-15 by February 01, 2023
- Parts 16 – PostScript on Relativism by March 01, 2023
- This topic was modified 1 year ago by jmc.
January 1, 2023 at 10:32 am #248793
Discussion is open!
January 7, 2023 at 12:21 pm #248818
I’ll start off the discussion with a couple of questions for others, along with my own initial thoughts.
1. Does Feyerabend’s general argument about the development of scientific theories roughly follow with or rub against your previously conceived notions of the structure of scientific progress/theory-formation and adoption?
2. What, so far, has surprised you in Feyerabend’s account?
For me, I’m finding his argument perhaps less radical than it is presented to be. The idea that knowledge production is fairly anarchistic is something I’m already familiar with, both from works like Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and from post-structuralist or post-foundationalist accounts of epistemology (e.g., Foucault, Derrida). So I feel like I have already come to see knowledge production (or scientific truth-seeking, perhaps?) as an irreducibly historical process – limited/determined in various ways (like by available evidence, previously accumulated bodies of knowledge, etc.), but ultimately contingent on the creative processes of the human mind.
In terms of what surprised me, I love Feyerabend’s account of Galileo’s telescopes, and the initial problems with using them for astronomy. I had no idea telescopes were initially such poor tools for observation and measurement of the cosmos. His account also presents a great example of how entangled theory and evidence can be. I think that the powerful (implicit) role of theory in constituting what counts as evidence/fact also goes a long way to explaining why theories that (from my historically situated perspective) appear so poorly supported by evidence can live such long, illustrious lives in the minds of scholars.
- This reply was modified 11 months ago by CM.
January 10, 2023 at 2:50 pm #248837
Thanks for starting the discussion, Chris! I’m admittedly behind on a few things outside of this reading group. I should be able to join the discussion later in the week.
January 14, 2023 at 12:52 pm #248840
Thanks for getting the ball rolling, Chris.
I read Feyerabend’s book with great interest. In the end, I find it both enlightening and infuriating.
Let’s start with the enlightening part. I found Feyerabend’s discussion of the theory behind empirical evidence to be fascinating. For example, I’d never considered the worldview that comes with perceiving the earth as a flat, unmoving plane. In this cosmology, there is a universal ‘up’, and objects fall in a straight line. All of the everyday evidence seems to support this view.
It was only when people thought hard about the motions of the planets that they had to rethink this view. In particular, it was the retrograde motion of planets that made little sense if the Earth was at rest. But if the Earth orbited the sun, the ‘common sense’ facts of daily life had to be re-interpreted using the law of inertia (an object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an external force).
In Feyerabend’s opinion, Galileo simply invented the law of of inertia to rescue his geocentric view. Interpreted through the lens of Karl Popper, this kind of ‘ad hoc’ theorizing is bad — anti-scientific even.
Here’s where I start to have problems. Feyerabend clearly revels in controversy, which is fine. But does he accurately represent the ideas he’s criticizing? I’m no so sure.
For Popper, there was no ‘method’ for the creation of ideas, hypotheses and theories. They could come from anywhere. That said, once the idea has been formulated, it must be ‘consistent with the evidence’, otherwise it is ‘falsified’.
(I use scare quotes here because Feyerabend is correct to question what it means to be ‘consistent with the evidence’ and how we know a theory has been ‘falsified’. More on that later.)
So in a Popperian sense, a more charitable (to Popper) interpretation of Galileo’s actions was that he was engaging in theory building. He had a hypothesis that the Earth orbited the sun. To make that hypothesis consistent with the observations of daily life (objects fall down), he needed to add a secondary hypothesis: objects in motion tend to stay in motion … meaning unless there’s a difference in relative velocity, you can’t tell if something’s moving.
Now Feyerabend is correct to point out that when two theories have very different world views, there is much controversy about how to test each theory, and what counts as ‘conflicting’ evidence.
On this front, gravity continues to be a center of controversy. You’ll frequently hear, for example, that there is no evidence that contradicts Einstein’s theory of gravity (general relativity). But this claim is patently untrue. The fact is that everywhere we look in the universe, general relativity fails. When we look inside galaxies, the visible mass is moving far faster than general relativity allows. And yet very few people think this is evidence ‘against’ general relativity. Why? Because they assume that Einstein was correct. As such, the data gets interpreted as evidence for missing mass: dark matter.
The astronomer and astrophysicist Stacy McGaugh writes consistently great material on this controversy. I highly recommend that you read his blog, Triton Station.
In short, McGaugh notes that the whole dark-matter odyssey amounts to an a priori assumption that general relativity is correct. A better interpretation of the evidence, however, is that there is an ‘acceleration discrepancy’ between what general relativity predicts and what is observed. This discrepancy can mean one of two things:
- The discrepancy is caused by missing mass
- General relativity is wrong
Largely for sociological reasons, most scientists take the first option.
My other big qualm with Against Method is Feyerabend’s catchphrase ‘anything goes’.
Let’s review how he gets there. Feyerabend looks at our theories of science and concludes that at various times, famous scientists (particularly Galileo) have disobeyed all of the supposed ‘rules’ of the scientific method. Since these rules don’t hold, anything goes.
This reasoning is superficially convincing. But closer investigation reveals that it is a complete non-sequitur. (I read quite a few reviews of Feyerabend, and this is the most common criticism.)
We can more easily see the problem by applying the same reasoning to theories of physics. It is a well know fact — acknowledged by virtually all physicists — that there is no coherent theory that explains everything about nature. At present, all of our theories are contradicted by some form of evidence. So when it comes to doing physics, anything goes.
Seems silly, right?
It is equally silly when it comes to the ‘scientific method’. As far as I can tell, most philosophers agree that we have no theory that explains everything that scientists do. (It would be astonishing if we did … right up there with psychohistory.)
But so what? Nothing in science is about absolutes. There are always gray areas. The point, though, is to find patterns that tend to hold. Clearly some approaches to science work better than others. Does Feyerabend really believe that testing a drug through prayer is as good as testing it through a double-blind clinical trial? (I don’t think he does, but his penchant for controversy leaves it an open question.)
Now, I take Feyerabend’s point that science is healthy when there are a plurality of ideas. On that front, the worst thing we can do is kill off an idea because it contradicts our idea of the ‘scientific method’. But are there any examples of this actually happening?
My reading of Popper, for example, was that he was trying to provide a way to kill off long-lived ideas that refused to go away. Religion, for example, is usually framed so that it is amenable to all evidence (that’s the convenient thing about an all powerful God). In response to these long-lived ideologies, Popper wanted a basic criteria for a ‘scientific’ theory. In simple terms, the theory had to put forward criteria by which it could be wrong. The best option was to make a clear, a priori prediction that could be ‘falsified’.
I, for one, am convinced that this is a basic criteria for a good theory. But it’s just the start. In general, Popper was naive about how difficult it was to convincingly ‘falsify’ a theory. Sometimes it takes centuries and the work of thousands of scientists.
To wrap up, I think Feyerabend could have written the same book, but with the following catchline: “All of our theories of the scientific method are wrong; some are probably more useful than others.”
January 16, 2023 at 4:43 am #248841
So I’ve just finished up to the suggested Part 9 for now.
I like the idea of counterarguments that specifically do not adhere to evidence related to specific theories, because such strategies can highlight flaws in the reasoning that matches most of the evidence.
A good example is CasP itself. CasP broke with the dogmatic view of Marxism and Neoclassicism, and rejected the evidence on offer from their respective theories. Instead, it proposed something almost entirely novel and generated new evidence that was able to directly challenge the assumptions of the heterodox theories of Capital Accumulation.
That being said, the book gives off a strong feeling so far of “My opinion is just as valid as your evidence-backed hypothesis” and this is sadly dangerous ground to be treading. While I do think that indigenous methods of gathering knowledge have much to contribute to the ways in which we view knowledge in its totality, and I do agree that “Western Science” spent centuries undermining indigenous forms of knowledge systems, I also think it would be a massive mistake to depict indigenous societies as “Noble Savages” that were correct on the basis of colonialism being a reprehensible practice. While Feyerabend doesn’t directly make this argument, I think that we could argue that it is implied.
I am looking forward to finishing the book though.
January 16, 2023 at 11:37 am #248842
Thanks for your comments Blair and Pieter.
Blair, I think your frustration with Feyerabend is really interesting because it speaks to a larger debate about the relationship between science and philosophy of science. Many (if not most) scientists practice science without much thought to philosophy of science, or without much meta-examination of what it is they do and how they see the world as a distinct social group. They simply work with the theories, strategies and problems of their day (and within the institutional constraints of the day too). Richard Feynman takes the extreme (if facetious) view:
“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”
On the one hand I agree with this sentiment in the sense that, though philosophy of science can be useful to scientists, the two disciplines actually have quite different goals. The goal of science is the pursuit of scientific truths (e.g., ‘laws of nature’), while the goal of philosophy of science is to make compossible or consistent the truths that science produces with other regimes of discourse (e.g., history, logic, politics). On the other hand, I think that when it comes to the big conflicts/advances in scientific understanding, philosophical questions are usually there bubbling up from under the surface in the discourse.
Theory choice is a good example to illustrate how these questions come into play (what counts as evidence would be another). While scientists may abstractly agree that there is no ultimate theory of the scientific method (yet), when two competing theories appear to be equally supported by evidence, those debates about method suddenly become more important. You mention usefulness, for instance, as a solid criteria for theory choice. But should we really determine the truth of a theory based only on usefulness? And what exactly is the relationship between usefulness and truth? Most scientists would likely say well, usefulness is just one among a few or several key criteria. But this mix of criteria is hardly objective. Feyerabend’s goal is, in my view, to attack the view of philosophers of science like/especially Popper, who insisted that there is an objective method or set of practices which makes science distinct from everything else (pseudoscience, superstition, ideology, tradition, etc.). I’m not sure if Feyerabend has convinced me yet that “anything goes,” but I agree that there are also serious problems (for philosophy of science, not necessarily for science) with the notion that the practice of science follows a consistently objective logic.
One further comment: The way I’m trying to understand this phrase “anything goes” is that scientific truths, by definition, come into the world as an entirely new thing – they can’t help but break with the body of knowledge that came before it. Thus, the logic of the pursuit of scientific truth must necessarily be one whose rules can only come to be ‘known’ (i.e., philosophized) as that truth is integrated into (i.e., transforms) the body of scientific knowledge to which it is relevant. In other words, the possibility of the production of scientific truth is founded on the literal void in our knowledge of the world, and our knowledge of any consistent method of science is thus irreducibly historical (backward-looking). I think recognizing this kind of radical ignorance that makes doing science possible leads to, or at least implies the kind of theoretical anarchism that Feyerabend is articulating. This perspective admittedly comes more from my reading in Alain Badiou than it does my understanding of Feyerabend, so as I get further into the book my understanding of his meaning of the phrase may change.
- This reply was modified 10 months, 3 weeks ago by CM.
February 6, 2023 at 11:09 am #248886
For various reasons, I am working through Against Method slower than I initially hoped. I want to introduce to the conversation another interpretation. More than Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Feyerabend places strong emphasis on the role of individuals — in this case, for their ability to be anarchists in the history of science (the book’s reference to Dadaists is better, in my opinion, as Feyerabend seems uninterested in thinking about the political meaning of anarchism).
Kuhn’s model of scientific revolution is, well, structural. The cycles of scientific revolution more-or-less continue happily along if all of the individuals are dogmatically single-minded, fulfilling Planck’s aphorism about the progression of science through funerals. This is an oversimplification of Kuhn, but the reason there is some truth to my simplification is because Kuhn often thinks of the scientific community. Normal science has paradigms, which are these concept-definition-example hybrids that unite a scientific community in general agreement. Crises in normal science are often raised and addressed by extremely creative individuals, but Kuhn cares less about the methods to discovering crises, and more about the ways crises, once found, grow to become blemishes that a theory cannot erase without more and more addendum. Kuhn’s revolutions thus have a common structural element to them: new scientists are no less single-minded than their supervisors, but they arrive to their disciplines at points in time when there are already accumulations of crises in the air.
Feyerabend clearly likes John Stuart Mill, especially for the latter’s idealization of the freedoms of opinion under liberalism. This like of Mill produces some interesting arguments in Against Method. One of them involves conceptualizing counter-induction as an individual act. Sometimes it appears counter-induction is some permanent layer of scientific activity in its messy reality. Other times Feyerabend presents counter-induction as an imperative that scientists must act on to do good science. In the form of an imperative, counter-induction should be practiced but people could very well behave otherwise. I think that in disagreement with Kuhn, Feyerabend thinks it is entirely possible for groups of scientists to successfully freeze scientific progress. As Feyerabend keeps pointing out: scientific theories are, in reality, able to live long lives with mistakes and ad hoc rationalizations; so what prevents groups of scientists from becoming content with what they have created?
To what extent does counter-induction need to be a conscious act? During certain periods of history, Feyerabend might care less about whether someone is consciously affirming counter-induction as a liberal principle; but from his standpoint in the 20th century, there are political overtones to his focus on counter-induction. Feyerabend keeps using the footnotes of Against Method to, as I interpret it, decry the lack of open-mindedness in the scientific methods of modern education; too many people are, as he puts it, naive falsificationists. Consequently, counter-induction becomes a call to action, which will be what better scientific practice to grows from.
But what does an open-ended, consciously anarchistic science look like institutionally? Taken to an extreme (like Feyerabend’s interesting response to hypothetical study of Voodoo in a scientific discipline), are we to have physics departments that accept and nurture all sorts wild ideas within its own walls?
- This reply was modified 10 months ago by jmc.
February 23, 2023 at 5:05 pm #248916
Noting the contrast between the almost deterministic account of scientific change in Kuhn and Feyerabend’s more voluntaristic account is an interesting take. I certainly agree that Feyerabend is promoting the importance of heroic or militant action on the part of the scientist and is making a much more prescriptive argument than Kuhn’s more passive/descriptive sociological take (I haven’t read Kuhn in a while and I’d forgotten the lack of agency in Kuhn’s version of science). However, I took Feyerabend’s voluntarist view not to be exclusively a focus on the individual in the classical liberal sense, but more broadly a focus on the importance of the militant (Leninist?) ‘subject’, which can also be collective, but pretty much necessarily involves a minority. In addition to Mill, I read the influence of Lenin and Mao, whom he also cites occasionally and somewhat approvingly (See especially the very first note of the introduction!) Though he certainly focuses on individuals to illustrate his arguments, he also seems aware that these individuals are usually part of a larger (if still far fewer in number compared to the larger institutions) collective of scientists. I’m thinking of say, the Copernicus-Galileo-Kepler triad as a subject of the heliocentric model of the solar system, as opposed to each existing as a monadic and self-sufficient creative unit. At other points, Feyerabend minimizes/corrects the record on the importance of certain individuals, especially Galileo.
Though Feyerabend only cursorily draws connections from politics to science, and really only to further his own arguments, I find the parallels between the two (revolutionary science/politics) fascinating and crying out for further theorization. For instance, there is the observation that both science and politics have been revolutionized by a vanguard individual or set of individuals operating outside the perceived boundaries of the state of the situation (i.e., undertaking illegal/counter-inductive activities, propaganda, heresy, etc.). Michel Serres has noted that the foundations of Law and Science underpin one another, and that scientific change is often accompanied historically by an actual trial (“The meta-polemic of science and law, of reason and judgement, cannot be decided definitively and constitutes the time of our history”).
As Blair and James point out/imply, the implications of promoting this vanguardist viewpoint when taken to the extreme, may have an unreasonably high cost or verge on the absurd. What is interesting to me is this: the question of what scientific institutions would be like if some kind of counter-induction militancy where widely adopted, appears to entail a similar set of philosophical and practical problems to that of what a political community would look like without a coercive and dogmatic state apparatus. One specific problem that I think speaks to both Blair and James’ comments is that if science/politics is best pushed forward by a vanguard minority who essentially make up their own rules, how can such a dynamic coexist with stable and/or democratic governance?
- This reply was modified 9 months, 2 weeks ago by CM.
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