Philosophy of Science and an analytic index for Feyerabend

FeyerabendThroughout my formal education, the history of science has been presented as a series of anecdotes and asides. The philosophy of science, encountered even less, was passed down not as a rich debate and on-going inquiry but as a set of rules that best be followed. To paraphrase Gregory Radick, this presentation is mere propaganda; it is akin to learning the history of a nation from its travel brochures. Thankfully, my schooling did not completely derail my learning, and I’ve had an opportunity to make up for some of the lost time since.

One of the philosophers of science that I’ve enjoyed reading the most has been Paul Feyerabend. His provocative writing in Against Method and advocation for what others have called epistemological anarchism — the rejection of any rules of scientific methodology — has been influential to my conception of the role of theorists. Although I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts on Feyerabend for a while, now, I doubt that I will bring myself to do it anytime soon. In the meantime, dear reader, I will leave you with an analytic index consisting of links to the thoughts of others (interspersed with my typical self-links) that discuss Feyerabend, Galileo (his preferred historic case study), and consistency in science.

You’re So Wrong, Richard Feynman by Bill Storage of The Multidisciplinarian.

Instead of starting with Feyerabend, I think it is better to start with another famous contempoary — Feynman. He is famous for his anti-philosophical sentiments that much of the culture of modern physics seems to perpetuate. As such, it is good to start with a rebuttal of an aphorism often attributed to him: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. The above article closes with a passage that I’d like to repeat:

I think Richard Feynman, great man that he was, could have benefited from Philosophy of Science 101; and I think all scientists and engineers could. In my engineering schooling, I took five courses in calculus, one in linear algebra, one non-Euclidean geometry, and two in differential equations. Substituting a philosophy class for one of those Dif EQ courses would make better engineers.

If Bill Storage’s defense is not enough then I’ve also addressed Feyenman’s philosophy as ornithology with my reading of Russell, and Sam L addressed similar points on the Platopus (although, be sure to consider Russ Abbott’s critique of Sam’s post in this thread).

Lessons from Feyerabend by Sam L of Platopus.

To move us to Feyerabend proper, Sam provides us one of the best summaries I’ve read. In particular, he focuses on Feyerabend’s take on holism and the theory-laden nature of observation (something that I usually attribute to Popper), suggesting that “new theories provide not just new explanations of the data, but in effect change the very data to be explained is one that applies to rational discourse in general.”

In the comments, Sam also provides a more generous reading of Feyerabend on inconsistency than I would. In particular, he questions the accuracy of portraying Feyerabend as an anti-realist, thus disputing a standard reading that I am partial to given my usually post-positivist stance. Sam writes:

[Feyerabend] is often portrayed as a radical anti-realist, but as far as I could tell he was less concerned with metaphysics than with questions of justification in science … I take him not to be saying that genuine inconsistency is OK, but that a judgement of incoherence is always relative to the conceptual scheme from which it is made. So if a new idea looks completely inconsistent to us this may just be due to assumptions deep down in our conceptual scheme … so we shouldn’t dismiss it on those grounds alone … To me this suggests that to argue that a view is incoherent or self-defeating is an intrinsically weak and unpersuasive strategy, and is liable to run one afoul of the principle of charity.

What’s the big deal with consistency? by Catarina Dutilh Novaes of M-Phil.

Of course, to understand what it means to throw away consistency, it is helpful to have an idea of what alternatives we have. This article is a nice discussion of some of the historic roots for the principle of non-contradiction, and its role as a norm of rational discourse. I like the implicit suggestion that consistency is an unfortunate norm of Aristotle that we are still struggling to overcome. I also think that Feyerabend would approve of viewing such a central principle as a historic norm.

Review of Vickers’ Understanding Inconsistent Science by Sorin Bangu of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

This doesn’t mean that Feyerabend actually makes a convincing case for inconsistency, however. Fortunately, unlike much of philosophy, the question of inconsistency in science can be settled historically by digging into the actual stances that scientists held over the years. Peter Vickers recently published a book that does just this. Through his analysis, he dispels some of the common assertions of historic inconsistency in science. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but I think it could be a nice pairing with Against Method.

Galileo, the Church and Heliocentricity: A Rough Guide. by Thony Christie of The Renaissance Mathematicus.

If we start to doubt Feyerabend’s historic account of inconsistency, his telling of Galileo’s history becomes suspect, too. Since Feyerabend has an agenda to prove, and since I am not very knowledgeable on history, I turn to Thony Christie for analysis. Conveniently, Christie has a rough guide to the common misrepresentations of Galileo. In general, his explorations support Feyerabend’s attribution of propaganda techniques to Galileo and a decrease in empirical content to the early days of the Copernican revolution. Of course, there are always more sides to every history, but this article provides a nice counter-balance to the internet’s and textbook anecdote’s proclamations of Galileo as the martyr of ‘science done right’. To read more on the transition to heliocentricity, take a look at the whole collection of rough guides.

Anything goes by Philip Gerlee.

There is also more than the philosophical and historical perspectives on Feyerabend himself. Philip Gerlee presents the views of a modern mathematical modeler. He find Feyerabend’s views consistent with his personal experience of science, in particular with what I would call the heuristic models of mathematical biology. He also finds support for the decrease in empirical content during upheavals, suggesting that mathematical oncology is undergoing such a transition and we should encourage it instead of being ruthless empiricists.

I largely share Gerlee’s perspective, with my strongest reservations coming on his hypothesis for why Feyerabend is unpopular and largely unknown among scientists. He writes:

The cool reception from scientists I think has less to do with methodological anarchy (which most of us are quite familiar with) but rather with the perceived anti-scientism that Feyerabend has been accused of.

I am less optimistic than Philip on the general acceptance of methodological anarchy. For example, in this thread several of us debate David Basanta about the unity of science and the (non-)existance of an ideal method, showing that this still a contentious issue even among well season modelers like David. As a bonus, Randall Lee Reetz throws in some general dismissals of the philosophy of science, harking us back to the opening article of this thread.

Paul Feyerabend — The Worst Enemy of Science by Bill Storage of The Multidisciplinarian.

Feyerabend is less influential than Popper among scientists — although Popper is still sometimes misinterpreted by us to power scientism — and less influential than Kuhn among historians and philosophers of science. However, his cultural impact is far from negligible. In particular, Feyerabend’s work gave fuel to some of the flames that Feynman dismissed as balony in the first post. In some ways he was channeling the zeitgeist of the “wave of postmodernism that swept university circles in the ’60s. On its front line were Vietnam protesters who thought science was a tool of evil corporations, feminists who thought science was a male power play, and Foucault-inspired “intellectuals” who denied that science had any special epistemic status.”


About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

6 Responses to Philosophy of Science and an analytic index for Feyerabend

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