Philosophy and the History of Science in the Age of COVID: Part V

Science vs. Pseudo-Science.

As we saw in a recent article, Thomas Kuhn, among the most influential contemporary philosophers of science, maintained that neither the logical positivists, who assumed that science is distinguished on account of its ability to verify the truth of its theories, nor their most resolute critic, Karl Popper, who contended that it is its falsifiability that makes a theory genuinely scientific, were correct. Both approaches presupposed that it was possible to compare and contrast scientific theories in accordance with some absolute standard of evidence. But there is no such thing, Kuhn asserted, for all standards of rational evaluation are paradigm-dependent.

The empiricism, or “radical empiricism,” of the positivists, as well as the “critical rationalism” of Popper, have no relevance to how science in fact develops.  Kuhn was correct about this.

Or so thought Paul Feyerabend.

Feyerabend, who was quite the prominent 20th century philosopher of science himself, didn’t think that Kuhn went far enough.   

In Against Method, Feyerabend argued that there is no such thing as “the scientific method.” The latter implies that science is a single, unified enterprise. It’s nothing of the sort. Rather, “science” is a kind of short-hand for a plurality of phenomena, not a system, but a collage—and a collage, some of whose members are the products of myth, religion, politics, social and cultural convention, i.e. ideas that spring from non-scientific traditions.

“It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naïve a view of man and his social surroundings. To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, ‘objectivity,’ ‘truth,’ it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development.”

And this principle is the principle that “anything goes.”

Feyerabend self-described epistemologically (not politically) as an “anarchist.” A study of the history of science, Feyerabend maintained, readily reveals that science “is essentially an anarchic enterprise.” Moreover, he insists that his brand of anarchism is actually “more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives,” for the “world we inhabit is abundant beyond our wildest imagination” such that only “a tiny fraction of this abundance affects our minds.” But this, Feyerabend declares, “is a blessing, not a drawback.”

Thus, the “separation of science from non-science is not only artificial but also detrimental to the advancement of knowledge,” for if “we want to understand nature, if we want to master our physical surroundings, then we must use all ideas, all methods, and not just a small selection of them.”

In a kind of mocking of those of his colleagues in the profession who advocated on behalf of what was known as “the unity of science,” Feyerabend referred instead to “the disunity of science,” and he contended that there is no justification to privilege Western science over and above other modes of cognition. Quite the contrary: Science “should be taught as one view among many and not as the one and only road to truth and reality.”

In fact, a so-called “scientific worldview” is to be found only “in the minds of metaphysicians, school masters, and scientists blinded by the achievements of their own particular niche [.]”

Science, to put it bluntly, does not occur in anything at all like the manner in which the average lay person has been led to believe it does. Not only do scientists, including such world-renown scientists like Galileo, employ rhetoric, propaganda, and other sorts of intellectual shenanigans or epistemological tricks in order to advance their theories; these sorts of moves are at once necessary and desirable vis-à-vis the advancement of science, for there are no universal scientific methodologies, and neither the “critical rationalist” nor the empiricist approaches to science can move the ball.

Feyerabend is emphatic: “Given any rule, however fundamental or necessary for science, there are always circumstances when it is advisable not only to ignore the rule, but to adopt its opposite” (emphasis added).

The heroic ideal of the scientist as one who, upon impartially, dispassionately, and objectively substantiating his theory through rigorous testing, adds his discovery to the body of knowledge that previous generations have progressively developed by way of following this same uncompromising process is pure fantasy. The reality is something else entirely.

“Knowledge is not a series of self-consistent theories that converge toward an ideal view: It is, rather, an ever-increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single theory, each fairy tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness.”

“Science,” Feyerabend says, “is only ‘one’ of the many instruments people invented to cope with their surroundings. It is not the only one, it is not infallible and it has become too powerful, too pushy, and too dangerous to be left on its own.” 

It’s not just that science is but one source of insight and truth among many others. Even within science itself, it’s the case that no “single theory ever agrees with all the facts in its domain.”

In itself, and at best, 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” at that.”

Science most definitely is “conspicuous, noisy, and impudent [.]” Yet it is “inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favor of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without ever having examined its advantages and its limits” (emphasis added).

Science, or “rationality,” is “not an arbiter of traditions, it is itself a tradition or an aspect of a tradition.” Actually, it is “neither a single tradition, nor the best tradition there is….” For this reason, in a “democracy,” science “should be separated from the state just as churches are now separated from the state.” Feyerabend even refers to science as “that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution.”

Contemporary sciences “are business enterprises run on business principles.” This explains why the research in “large institutes is not guided by Truth and Reason but by the most rewarding fashion” and why “the great minds of today increasingly turn to where the money is [.]”

In light of the philosophies of science propounded by the likes of Feyerabend and, before him, Thomas Kuhn, Robert Root-Bernstein’s commentary is particularly thought-provoking.

A professor of physiology, Root-Bernstein writes that the vast majority of “eminent scientists agree that nonverbal forms of thought are much more important in their work than verbal ones.” This motivated Root-Bernstein to assert that “most influential scientists have always nonverbally imagined a simple, new reality before they have proven its existence through complex logic or produced evidence through complicated experiments.”

The reason for this is “simple” enough: While experiment “can confirm or disconfirm the tentative reality that imagination invents, and experiment can suggest the need for the invention of a new reality to account for anomalies to the existing one,” the “experiment cannot, in and of itself, produce conceptual breakthroughs or be used to explain data.”

“Logic,” Root-Bernstein continues, “is similarly limited.” Logic is critical, but a scientist “must be able to imagine that which is to be tested and how to test it before one can even begin to employ logical, experimental, and verbal forms of thought.”

He concludes thus:

“…I suggest that this ability to imagine new realities is correlated with what are traditionally thought to be nonscientific skills—skills such as playing, modeling, abstracting, idealizing, harmonizing, analogizing, pattern forming, approximating, extrapolating, and imagining the as yet unseen—in short, skills usually associated with the arts, music, and literature.” 

The objective of this series on the history and philosophy of science is not intended to establish the superiority of any one theory to any others. Rather, it is meant to show that, contrary to what political partisans would have us think, science is not the self-explanatory, infallible phenomenon that it is made out to be. To do science is, at some level or other, to presuppose a philosophy of science, an epistemology and, yes, a metaphysic.

So, no one who knows a thing about science can, say, claim that, “The science is settled.” Much less can anyone, least of all a scientist, purport to be the incarnation of “Science” itself—even if his name is Anthony Fauci.

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