Feyerabend on ‘anything goes’.

FeyerabendPromised Henk I would look into Feyerabend’s arguments against Poppers philosophy of science, so I had a look today. Thanks to the Google people Feyerabend’s book is  accessible on the ‘net, and a very good summary of it is freely available too (at www.marxist.org).

Feyerabend was originally a student of Karl Popper, another Austrian, though he later argued against Popper’s critical rationalism while he taught  at the University of California from 1959.  The subtitle of  ‘Against Method’  is:   “Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge”

I processed  the summary and read the concluding  chapter of Feyerabend’s book.  Will give some pertinent quotes here and give my reaction to them.

Quote: “My intention is not to replace one set of general rules by another such set: my intention is, rather, to convince the reader that all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits. The best way to show this is to demonstrate the limits and even the irrationality of some rules which she, or he, is likely to regard as basic.”

No problem with this. All methodologies have their limits.

Quote: “Attacking the basic ideas [of science] evokes taboo reactions which are no weaker than are the taboo reactions in so-called “primitive societies.” Basic beliefs are protected by this reaction as well as by secondary elaborations, as we have seen, and whatever fails to fit into the established category system or is said to be incompatible with this system is either viewed as something quite horrifying or, more frequently, it is simply declared to be non-existent.

No problem with this either. Yes, scientists are human. No human changes his/her ideas for ‘better’ ideas with the ease that we exchange   one set of clothes for  another. The victorian woman that learned that, according to Darwin, man descends from apes sighed: “let’s hope that this is not true. And if true, let’s hope the servants will not find out about it”.

Quote: “Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest and not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude”.

This is a naive statement in itself. It is a play of words. ‘Laws of nature’ are no universal entities that can ‘hide beneath’ anything. Laws of nature are hypotheses, no more, made to fit empirical facts as closely as possible.  If there really were ‘disturbances of considerable magnitude’  we’d be  measuring those disturbances, making up laws for them and call them ‘laws’.  Nature is not a matrushka doll.

Quote: “Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought”

You betcha it is. Pure thought can think up anything! Using ‘pure thought’ the mind can entertain both  the thought ‘the earth is flat’  and ‘the earth is spherical’ with no problem at all.  This is a philosophers argument, see ‘a philosophers way with words’.

Quote: “Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test. Putting them to a test means that we stop using the methodology associated with them, start doing science in a different way and see what happens. Case studies such as those reported in the preceding chapters show that such tests occur all the time, and that they speak against the universal validity of any rule. All methodologies have their limitations and the only ‘rule’ that survives is ‘anything goes’.

I think we should separate two issues here. One is the issue of  ‘how do scientists generate their ideas, establish their facts and work from those to formulate  (new) theories’.  The other is ‘how are scientific facts checked and (new) theories tested’ . On the first issue I can agree with Feyerabends’ argument. Yes, by all means, try things outside existing methodologies. Use (as he suggests) magic, myth, voodoo, whatever. As long as the facts one finds are checked and the theories tested using the criteria of validity and reproducibility (see my blog about Popper)

Quote: “There is another reason why such a re-examination is urgently required. The rise of modern science coincides with the suppression of non-Western tribes by Western invaders. The tribes are not only physically suppressed, they also lose their intellectual independence and are forced to adopt the bloodthirsty religion of brotherly love – Christianity. The most intelligent members get an extra bonus: they are introduced into the mysteries of Western Rationalism and its peak – Western Science. Occasionally this leads to an almost unbearable tension with tradition (Haiti). In most cases the tradition disappears without the trace of an argument, one simply becomes a slave both in body and in mind. Today this development is gradually reversed – with great reluctance, to be sure, but it is reversed. Freedom is regained, old traditions are rediscovered, both among the minorities in Western countries and among large populations in non-Western continents. But science still reigns supreme. It reigns supreme because its practitioners are unable to understand, and unwilling to condone, different ideologies, because they have the power to enforce their wishes, and because they use this power ‘ just as their ancestors used their power to force Christianity on the peoples they encountered during their conquests.

This is a very Western way of looking at recent history…. Casting us Westerners in the roles of villains, too. Which no doubt we have been, on numerous occasions, but this argument is black-and-white beyond belief. Ever heard of any country that closed the hospitals that the big bad ‘Westerners’ forced upon them and went back to traditional healing only? Ever heard of any country that refused mobile phones and went back to jungle drums? In fact, the benefits of modern science are embraced all over the world – and its ill effects felt al over the world, too. But why shoot the messenger?

Quote: “And yet science has no greater authority than any other form of life. Its aims are certainly not more important than are the aims that guide the lives in a religious community or in a tribe that is united by a myth. At any rate, they have no business restricting the lives, the thoughts, the education of the members of a free society where everyone should have a chance to make up his own mind and to live in accordance with the social beliefs he finds most acceptable. The separation between state and church must therefore be complemented by the separation between state and science.”

Science is not a belief system or a form of life. Science in itself has no aims, unless it be the aim to establish as many undisputed facts as possible and to infer from those facts as valid a set of theories as possible. Science is trying to understand life, not regulate it.

“Anything goes” is a provocative, postmodern caricature of what science is all about.

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