Archives For history of science

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsasswe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “Post-Truths and Inconvenient Facts.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 47-60.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40g

Can one truly refuse to believe facts?
Image by Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If nothing else, Steve Fuller has his ear to the pulse of popular culture and the academics who engage in its twists and turns. Starting with Brexit and continuing into the Trump-era abyss, “post-truth” was dubbed by the OED as its word of the year in 2016. Fuller has mustered his collected publications to recast the debate over post-truth and frame it within STS in general and his own contributions to social epistemology in particular.

This could have been a public mea culpa of sorts: we, the community of sociologists (and some straggling philosophers and anthropologists and perhaps some poststructuralists) may seem to someone who isn’t reading our critiques carefully to be partially responsible for legitimating the dismissal of empirical data, evidence-based statements, and the means by which scientific claims can be deemed not only credible but true. Instead, we are dazzled by a range of topics (historically anchored) that explain how we got to Brexit and Trump—yet Fuller’s analyses of them don’t ring alarm bells. There is almost a hidden glee that indeed the privileged scientific establishment, insular scientific discourse, and some of its experts who pontificate authoritative consensus claims are all bound to be undone by the rebellion of mavericks and iconoclasts that include intelligent design promoters and neoliberal freedom fighters.

In what follows, I do not intend to summarize the book, as it is short and entertaining enough for anyone to read on their own. Instead, I wish to outline three interrelated points that one might argue need not be argued but, apparently, do: 1) certain critiques of science have contributed to the Trumpist mindset; 2) the politics of Trumpism is too dangerous to be sanguine about; 3) the post-truth condition is troublesome and insidious. Though Fuller deals with some of these issues, I hope to add some constructive clarification to them.

Part One: Critiques of Science

As Theodor Adorno reminds us, critique is essential not only for philosophy, but also for democracy. He is aware that the “critic becomes a divisive influence, with a totalitarian phrase, a subversive” (1998/1963, 283) insofar as the status quo is being challenged and sacred political institutions might have to change. The price of critique, then, can be high, and therefore critique should be managed carefully and only cautiously deployed. Should we refrain from critique, then? Not at all, continues Adorno.

But if you think that a broad, useful distinction can be offered among different critiques, think again: “[In] the division between responsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who bear public responsibility, and irresponsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who cannot be held accountable for the consequences, critique is already neutralized.” (Ibid. 285) Adorno’s worry is not only that one forgets that “the truth content of critique alone should be that authority [that decides if it’s responsible],” but that when such a criterion is “unilaterally invoked,” critique itself can lose its power and be at the service “of those who oppose the critical spirit of a democratic society.” (Ibid)

In a political setting, the charge of irresponsible critique shuts the conversation down and ensures political hegemony without disruptions. Modifying Adorno’s distinction between (politically) responsible and irresponsible critiques, responsible scientific critiques are constructive insofar as they attempt to improve methods of inquiry, data collection and analysis, and contribute to the accumulated knowledge of a community; irresponsible scientific critiques are those whose goal is to undermine the very quest for objective knowledge and the means by which such knowledge can be ascertained. Questions about the legitimacy of scientific authority are related to but not of exclusive importance for these critiques.

Have those of us committed to the critique of science missed the mark of the distinction between responsible and irresponsible critiques? Have we become so subversive and perhaps self-righteous that science itself has been threatened? Though Fuller is primarily concerned with the hegemony of the sociology of science studies and the movement he has championed under the banner of “social epistemology” since the 1980s, he does acknowledge the Popperians and their critique of scientific progress and even admires the Popperian contribution to the scientific enterprise.

But he is reluctant to recognize the contributions of Marxists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists who have been critically engaging the power of science since the 19th century. Among them, we find Jean-François Lyotard who, in The Postmodern Condition (1984/1979), follows Marxists and neo-Marxists who have regularly lumped science and scientific discourse with capitalism and power. This critical trajectory has been well rehearsed, so suffice it here to say, SSK, SE, and the Edinburgh “Strong Programme” are part of a long and rich critical tradition (whose origins are Marxist). Adorno’s Frankfurt School is part of this tradition, and as we think about science, which had come to dominate Western culture by the 20th century (in the place of religion, whose power had by then waned as the arbiter of truth), it was its privileged power and interlocking financial benefits that drew the ire of critics.

Were these critics “responsible” in Adorno’s political sense? Can they be held accountable for offering (scientific and not political) critiques that improve the scientific process of adjudication between criteria of empirical validity and logical consistency? Not always. Did they realize that their success could throw the baby out with the bathwater? Not always. While Fuller grants Karl Popper the upper hand (as compared to Thomas Kuhn) when indirectly addressing such questions, we must keep an eye on Fuller’s “baby.” It’s easy to overlook the slippage from the political to the scientific and vice versa: Popper’s claim that we never know the Truth doesn’t mean that his (and our) quest for discovering the Truth as such is given up, it’s only made more difficult as whatever is scientifically apprehended as truth remains putative.

Limits to Skepticism

What is precious about the baby—science in general, and scientific discourse and its community in more particular ways—is that it offered safeguards against frivolous skepticism. Robert Merton (1973/1942) famously outlined the four features of the scientific ethos, principles that characterized the ideal workings of the scientific community: universalism, communism (communalism, as per the Cold War terror), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. It is the last principle that is relevant here, since it unequivocally demands an institutionalized mindset of putative acceptance of any hypothesis or theory that is articulated by any community member.

One detects the slippery slope that would move one from being on guard when engaged with any proposal to being so skeptical as to never accept any proposal no matter how well documented or empirically supported. Al Gore, in his An Inconvenient Truth (2006), sounded the alarm about climate change. A dozen years later we are still plagued by climate-change deniers who refuse to look at the evidence, suggesting instead that the standards of science themselves—from the collection of data in the North Pole to computer simulations—have not been sufficiently fulfilled (“questions remain”) to accept human responsibility for the increase of the earth’s temperature. Incidentally, here is Fuller’s explanation of his own apparent doubt about climate change:

Consider someone like myself who was born in the midst of the Cold War. In my lifetime, scientific predictions surrounding global climate change has [sic.] veered from a deep frozen to an overheated version of the apocalypse, based on a combination of improved data, models and, not least, a geopolitical paradigm shift that has come to downplay the likelihood of a total nuclear war. Why, then, should I not expect a significant, if not comparable, alteration of collective scientific judgement in the rest of my lifetime? (86)

Expecting changes in the model does not entail a) that no improved model can be offered; b) that methodological changes in themselves are a bad thing (they might be, rather, improvements); or c) that one should not take action at all based on the current model because in the future the model might change.

The Royal Society of London (1660) set the benchmark of scientific credibility low when it accepted as scientific evidence any report by two independent witnesses. As the years went by, testability (“confirmation,” for the Vienna Circle, “falsification,” for Popper) and repeatability were added as requirements for a report to be considered scientific, and by now, various other conditions have been proposed. Skepticism, organized or personal, remains at the very heart of the scientific march towards certainty (or at least high probability), but when used perniciously, it has derailed reasonable attempts to use science as a means by which to protect, for example, public health.

Both Michael Bowker (2003) and Robert Proctor (1995) chronicle cases where asbestos and cigarette lobbyists and lawyers alike were able to sow enough doubt in the name of attenuated scientific data collection to ward off regulators, legislators, and the courts for decades. Instead of finding sufficient empirical evidence to attribute asbestos and nicotine to the failing health condition (and death) of workers and consumers, “organized skepticism” was weaponized to fight the sick and protect the interests of large corporations and their insurers.

Instead of buttressing scientific claims (that have passed the tests—in refereed professional conferences and publications, for example—of most institutional scientific skeptics), organized skepticism has been manipulated to ensure that no claim is ever scientific enough or has the legitimacy of the scientific community. In other words, what should have remained the reasonable cautionary tale of a disinterested and communal activity (that could then be deemed universally credible) has turned into a circus of fire-blowing clowns ready to burn down the tent. The public remains confused, not realizing that just because the stakes have risen over the decades does not mean there are no standards that ever can be met. Despite lobbyists’ and lawyers’ best efforts of derailment, courts have eventually found cigarette companies and asbestos manufacturers guilty of exposing workers and consumers to deathly hazards.

Limits to Belief

If we add to this logic of doubt, which has been responsible for discrediting science and the conditions for proposing credible claims, a bit of U.S. cultural history, we may enjoy a more comprehensive picture of the unintended consequences of certain critiques of science. Citing Kurt Andersen (2017), Robert Darnton suggests that the Enlightenment’s “rational individualism interacted with the older Puritan faith in the individual’s inner knowledge of the ways of Providence, and the result was a peculiarly American conviction about everyone’s unmediated access to reality, whether in the natural world or the spiritual world. If we believe it, it must be true.” (2018, 68)

This way of thinking—unmediated experiences and beliefs, unconfirmed observations, and disregard of others’ experiences and beliefs—continues what Richard Hofstadter (1962) dubbed “anti-intellectualism.” For Americans, this predates the republic and is characterized by a hostility towards the life of the mind (admittedly, at the time, religious texts), critical thinking (self-reflection and the rules of logic), and even literacy. The heart (our emotions) can more honestly lead us to the Promised Land, whether it is heaven on earth in the Americas or the Christian afterlife; any textual interference or reflective pondering is necessarily an impediment, one to be suspicious of and avoided.

This lethal combination of the life of the heart and righteous individualism brings about general ignorance and what psychologists call “confirmation bias” (the view that we endorse what we already believe to be true regardless of countervailing evidence). The critique of science, along this trajectory, can be but one of many so-called critiques of anything said or proven by anyone whose ideology we do not endorse. But is this even critique?

Adorno would find this a charade, a pretense that poses as a critique but in reality is a simple dismissal without intellectual engagement, a dogmatic refusal to listen and observe. He definitely would be horrified by Stephen Colbert’s oft-quoted quip on “truthiness” as “the conviction that what you feel to be true must be true.” Even those who resurrect Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts,” quietly admit that his admonishment is ignored by media more popular than informed.

On Responsible Critique

But surely there is merit to responsible critiques of science. Weren’t many of these critiques meant to dethrone the unparalleled authority claimed in the name of science, as Fuller admits all along? Wasn’t Lyotard (and Marx before him), for example, correct in pointing out the conflation of power and money in the scientific vortex that could legitimate whatever profit-maximizers desire? In other words, should scientific discourse be put on par with other discourses?  Whose credibility ought to be challenged, and whose truth claims deserve scrutiny? Can we privilege or distinguish science if it is true, as Monya Baker has reported, that “[m]ore than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments” (2016, 1)?

Fuller remains silent about these important and responsible questions about the problematics (methodologically and financially) of reproducing scientific experiments. Baker’s report cites Nature‘s survey of 1,576 researchers and reveals “sometimes-contradictory attitudes towards reproducibility. Although 52% of those surveyed agree that there is a significant ‘crisis’ of reproducibility, less than 31% think that failure to reproduce published results means that the result is probably wrong, and most say that they still trust the published literature.” (Ibid.) So, if science relies on reproducibility as a cornerstone of its legitimacy (and superiority over other discourses), and if the results are so dismal, should it not be discredited?

One answer, given by Hans E. Plesser, suggests that there is a confusion between the notions of repeatability (“same team, same experimental setup”), replicability (“different team, same experimental setup”), and reproducibility (“different team, different experimental setup”). If understood in these terms, it stands to reason that one may not get the same results all the time and that this fact alone does not discredit the scientific enterprise as a whole. Nuanced distinctions take us down a scientific rabbit-hole most post-truth advocates refuse to follow. These nuances are lost on a public that demands to know the “bottom line” in brief sound bites: Is science scientific enough, or is it bunk? When can we trust it?

Trump excels at this kind of rhetorical device: repeat a falsehood often enough and people will believe it; and because individual critical faculties are not a prerequisite for citizenship, post-truth means no truth, or whatever the president says is true. Adorno’s distinction of the responsible from the irresponsible political critics comes into play here; but he innocently failed to anticipate the Trumpian move to conflate the political and scientific and pretend as if there is no distinction—methodologically and institutionally—between political and scientific discourses.

With this cultural backdrop, many critiques of science have undermined its authority and thereby lent credence to any dismissal of science (legitimately by insiders and perhaps illegitimately at times by outsiders). Sociologists and postmodernists alike forgot to put warning signs on their academic and intellectual texts: Beware of hasty generalizations! Watch out for wolves in sheep clothes! Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

One would think such advisories unnecessary. Yet without such safeguards, internal disputes and critical investigations appear to have unintentionally discredited the entire scientific enterprise in the eyes of post-truth promoters, the Trumpists whose neoliberal spectacles filter in dollar signs and filter out pollution on the horizon. The discrediting of science has become a welcome distraction that opens the way to radical free-market mentality, spanning from the exploitation of free speech to resource extraction to the debasement of political institutions, from courts of law to unfettered globalization. In this sense, internal (responsible) critiques of the scientific community and its internal politics, for example, unfortunately license external (irresponsible) critiques of science, the kind that obscure the original intent of responsible critiques. Post-truth claims at the behest of corporate interests sanction a free for all where the concentrated power of the few silences the concerns of the many.

Indigenous-allied protestors block the entrance to an oil facility related to the Kinder-Morgan oil pipeline in Alberta.
Image by Peg Hunter via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Two: The Politics of Post-Truth

Fuller begins his book about the post-truth condition that permeates the British and American landscapes with a look at our ancient Greek predecessors. According to him, “Philosophers claim to be seekers of the truth but the matter is not quite so straightforward. Another way to see philosophers is as the ultimate experts in a post-truth world” (19). This means that those historically entrusted to be the guardians of truth in fact “see ‘truth’ for what it is: the name of a brand ever in need of a product which everyone is compelled to buy. This helps to explain why philosophers are most confident appealing to ‘The Truth’ when they are trying to persuade non-philosophers, be they in courtrooms or classrooms.” (Ibid.)

Instead of being the seekers of the truth, thinkers who care not about what but how we think, philosophers are ridiculed by Fuller (himself a philosopher turned sociologist turned popularizer and public relations expert) as marketing hacks in a public relations company that promotes brands. Their serious dedication to finding the criteria by which truth is ascertained is used against them: “[I]t is not simply that philosophers disagree on which propositions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more importantly they disagree on what it means to say that something is ‘true’ or ‘false’.” (Ibid.)

Some would argue that the criteria by which propositions are judged to be true or false are worthy of debate, rather than the cavalier dismissal of Trumpists. With criteria in place (even if only by convention), at least we know what we are arguing about, as these criteria (even if contested) offer a starting point for critical scrutiny. And this, I maintain, is a task worth performing, especially in the age of pluralism when multiple perspectives constitute our public stage.

In addition to debasing philosophers, it seems that Fuller reserves a special place in purgatory for Socrates (and Plato) for labeling the rhetorical expertise of the sophists—“the local post-truth merchants in fourth century BC Athens”—negatively. (21) It becomes obvious that Fuller is “on their side” and that the presumed debate over truth and its practices is in fact nothing but “whether its access should be free or restricted.” (Ibid.) In this neoliberal reading, it is all about money: are sophists evil because they charge for their expertise? Is Socrates a martyr and saint because he refused payment for his teaching?

Fuller admits, “Indeed, I would have us see both Plato and the Sophists as post-truth merchants, concerned more with the mix of chance and skill in the construction of truth than with the truth as such.” (Ibid.) One wonders not only if Plato receives fair treatment (reminiscent of Popper’s denigration of Plato as supporting totalitarian regimes, while sparing Socrates as a promoter of democracy), but whether calling all parties to a dispute “post-truth merchants” obliterates relevant differences. In other words, have we indeed lost the desire to find the truth, even if it can never be the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Political Indifference to Truth

One wonders how far this goes: political discourse without any claim to truth conditions would become nothing but a marketing campaign where money and power dictate the acceptance of the message. Perhaps the intended message here is that contemporary cynicism towards political discourse has its roots in ancient Greece. Regardless, one should worry that such cynicism indirectly sanctions fascism.

Can the poor and marginalized in our society afford this kind of cynicism? For them, unlike their privileged counterparts in the political arena, claims about discrimination and exploitation, about unfair treatment and barriers to voting are true and evidence based; they are not rhetorical flourishes by clever interlocutors.

Yet Fuller would have none of this. For him, political disputes are games:

[B]oth the Sophists and Plato saw politics as a game, which is to say, a field of play involving some measure of both chance and skill. However, the Sophists saw politics primarily as a game of chance whereas Plato saw it as a game of skill. Thus, the sophistically trained client deploys skill in [the] aid of maximizing chance occurrences, which may then be converted into opportunities, while the philosopher-king uses much the same skills to minimize or counteract the workings of chance. (23)

Fuller could be channeling here twentieth-century game theory and its application in the political arena, or the notion offered by Lyotard when describing the minimal contribution we can make to scientific knowledge (where we cannot change the rules of the game but perhaps find a novel “move” to make). Indeed, if politics is deemed a game of chance, then anything goes, and it really should not matter if an incompetent candidate like Trump ends up winning the American presidency.

But is it really a question of skill and chance? Or, as some political philosophers would argue, is it not a question of the best means by which to bring to fruition the best results for the general wellbeing of a community? The point of suggesting the figure of a philosopher-king, to be sure, was not his rhetorical skills in this conjunction, but instead the deep commitment to rule justly, to think critically about policies, and to treat constituents with respect and fairness. Plato’s Republic, however criticized, was supposed to be about justice, not about expediency; it is an exploration of the rule of law and wisdom, not a manual about manipulation. If the recent presidential election in the US taught us anything, it’s that we should be wary of political gamesmanship and focus on experience and knowledge, vision and wisdom.

Out-Gaming Expertise Itself

Fuller would have none of this, either. It seems that there is virtue in being a “post-truther,” someone who can easily switch between knowledge games, unlike the “truther” whose aim is to “strengthen the distinction by making it harder to switch between knowledge games.” (34) In the post-truth realm, then, knowledge claims are lumped into games that can be played at will, that can be substituted when convenient, without a hint of the danger such capricious game-switching might engender.

It’s one thing to challenge a scientific hypothesis about astronomy because the evidence is still unclear (as Stephen Hawking has done in regard to Black Holes) and quite another to compare it to astrology (and give equal hearings to horoscope and Tarot card readers as to physicists). Though we are far from the Demarcation Problem (between science and pseudo-science) of the last century, this does not mean that there is no difference at all between different discourses and their empirical bases (or that the problem itself isn’t worthy of reconsideration in the age of Fuller and Trump).

On the contrary, it’s because we assume difference between discourses (gray as they may be) that we can move on to figure out on what basis our claims can and should rest. The danger, as we see in the political logic of the Trump administration, is that friends become foes (European Union) and foes are admired (North Korea and Russia). Game-switching in this context can lead to a nuclear war.

In Fuller’s hands, though, something else is at work. Speaking of contemporary political circumstances in the UK and the US, he says: “After all, the people who tend to be demonized as ‘post-truth’ – from Brexiteers to Trumpists – have largely managed to outflank the experts at their own game, even if they have yet to succeed in dominating the entire field of play.” (39) Fuller’s celebratory tone here may either bring a slight warning in the use of “yet” before the success “in dominating the entire field of play” or a prediction that indeed this is what is about to happen soon enough.

The neoliberal bottom-line surfaces in this assessment: he who wins must be right, the rich must be smart, and more perniciously, the appeal to truth is beside the point. More specifically, Fuller continues:

My own way of dividing the ‘truthers’ and the ‘post-truthers’ is in terms of whether one plays by the rules of the current knowledge game or one tries to change the rules of the game to one’s advantage. Unlike the truthers, who play by the current rules, the post-truthers want to change the rules. They believe that what passes for truth is relative to the knowledge game one is playing, which means that depending on the game being played, certain parties are advantaged over others. Post-truth in this sense is a recognisably social constructivist position, and many of the arguments deployed to advance ‘alternative facts’ and ‘alternative science’ nowadays betray those origins. They are talking about worlds that could have been and still could be—the stuff of modal power. (Ibid.)

By now one should be terrified. This is a strong endorsement of lying as a matter of course, as a way to distract from the details (and empirical bases) of one “knowledge game”—because it may not be to one’s ideological liking–in favor of another that might be deemed more suitable (for financial or other purposes).

The political stakes here are too high to ignore, especially because there are good reasons why “certain parties are advantaged over others” (say, climate scientists “relative to” climate deniers who have no scientific background or expertise). One wonders what it means to talk about “alternative facts” and “alternative science” in this context: is it a means of obfuscation? Is it yet another license granted by the “social constructivist position” not to acknowledge the legal liability of cigarette companies for the addictive power of nicotine? Or the pollution of water sources in Flint, Michigan?

What Is the Mark of an Open Society?

If we corral the broader political logic at hand to the governance of the scientific community, as Fuller wishes us to do, then we hear the following:

In the past, under the inspiration of Karl Popper, I have argued that fundamental to the governance of science as an ‘open society’ is the right to be wrong (Fuller 2000a: chap. 1). This is an extension of the classical republican ideal that one is truly free to speak their mind only if they can speak with impunity. In the Athenian and the Roman republics, this was made possible by the speakers–that is, the citizens–possessing independent means which allowed them to continue with their private lives even if they are voted down in a public meeting. The underlying intuition of this social arrangement, which is the epistemological basis of Mill’s On Liberty, is that people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively. The entangled histories of politics, economics and knowledge reveal the difficulties in trying to implement this ideal. Nevertheless, in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified. (109)

To be clear, Fuller not only asks for the “right to be wrong,” but also for the legitimacy of the claim that “people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively.” The first plea is reasonable enough, as humans are fallible (yes, Popper here), and the history of ideas has proven that killing heretics is counterproductive (and immoral). If the Brexit/Trump post-truth age would only usher a greater encouragement for speculation or conjectures (Popper again), then Fuller’s book would be well-placed in the pantheon of intellectual pluralism; but if this endorsement obliterates the silly from the informed conjecture, then we are in trouble and the ensuing cacophony will turn us all deaf.

The second claim is at best supported by the likes of James Surowiecki (2004) who has argued that no matter how uninformed a crowd of people is, collectively it can guess the correct weight of a cow on stage (his TED talk). As folk wisdom, this is charming; as public policy, this is dangerous. Would you like a random group of people deciding how to store nuclear waste, and where? Would you subject yourself to the judgment of just any collection of people to decide on taking out your appendix or performing triple-bypass surgery?

When we turn to Trump, his supporters certainly like that he speaks his mind, just as Fuller says individuals should be granted the right to speak their minds (even if in error). But speaking one’s mind can also be a proxy for saying whatever, without filters, without critical thinking, or without thinking at all (let alone consulting experts whose very existence seems to upset Fuller). Since when did “speaking your mind” turn into scientific discourse? It’s one thing to encourage dissent and offer reasoned doubt and explore second opinions (as health care professionals and insurers expect), but it’s quite another to share your feelings and demand that they count as scientific authority.

Finally, even if we endorse the view that we “collectively” reach the truth, should we not ask: by what criteria? according to what procedure? under what guidelines? Herd mentality, as Nietzsche already warned us, is problematic at best and immoral at worst. Trump rallies harken back to the fascist ones we recall from Europe prior to and during WWII. Few today would entrust the collective judgment of those enthusiasts of the Thirties to carry the day.

Unlike Fuller’s sanguine posture, I shudder at the possibility that “in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified.” This is neither because I worship experts and scorn folk knowledge nor because I have low regard for individuals and their (potentially informative) opinions. Just as we warn our students that simply having an opinion is not enough, that they need to substantiate it, offer data or logical evidence for it, and even know its origins and who promoted it before they made it their own, so I worry about uninformed (even if well-meaning) individuals (and presidents) whose gut will dictate public policy.

This way of unreasonably empowering individuals is dangerous for their own well-being (no paternalism here, just common sense) as well as for the community at large (too many untrained cooks will definitely spoil the broth). For those who doubt my concern, Trump offers ample evidence: trade wars with allies and foes that cost domestic jobs (when promising to bring jobs home), nuclear-war threats that resemble a game of chicken (as if no president before him ever faced such an option), and completely putting into disarray public policy procedures from immigration regulations to the relaxation of emission controls (that ignores the history of these policies and their failures).

Drought and suffering in Arbajahan, Kenya in 2006.
Photo by Brendan Cox and Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Three: Post-Truth Revisited

There is something appealing, even seductive, in the provocation to doubt the truth as rendered by the (scientific) establishment, even as we worry about sowing the seeds of falsehood in the political domain. The history of science is the story of authoritative theories debunked, cherished ideas proven wrong, and claims of certainty falsified. Why not, then, jump on the “post-truth” wagon? Would we not unleash the collective imagination to improve our knowledge and the future of humanity?

One of the lessons of postmodernism (at least as told by Lyotard) is that “post-“ does not mean “after,” but rather, “concurrently,” as another way of thinking all along: just because something is labeled “post-“, as in the case of postsecularism, it doesn’t mean that one way of thinking or practicing has replaced another; it has only displaced it, and both alternatives are still there in broad daylight. Under the rubric of postsecularism, for example, we find religious practices thriving (80% of Americans believe in God, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey), while the number of unaffiliated, atheists, and agnostics is on the rise. Religionists and secularists live side by side, as they always have, more or less agonistically.

In the case of “post-truth,” it seems that one must choose between one orientation or another, or at least for Fuller, who claims to prefer the “post-truth world” to the allegedly hierarchical and submissive world of “truth,” where the dominant establishment shoves its truths down the throats of ignorant and repressed individuals. If post-truth meant, like postsecularism, the realization that truth and provisional or putative truth coexist and are continuously being re-examined, then no conflict would be at play. If Trump’s claims were juxtaposed to those of experts in their respective domains, we would have a lively, and hopefully intelligent, debate. False claims would be debunked, reasonable doubts could be raised, and legitimate concerns might be addressed. But Trump doesn’t consult anyone except his (post-truth) gut, and that is troublesome.

A Problematic Science and Technology Studies

Fuller admits that “STS can be fairly credited with having both routinized in its own research practice and set loose on the general public–if not outright invented—at least four common post-truth tropes”:

  1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
  2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.
  3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.
  4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties. (43)

In that sense, then, Fuller agrees that the positive lessons STS wished for the practice of the scientific community may have inadvertently found their way into a post-truth world that may abuse or exploit them in unintended ways. That is, something like “consensus” is challenged by STS because of how the scientific community pretends to get there knowing as it does that no such thing can ever be reached and when reached it may have been reached for the wrong reasons (leadership pressure, pharmaceutical funding of conferences and journals). But this can also go too far.

Just because consensus is difficult to reach (it doesn’t mean unanimity) and is susceptible to corruption or bias doesn’t mean that anything goes. Some experimental results are more acceptable than others and some data are more informative than others, and the struggle for agreement may take its political toll on the scientific community, but this need not result in silly ideas about cigarettes being good for our health or that obesity should be encouraged from early childhood.

It seems important to focus on Fuller’s conclusion because it encapsulates my concern with his version of post-truth, a condition he endorses not only in the epistemological plight of humanity but as an elixir with which to cure humanity’s ills:

While some have decried recent post-truth campaigns that resulted in victory for Brexit and Trump as ‘anti-intellectual’ populism, they are better seen as the growth pains of a maturing democratic intelligence, to which the experts will need to adjust over time. Emphasis in this book has been given to the prospect that the lines of intellectual descent that have characterised disciplinary knowledge formation in the academy might come to be seen as the last stand of a political economy based on rent-seeking. (130)

Here, we are not only afforded a moralizing sermon about (and it must be said, from) the academic privileged position, from whose heights all other positions are dismissed as anti-intellectual populism, but we are also entreated to consider the rantings of the know-nothings of the post-truth world as the “growing pains of a maturing democratic intelligence.” Only an apologist would characterize the Trump administration as mature, democratic, or intelligent. Where’s the evidence? What would possibly warrant such generosity?

It’s one thing to challenge “disciplinary knowledge formation” within the academy, and there are no doubt cases deserving reconsideration as to the conditions under which experts should be paid and by whom (“rent-seeking”); but how can these questions about higher education and the troubled relations between the university system and the state (and with the military-industrial complex) give cover to the Trump administration? Here is Fuller’s justification:

One need not pronounce on the specific fates of, say, Brexit or Trump to see that the post-truth condition is here to stay. The post-truth disrespect for established authority is ultimately offset by its conceptual openness to previously ignored people and their ideas. They are encouraged to come to the fore and prove themselves on this expanded field of play. (Ibid)

This, too, is a logical stretch: is disrespect for the authority of the establishment the same as, or does it logically lead to, the “conceptual” openness to previously “ignored people and their ideas”? This is not a claim on behalf of the disenfranchised. Perhaps their ideas were simply bad or outright racist or misogynist (as we see with Trump). Perhaps they were ignored because there was hope that they would change for the better, become more enlightened, not act on their white supremacist prejudices. Should we have “encouraged” explicit anti-Semitism while we were at it?

Limits to Tolerance

We tolerate ignorance because we believe in education and hope to overcome some of it; we tolerate falsehood in the name of eventual correction. But we should never tolerate offensive ideas and beliefs that are harmful to others. Once again, it is one thing to argue about black holes, and quite another to argue about whether black lives matter. It seems reasonable, as Fuller concludes, to say that “In a post-truth utopia, both truth and error are democratised.” It is also reasonable to say that “You will neither be allowed to rest on your laurels nor rest in peace. You will always be forced to have another chance.”

But the conclusion that “Perhaps this is why some people still prefer to play the game of truth, no matter who sets the rules” (130) does not follow. Those who “play the game of truth” are always vigilant about falsehoods and post-truth claims, and to say that they are simply dupes of those in power is both incorrect and dismissive. On the contrary: Socrates was searching for the truth and fought with the sophists, as Popper fought with the logical positivists and the Kuhnians, and as scientists today are searching for the truth and continue to fight superstitions and debunked pseudoscience about vaccination causing autism in young kids.

If post-truth is like postsecularism, scientific and political discourses can inform each other. When power-plays by ignoramus leaders like Trump are obvious, they could shed light on less obvious cases of big pharma leaders or those in charge of the EPA today. In these contexts, inconvenient facts and truths should prevail and the gamesmanship of post-truthers should be exposed for what motivates it.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

* Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis of Brown University, whose contribution to my critical thinking about this topic has been profound.

References

Theodor W. Adorno (1998/1963), Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press

Kurt Andersen (2017), Fantasyland: How America Went Hotwire: A 500-Year History. New York: Random House

Monya Baker, “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility,” Nature Vol. 533, Issue 7604, 5/26/16 (corrected 7/28/16)

Michael Bowker (2003), Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos. New York: Rodale.

Robert Darnton, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” New York Review of Books Vo. LXV, No. 11 6/28/18, pp. 68-72.

Al Gore (2006), An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Rodale.

Richard Hofstadter (1962), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Jean- François Lyotard (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Robert K. Merton (1973/1942), “The Normative Structure of Science,” The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 267-278.

Hans E. Plesser, “Reproducibility vs. Replicability: A Brief History of Confused Terminology,” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 2017; 11: 76; online: 1/18/18.

Robert N. Proctor (1995), Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer. New York: Basic Books.

James Surowiecki (2004), The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor Books.

Author Information: Paolo Palladino, Lancaster University, p.palladino@lancaster.ac.uk

Palladino, Paolo. “Heidegger Today: On Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 41-46.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40b

Art by Philip Beasley
Image by Sean Salmon via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I have been invited to participate in the present symposium on Jeff Kochan’s Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. I would like to preface my response by expressing my gratitude to the editors of Social Epistemology for the opportunity to comment on this provocative intervention and by noting the following about my response’s intellectual provenance.

I have long worked at the intersection of historical, philosophical and sociological modes of inquiry into the making of scientific accounts and technological interventions in the material world, but at an increasing distance from the field of science and technology studies, widely defined. As a result, I am neither invested in disciplinary purity, nor party in the longstanding arguments over the sociology of scientific knowledge and its presuppositions about the relationship between the social and natural orders.

I must also admit, however, to being increasingly attracted to the ontological questions which the wider field of science and technology studies has posed in recent years. All this is important to how I come to think about both Science as Social Existence and the argument between Kochan and Raphael Sassower over the merits of Science as Social Existence.

Kochan’s Problems of the Strong Programme

As the full title of Science as Social Existence evinces, Kochan’s principal matter of concern is the sociology of scientific knowledge. He regards this as the field of study that is dedicated to explaining the production of knowledge about the material world in sociological terms, as these terms are understood among proponents of the so-called “strong programme”. As Kochan’s response to Sassower conveys pointedly, he is concerned with two problems in particular.

The first of these is that the sociology of scientific knowledge is hostage to a distinction between the inquiring subject and the objective world such that it is difficult to understand exactly how this subject is ever able to say anything meaningful about the objective world. The second, closely related problem is that the sociology of scientific knowledge cannot then respond to the recurrent charge that it holds to an unsustainable relationship between the social and natural orders.

Kochan proposes that Martin Heidegger’s existential phenomenology provides the wherewithal to answer these two problems. This, he suggests, is to the benefit of science and technology studies, the wider, interdisciplinary field of study, which the sociology of scientific knowledge could justifiably be said to have inaugurated but has also grown increasingly detached from the latter. Incidentally, while Kochan himself refers to this wider field as “science studies”, “science and technology studies” seems preferable because it not only enjoys greater currency, but also conveys more accurately the focus on practices and materiality from which stems the divergence between the enterprises Kochan seeks to distinguish.

Anyway, as becomes evident in the course of reading Science as Social Existence, Kochan’s proposal calls first for the correction of Joseph Rouse’s and Bruno Latour’s arguably mistaken reading of Heidegger, particularly in regard to Heidegger’s pivotal distinction between essence and existence, and to Heidegger’s further insistence upon the historicity of Being. This is followed by the obligatory illustration of what is to be gained from such a philosophical excursus.

Kochan thus goes on to revisit what has become a classic of science and technology studies, namely the arguments between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over the former’s signal invention, the air-pump. Kochan shows here how Heidegger’s thought enables a more symmetric account of the relationship between the social and natural order at issue in the arguments between Boyle and Hobbes, so disarming Latour’s otherwise incisive objection that the sociology of scientific knowledge is a neo-Kantian enterprise that affords matter no agency in the making of the world we inhabit. From this point of view, Science as Social Existence would not only seem to answer important conceptual problems, but also offer a helpful explication and clarification of the notoriously difficult Heideggerian corpus.

It should also be noted, however, that this corpus has actually played a marginal role in the development of science and technology studies and that leading figures in the field have nonetheless occasionally felt compelled to interrogate texts such as Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology. Such incongruity about the place of Heidegger within the evolution of science and technology studies is perhaps important to understanding Sassower’s caustic line of questioning about what exactly is to be gained from the turn to Heidegger, which Science as Social Existence seeks to advance.

Real Love or a Shotgun Marriage?

Bluntly, Sassower asks why anyone should be interested in marrying Heideggerian existential phenomenology and the sociology of scientific knowledge, ultimately characterising this misbegotten conjunction as a “shotgun marriage’. My immediate answer is that Science as Social Existence offers more than just a detailed and very interesting, if unconventional, examination of the conceptual problems besetting the sociology of scientific knowledge.

As someone schooled in the traditions of history and philosophy of science who has grown increasingly concerned about the importance of history, I particularly welcome the clarification of the role that history plays in our understanding of scientific knowledge and technological practice. Kochan, following Heidegger to the letter, explains how the inquiring subject and the objective world are to be understood as coming into being simultaneously and how the relationship between the two varies in a manner such that what is and what can be said about the nature of that which is are a matter of historical circumstance.

As a result, history weighs upon us not just discursively, but also materially, and so much so that the world we inhabit must be understood as irreducibly historical. As Kochan puts it while contrasting Kant’s and Heidegger’s understanding of finitude:

For Heidegger … the essence of a thing is not something we receive from it, but something it possesses as a result of the socio-historically conditioned metaphysical projection within which it is let be what it is. On Heidegger’s account, not even an infinitely powerful intellect could grasp the intrinsic, independently existing essence of a thing, because no such essence exists. Hence, the finitude of our receptivity is not the issue; the issue is, instead, the finitude of our projectivity. The range of possible conceptualisations of a thing is conditioned by the historical tradition of the subject attempting to make sense of that thing. Only within the finite scope of possibilities enabled by the subject’s tradition can it experience a thing as intelligible, not to mention develop a clearly defined understanding of what it is (258-9).

Literally, tradition matters. Relatedly, I also welcome how Science as Social Existence helps me to clarify the ambiguities of Heidegger’s comportment toward scientific inquiry, which would have been very useful some time ago, as I tried to forge a bridge between the history of biology and a different set of philosophers to those usually considered within the history and philosophy of science, not just Heidegger, but also Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.

As I sought to reflect upon the wider implications of Heidegger’s engagement with the biological sciences of his day, Science as Social Existence would have enabled me to fend off the charge that I misunderstood Heidegger’s distinction between ontic and ontological orders, between the existence of something and the meaning attributed to it. Thus, Kochan points out that:

Metaphysical knowledge is, according to Heidegger, a direct consequence of our finitude, our inescapable mortality, rather than of our presumed ability to transcend that finitude, to reach, infinitely, for heaven. Because the finitude of our constructive power makes impossible a transcendent grasp of the thing in-itself — leaving us to be only affected by it in its brute, independent existence — our attention is instead pushed away from the thing-in-itself and towards the constructive categories we must employ in order to make sense of it as a thing present-at-hand within-the-world.

For Heidegger, metaphysics is nothing other than the study of these categories and their relations to one another. Orthodox metaphysics, in contrast, treats these existential categories as ontic, that is, as extant mental things referring to the intrinsic properties of the things we seek to know, rather than as ontological, that is, as the existential structures of being-in-the-world which enable us to know those things (133-4).

The clarification would have helped me to articulate how the ontic and ontological orders are so inextricably related to one another and, today, so entangled with scientific knowledge and technological practice that Heidegger’s reading of Eugen Korschelt’s lectures on ageing and death matters to our understanding of the fissures within Heidegger’s argument. All this seems to me a wholly satisfactory answer to Sassower’s question about the legitimacy of the conjunction Kochan proposes. This said, Heidegger and sociology are not obvious companions and I remain unpersuaded by what Science as Social Existence might have to offer the more sociologically inclined field of science and technology studies. This, I think, is where the cracks within the edifice that is Science as Social Existence begin to show.

An Incompleteness

There is something unsettling about Science as Social Existence and the distinctions it draws between the sociology of scientific knowledge and the wider field of science and technology studies. For one thing, Science as Social Existence offers an impoverished reading of science and technology studies whereby the field’s contribution to the understanding the production of scientific knowledge and related technological practices is equated with Latour’s criticism of the sociology of scientific knowledge, as the latter was articulated in arguments with David Bloor nearly two decades ago.

Science as Social Existence is not nearly as interested in the complexity of the arguments shaping this wider field as it is in the heterogeneity of philosophical positions taken within the sociology of scientific knowledge with respect to the relationship between knowledge and the material world. It bears repeating at this point that Kochan defines the latter enterprise in the narrowest terms, which also seem far more attuned to philosophical, than sociological considerations. Such narrowness should perhaps come as no surprise given the importance that the sociology of scientific knowledge has attached to the correspondence theory of truth, but there also is much more to the history of philosophy than just the Cartesian and Kantian confrontations with Plato and Aristotle, which Heidegger privileges and Kochan revisits to answer the questions Rouse and Latour have asked of the sociology of scientific knowledge.

Sassower’s possibly accidental reference to a “Spinozist approach” is a useful reminder of both alternative philosophical traditions with respect to materiality, relationality and cognitive construction, and how a properly sociological inquiry into the production of scientific knowledge and technological practices might call for greater openness to the heterogeneity of contemporary social theory. This might even include actor-network theory and its own distinctive reformulation of Spinozist monadology. However, Science as Social Existence is not about any of this, and, as Kochan’s response to Sassower reminds us, we need to respond to its argument on its own terms. Let me then say something about Kochan’s configuration of phenomenology and sociological thought, which is just as unsettling as the relationship Kochan posits between the sociology of scientific knowledge and the wider field of science and technology studies.

Ethnomethodology is the most obvious inheritor to the phenomenological tradition which Kochan invokes to address the problems confronting the sociology of scientific knowledge, and it has also played a very important role in the evolution of science and technology studies. Key ethnomethodological interventions are ambivalent about Heideggerian constructions of phenomenology, but Kochan does not appear to have any great interest in either this sociological tradition or, relatedly, what might be the implications of Heidegger’s divergence from Edmund Husserl’s understanding of the phenomenological project for the relationship between subjects and knowledge.

Instead, Kochan prefers to weld together existential phenomenology and interactionist social theory, because, as he puts it, “interactionist social theory puts the individual subject at the methodological centre of explanations of social, and thus also of cognitive, order” (372). This, however, raises troubling questions about Kochan’s reading and mobilisation of Heidegger. Kochan equates the subject and Being, but Heidegger himself felt the need to develop the term beyond its more conventional connotations of “existence” as he came to understand the subject and Being as closely related, but not one and the same. As Kochan himself notes Being “is not a thing, substance, or object” (39). This form of existence is to be understood instead as a performative operation, if not a becoming.

Furthermore, Kochan would seem to underestimate the importance of Heidegger’s understanding of the relationship between social existence and the fullest realisation of this form of existence. While Heidegger undoubtedly regards Being as emerging from within the fabric of intersubjective relations, Heidegger also maintains that authentic Being realises itself by extricating itself from other beings and so confronting the full meaning of its finitude. As a result, one is compelled to ask what exactly is Kochan’s understanding of the subject and its subjectivity, particularly in relation to the location of “knowledge”.

Possible Predecessors Gone Unacknowledged

Strikingly, these are the kinds of questions that Foucault asks about phenomenology, an enterprise which he regards as contributing to the consolidation of the modern subject. Yet, Kochan would appear to dismiss Foucault’s work, even though Foucault has much to say about not just the historicity of the subject, but also about its entanglement with mathēsis, a concept central to Kochan’s analysis of the encounter between Boyle and Hobbes. Despite the richness and symmetry of the account Kochan offers, it seems quite unsatisfactory to simply observe in a footnote that “Heidegger’s usage of mathēsis differs from that of Michel Foucault, who defines it as ‘the science of calculable order’” (234 n20).

Put simply, there is something amiss about all the slippage around questions of subjectivity, as well as the relationship between the historical and ontological ordering of the world, which calls into question the sociological foundations of the account of the sociology of scientific knowledge which Science as Social Existence seeks to articulate.

Clearly, Kochan mistrusts sociological critiques of the subject, and one of the reasons Kochan provides for the aversion is articulated most pithily in the following passage from his response to Sassower, in relation to the sociological perspectives that have increasingly come to dominate science and technology studies. Kochan writes:

What interests these critics … are fields of practice. Within these fields, the subject is constituted. But the fundamental unit of analysis is the field – or system – not the subject. Subjectivity is, on this theory, a derivative phenomenon, at best, a secondary resource for sociological analysis. From my perspective, because subjectivity is fundamental to human existence, it cannot be eliminated in this way.

In other words, if the subject is constructed, then its subjectivity and structures of feeling can provide no insight into our present condition. This, however, is a very familiar conundrum, one that, in another guise, has long confronted science and technology studies: That something is constructed does not necessarily amount to its “elimination”. The dividing issue at the heart of Science as Social Existence would then seem to be less the relationship between scientific knowledge and the material constitution of the world about us, and more whether one is interested in the clarity of transcendental analytics or charting the topological complexities of immanent transformation.

My preference, however, is to place such weighty and probably irresolvable issues in suspension. It seems to me that it might be more productive to reconsider instead how the subject is constituted and wherein lie its distinctive capacities to determine what is and what can be done, here and now. Anthropological perspectives on the questions science and technology studies seek to pose today suggest that this might be how to build most productively upon the Heideggerian understanding of the subject and the objective world as coming into being simultaneously.

Perhaps, however, I am just another of those readers destined to be “unhappy” about Science as Social Existence, but I am not sure that this is quite right because I hope to have conveyed how much I enjoyed thinking about the questions Science as Social Existence poses, and I would just like to hear more about what Kochan thinks of such alternative approaches to reading Heidegger today.

Contact details: p.palladino@lancaster.ac.uk

References

Kochan, Jeff. Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2017.

Author Information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology, mmizrahi@fit.edu

Mizrahi, Moti. “The (Lack of) Evidence for the Kuhnian Image of Science.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 19-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Z5

See also:

Image by Narcis Sava via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Whenever the work of an influential philosopher is criticized, a common move made by those who seek to defend the influential philosopher’s work is to claim that his or her ideas have been misconstrued. This is an effective move, of course, for it means that the critics have criticized a straw man, not the ideas actually put forth by the influential philosopher. However, this move can easily backfire, too.

For continued iterations of this move could render the ideas in question immune to criticism in a rather ad hoc fashion. That is to say, shouting “straw man” every time an influential philosopher’s ideas are subjected to scrutiny is rather like shouting “wolf” when none is around; it could be seen as an attempt to draw attention to that which may not be worthy of attention.

The question, then, is whether the influential philosopher’s ideas are worthy of attention and/or acceptance. In particular, are Kuhn’s ideas about scientific revolutions and incommensurability worthy of acceptance? As I have argued, along with a few other contributors to my edited volume, The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? (2018), they may not be because they are based on dubious assumptions and fallacious argumentation.

In their reviews of The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? (2018), both Markus Arnold (2018) and Amanda Bryant (2018) complain that the contributors who criticize Kuhn’s theory of scientific change have misconstrued his philosophy of science and they praise those who seek to defend the Kuhnian image of science. In what follows, then, I would like to address their claims about misconstruing Kuhn’s theory of scientific change. But my focus here, as in the book, will be the evidence (or lack thereof) for the Kuhnian image of science. I will begin with Arnold’s review and then move on to Bryant’s review.

Arnold on the Evidence for the Kuhnian Image of Science

Arnold (2018, 42) states that “one of the results of [his] review” is that “the ‘inductive reasoning’ intended to refute Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis (found in the first part of the book) is actually its weakest part.” I am not sure what he means by that exactly. First, I am not sure in what sense inductive reasoning can be said to refute a thesis, given that inductive arguments are the sort of arguments whose premises do not necessitate the truth of their conclusions, whereas a refutation of p, if sound, supposedly shows that p must be false.

Second, contrary to what Arnold claims, I do not think that the chapters in Part I of the book contain “‘inductive reasoning’ intended to refute Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis” (Arnold 2018, 42). Speaking of my chapter in particular, Chapter 1 (Mizrahi 2018b, 32-38), it contains two arguments intended to show that there is no deductive support for the Kuhnian thesis of taxonomic incommensurability (Mizrahi 2018b, 32), and an argument intended to show that there is no inductive support for the Kuhnian thesis of taxonomic incommensurability (Mizrahi 2018b, 37).

These arguments are deductive, not inductive, for their premises, if true, guarantee the truth of their conclusions. Besides, to argue that there is no evidence for p is not the same as arguing that p is false. None of my arguments is intended to show that p (namely, the Kuhnian thesis of taxonomic incommensurability) is false.

Rather, my arguments show that there is no evidence for p (namely, the Kuhnian thesis of taxonomic incommensurability). For these reasons, as a criticism of Part I of the book, Arnold’s (2018, 42) claim that “the ‘inductive reasoning’ intended to refute Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis (found in the first part of the book) is actually its weakest part” completely misses the mark.

Moreover, the only thing I could find in Arnold’s review that could be construed as support for this claim is the aforementioned complaint about straw-manning Kuhn. As Arnold (2018, 43) puts it, “the counter-arguments under consideration brought forward against his model seem, paradoxically, to underestimate the complexity of Kuhn’s claims.”

In other words, Kuhn’s theory of scientific change is so complex and those who attempt to criticize it fail to appreciate its complexity. But why? Why do the criticisms fail to appreciate the complexity of Kuhn’s theory? How complex is it such that it defies interpretation and criticism? Arnold does not say. Instead, he (Arnold 2018, 43) states that “it is not clear, why Kuhn’s ‘image of science’ should be dismissed because […] taxonomic incommensurability ‘is the exception rather than the rule’ [Mizrahi 2018b,] (38).”

As I argue in Chapter 1, however, the fact that taxonomic incommensurability “is the exception rather than the rule” (Mizrahi 2018b, 38) means that Kuhn’s theory of scientific change is a bad theory because it shows that Kuhn’s theory has neither explanatory nor predictive power. A “theory” with no explanatory and/or predictive power is no theory at all (Mizrahi 2018b, 37-38). From his review, however, it is clear that Arnold thinks of Kuhn’s image of science as a theory of scientific change.

For instance, he talks about “Kuhn’s epistemology” (Arnold 2018, 45), “Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability” (Arnold 2018, 46), and Kuhn’s “complex theory of science” (Arnold 2018, 42). If Kuhn’s thesis of taxonomic incommensurability has no explanatory and/or predictive power, then it is a bad theory, perhaps not even a theory at all, let alone a general theory of scientific knowledge or scientific change.

In that respect, I found it rather curious that, on the one hand, Arnold approves of Alexandra Argamakova’s (2018) criticism of the universal ambitions of Kuhn’s image of science, but on the other hand, he wants to attribute to Kuhn the view that “scientific revolutions are rare” (Arnold 2018, 43). Arnold quotes with approval Argamakova’s (2018, 54) claim that “distinct breakthroughs in science can be marked as revolutions, but no universal system of criteria for such appraisal can be formulated in a normative philosophical manner” (emphasis added).

In other words, if Argamakova is right, then there can be no philosophical theory of scientific change in general, Kuhnian or otherwise. So Arnold cannot be in agreement with Argamakova without thereby abandoning the claim that Kuhn’s image of science is an “epistemology” (Arnold 2018, 45) of scientific knowledge or a “complex theory of science” (Arnold 2018, 42).

Arnold (2018, 45) also asserts that “the allegation that Kuhn developed his theory on the basis of selected historical cases is refuted” by Kindi (2018). Even if that were true, it would mean that Kuhn’s theory has no inductive support, as I argue in Chapter 1 of the book (Mizrahi 2018b, 32-38). So I am not sure how this point is supposed to help Arnold in defending the Kuhnian image of science. For if there is no inductive support for the Kuhnian image of science, as Arnold seems to think, and there is no deductive support either, as I (Mizrahi 2018b, 25-44) and Park (2018, 61-74) argue, then what evidence is there for the Kuhnian image of science?

For present purposes, the important point is not how Kuhn “developed his theory” (Arnold 2018, 45) but rather what supports his theory of scientific change. What is the evidence for a Kuhnian theory of scientific change? If I am right (Mizrahi 2018b), or if Park (2018) is right, then there is neither deductive support nor inductive support for a Kuhnian theory of scientific change. If Argamakova is right, then there can be no general theory of scientific change at all, Kuhnian or otherwise.

It is also important to note here that Arnold (2018, 45) praises both Kindi (2018) and Patton (2018) for offering “a close reading of Kuhn’s work,” but he does not mention that they offer incompatible interpretations of that work, specifically, of the evidence for Kuhn’s ideas about scientific change. On Kindi’s reading of Kuhn, the argument for the Kuhnian image of science is a deductive argument from first principles, whereas on Patton’s reading of Kuhn, the argument for the Kuhnian image of science is an inference to the best explanation (see Patton 2015, cf. Mizrahi 2018a, 12-13; Mizrahi 2015, 51-53).

Bryant on the Evidence for the Kuhnian Image of Science

Like Arnold, Bryant (2018, 1) wonders whether Kuhn’s views on scientific change can be pinned down and criticized or perhaps there are many “Thomases Kuhn.” Again, I think we do not want to make Kuhn’s views too vague and/or ambiguous (Argamakova 2018, 47-50), and thus immune to criticism in a rather ad hoc fashion. For that, in addition to being based on dubious assumptions and fallacious argumentation, would be another reason to think that Kuhn’s views are not worthy of acceptance.

Bryant (2018, 1) also wonders “whether the so-called Kuhnian image of science is really so broadly endorsed as to be the potential subject of (echoing Kuhn’s own phrase) a ‘decisive transformation’.” As I see it, however, the question is not whether the Kuhnian image of science is “broadly endorsed.” Rather, the question is whether “we are now possessed” by it. When Kuhn wrote that (in)famous first line of the introduction to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the image of science by which we were possessed was a positivist image of science according to which science develops “by the accumulation of individual discoveries and inventions” (Kuhn 1962/1996, 2). Arguably, philosophers of science were never possessed by such a positivist image of science as much as they are possessed by the Kuhnian image of science.

This is evidenced by the fact that no positivist work in philosophy of science has had as much impact as Kuhn’s seminal work (Mizrahi 2018a, 1-2). Accordingly, even if the Kuhnian image of science is not “broadly endorsed,” it is quite clear that philosophers of science are possessed by it. For this reason, an “exorcism,” or a “decisive transformation,” is required in order to rid ourselves of this image of science. And what better way to do so than by showing that it is based on dubious assumptions and fallacious argumentation.

As far as the evidence (or lack thereof) for the Kuhnian image of science, Bryant (2018, 2) claims that “Case studies can be interesting, informative, and evidential” (emphasis added). I grant that case studies can be interesting and informative, but I doubt that they can be evidential. From “Scientific episode E has property F,” it does not follow that F is a characteristic of scientific episodes in general. As far as Kuhn is concerned, it is clear that he used just a few case studies (e.g., the phlogiston case) in support of his ideas about scientific change and incommensurability.

The problem with that, as I argue in Chapter 1 of the book (Mizrahi 2018b, 32-38), is that no general theory of scientific change can be derived from a few cherry-picked case studies. Even if we grant that the phlogiston case is a genuine case of a so-called “Kuhnian revolution” and taxonomic incommensurability, despite the fact that there are rebutting defeaters (Mizrahi 2018b, 33-36), no general conclusions about the nature of science can be drawn from one (or even a few) such cases (Mizrahi 2018b, 36-37).

From the fact that one (or a few) cherry-picked episode(s) from the history of science exhibits a particular property, it does not follow that all scientific episodes have that property; otherwise, from the “Piltdown man” episode we would have to conclude that fraud characterizes scientific discovery in general (Mizrahi 2018b, 37-38).

Speaking of scientific discovery, Bryant (2018, 2) takes issue with the fact that I cite “just two authors, Eric Oberheim and Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who use the language of discovery to characterize incommensurability.” For Bryant (2018, 2), this suggests that “it isn’t clear that the assumption Mizrahi takes pains to reject is particularly widespread” (emphasis added). I suppose that “the assumption” in question here is that Kuhn “discovered” incommensurability.

If so, then I would like to clarify that I mention the fact that Oberheim and Hoyningen-Huene talk about incommensurability in terms of discovery, and claim that Kuhn “discovered” it, not to argue against it (i.e., to argue that Kuhn did not discover incommensurability), but rather to show that some of the elements of the Kuhnian image of science, such as incommensurability, are sometimes taken for granted. When it is said that someone has discovered something, it gives the impression that what has been discovered is a fact, and so no arguments are needed.

When it comes to incommensurability, however, it is far from clear that it is a fact about scientific change, and so good arguments are needed in order to establish that episodes of scientific change exhibit taxonomic incommensurability. If I am right, or if Park (2018) and Sankey (2018) are right, then there are no good arguments that establish this.

Not Conclusions, But Questions

In light of the above, I think that the questions raised in the edited volume under review remain urgent (cf. Rehg 2018). Are there good reasons or compelling evidence for the Kuhnian model of theory change in science? If there are no good reasons or compelling evidence for such a model, as I (Mizrahi 2018b), Park (2018), and Sankey (2018) argue, what’s next for philosophers of science? Should we abandon the search for a general theory of science, as Argamakova (2018) suggests? Are there better models of scientific change? Perhaps evolutionary (Marcum 2018) or orthogenetic (Renzi and Napolitano 2018) models?

• • •

I would like to thank Markus Arnold and Amanda Bryant for their thoughtful reviews. I am also grateful to Adam Riggio and Eric Kerr for organizing this book symposium and for inviting me to participate.

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

References

Argamakova, Alexandra. “Modeling Scientific Development: Lessons from Thomas Kuhn.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 45-59. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Arnold, Markus. “Is There Anything Wrong With Thomas Kuhn?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 42-47.

Bryant, Amanda. “Each Kuhn Mutually Incommensurable.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 1-7.

Kindi, Vasso. “The Kuhnian Straw Man.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 95-112. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Third Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962/1996.

Marcum, James A. “Revolution or Evolution in Science? A Role for the Incommensurability Thesis?” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 155-173. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Mizrahi, Moti. “A Reply to Patton’s ‘Incommensurability and the Bonfire of the Meta-Theories.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 10 (2015): 51-53.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Introduction.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 1-22. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018a.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Kuhn’s Incommensurability Thesis: What’s the Argument?” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 25-44. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018b.

Park, Seungbae. “Can Kuhn’s Taxonomic Incommensurability be an Image of Science?” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 61-74. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Patton, Lydia. “Incommensurability and the Bonfire of the Meta-Theories: Response to Mizrahi.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 7 (2015): 51-58.

Patton, Lydia. “Kuhn, Pedagogy, and Practice: A Local Reading of Structure.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 113-130. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Rehg, William. “Kuhn’s Image of Science.” Metascience (2018): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11016-018-0306-2.

Renzi, Barbara G. and Giulio Napolitano. “The Biological Metaphors of Scientific Change.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 177-190. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Author Information: James A. Marcum, Baylor University, james_marcum@baylor.edu

Marcum, James A. “A Role for Taxonomic Incommensurability in Evolutionary Philosophy of Science.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 9-14.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3YP

See also:

Image by Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In a review of my chapter (Marcum 2018), Amanda Bryant (2018) charges me with failing to discuss the explanatory role taxonomic incommensurability (TI) plays in my revision of Kuhn’s evolutionary philosophy of science. To quote Bryant at length,

One of Marcum’s central aims is to show that incommensurability plays a key explanatory role in a refined version of Kuhn’s evolutionary image of science. The role of incommensurability on this view is to account for scientific speciation. However, Marcum shows only that we can characterize scientific speciation in terms of incommensurability, without clearly establishing the explanatory payoff of so doing. He does not succeed in showing that incommensurability has a particularly enriching explanatory role, much less that incommensurability is “critical for conceptual evolution within the sciences” or “an essential component of…the growth of science” (168).

Bryant is right. I failed to discuss the explanatory role of TI for the three historical case studies, as listed in Table 8.1, in section 5, “Revising Kuhn’s Evolutionary Image of Science and Incommensurability,” of my chapter. Obviously, my aim in this response, then, is to amend that failure by discussing TI’s role in the case studies and by revising the chapter’s Table to include TI.

Before discussing the role of TI in the historical case studies, I first develop the notion of TI in terms of Kuhn’s revision of the original incommensurability thesis. Kuhn (1983) responded to critics of the original thesis in a symposium paper delivered at the 1982 biannual meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association.

In the paper, Kuhn admitted that his primary intention for incommensurability was more “modest” than with what critics had charged him. Rather than radical or universal changes in terms and concepts—what is often called “global” incommensurability (Hoyningen-Huene 2005, Marcum 2015, Simmons 1994)—Kuhn claimed that only a handful of terms and concepts are incommensurable after a paradigm shift. He called this thesis “local” incommensurability.

More Common Than Incommensurable

Kuhn’s revision of the original incommensurability thesis has important implications for the TI thesis. To that end, I propose three types of TI. The first is comparable to Kuhn’s local incommensurability in which only a small number of terms and concepts are incommensurable, between the lexicons of two scientific specialties. The second is akin to global incommensurability in which two lexicons are radically and universally incommensurable with one another—sharing only a few commensurable terms and concepts.

An example of this type of incommensurability is the construction of a drastically new lexicon accompanying the evolution of a specialty. Both local and global TI represent, then, two poles along a continuum. For the type of TI falling along this continuum, I propose the notion of regional TI—in keeping with the geographical metaphor.

Unfortunately, sharper delineation among the three types of TI in terms of the quantity and quality of incommensurable and commensurable terms and concepts composing taxonomically incommensurable lexicons cannot be made currently, other than local TI comprises one end of the continuum while global TI the other end, with regional TI occupying an intermediate position between them. Notwithstanding this imprecise delineation, the three types of TI are apt for explaining the evolution of the microbiological specialties of bacteriology, virology, and retrovirology, especially with respect to their tempos and modes.

Revised Table. Types of tempo, mode, and taxonomic incommensurability for the evolution of microbiological specialties of bacteriology, virology, and retrovirology (see text for details).

Scientific Specialty Tempo Mode Taxonomic

Incommensurability

 

Bacteriology Bradytelic Phyletic Global

 

Virology Tachytelic Quantal Regional

 

Retrovirology Horotelic Speciation Local

 

 

Examples Bacterial and Viral

As depicted in the Revised Table, the evolution of bacteriology, with its bradytelic tempo and phyletic mode, is best accounted for through global TI. A large number of novel incommensurable terms and concepts appeared with the evolution of bacteriology and the germ theory of disease, and global TI afforded the bacteriology lexicon the conceptual space to evolve fully and independently by isolating that lexicon from both botany and zoology lexicons, as well as from other specialty lexicons in microbiology.

For example, in terms of microbiology as a specialty separate from botany and zoology, bacteria are prokaryotes compared to other microorganisms such as algae, fungi, and protozoa, which are eukaryotes. Eukaryotes have a nucleus surrounded by a plasma membrane that separates the chromosomes from the cytoplasm, while prokaryotes do not. Rather, prokaryotes like bacteria have a single circular chromosome located in the nucleoid region of the cell.

However, the bacteriology lexicon does share a few commensurable terms and concepts with the lexicons of other microbiologic specialties and with the cell biology lexicons of botany and zoology. For example, both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells contain a plasma membrane that separates the cell’s interior from the external environment. Examples of many other incommensurable (and of a few commensurable) terms and concepts make up the lexicons of these specialties but suffice these examples to provide how global TI provided the bacteriology lexicon a cognitive environment so that it could evolve as a distinct specialty.

Also, as depicted in the Revised Table, the evolution of virology, with its tachytelic tempo and quantal mode, is best accounted for through regional TI. A relatively smaller number of new incommensurable terms and concepts appeared with the evolution of virology compared to the evolution of bacteriology, and regional TI afforded the virology lexicon the conceptual space to evolve freely and self-sufficiently by isolating that lexicon from the bacteriology lexicon, as well as from other biology lexicons.

For example, the genome of the virus is surrounded by a capsid or protein shell, which distinguishes it from both prokaryotes and eukaryotes—neither of which have such a structure. Moreover, viruses do not have a constitutive plasma membrane, although some viruses acquire a plasma membrane from the host cell when exiting it during lysis. However, the function of the viral plasma membrane is different from that for both prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

Interestingly, the term plasma membrane for the virology lexicon is both commensurable and incommensurable, when compared to other biology lexicons. The viral plasma membrane is commensurable in that it is comparable in structure to the plasma membrane of prokaryotes and eukaryotes but it is incommensurable in that it functions differently. Finally, some viral genomes are composed of DNA similar to prokaryotic and eukaryotic genomes while others are composed of RNA; and, it is this RNA genome that led to the evolution of the retrovirology specialty.

Image by AJC1 via Flickr / Creative Commons

And As Seen in the Retrovirological

As depicted lastly in the Revised Table, the evolution of retrovirology, with its horotelic tempo and speciation mode, is best accounted for through local TI. An even smaller number of novel incommensurable terms and concepts accompanied the evolution of retrovirology as compared to the number of novel incommensurable terms and concepts involved in the evolution of the virology lexicon vis-à-vis the bacteriology lexicon.

And, as true for the role of TI in the evolution of bacteriology and virology, local TI afforded the retrovirology lexicon the conceptual space to evolve rather autonomously by isolating that lexicon from the virology and bacteriology lexicons. For example, retroviruses, as noted previously, contain only an RNA genome but the replication of the retrovirus and its genome does not involve replication of the RNA genome from the RNA directly, as for other RNA viruses.

Rather, retrovirus replication involves the formation of a DNA provirus through the enzyme reverse transcriptase. The DNA provirus is subsequently incorporated into the host’s genome, where it remains dormant until replication of the retrovirus is triggered.

The incommensurability associated with retrovirology evolution is local since only a few incommensurable terms and concepts separate the virology and retrovirology lexicons. But that incommensurability was critical for the evolution of the retrovirology specialty (although given how few incommensurable terms and concepts exist between the virology and retrovirology lexicons, a case could be made for retrovirology representing a subspecialty of virology).

Where the Payoff Lies

In her review, Bryant makes a distinction, as quoted above, between characterizing the evolution of the microbiological specialties via TI and explaining their evolution via TI. In terms of the first distinction, TI is the product of the evolution of a specialty and its lexicon. In other words, when reconstructing historically the evolution of a specialty, the evolutionary outcome is a new specialty and its lexicon—which is incommensurable locally, regionally, or globally with respect to other specialty lexicons.

For example, the retrovirology lexicon—when compared to the virology lexicon—has few incommensurable terms, such as DNA provirus and reverse transcriptase. The second distinction involves the process or mechanism by which the evolution of the specialty’s lexicon takes place vis-à-vis TI. In other words, TI plays a critical role in the evolutionary process of a specialty and its lexicon.

Keeping with the retrovirology example, the experimental result that actinomysin D inhibits Rous sarcoma virus was an important anomaly with respect to the virology lexicon, which could only explain the replication of RNA viruses in terms of the Central Dogma’s flow of genetic information. TI, then, represents the mechanism, i.e. by providing the conceptual space, for the evolution of a new specialty with respect to incommensurable terms and concepts.

In conclusion, the “explanatory payoff” for TI with respect to the revised Kuhnian evolutionary philosophy of science is that such incommensurability provides isolation for a scientific specialty and its lexicon so that it can evolve from a parental stock. For, without the conceptual isolation to develop its lexicon, a specialty cannot evolve.

Just as biological species like Darwin’s Galápagos finches, for instance, required physical isolation from one another to evolve (Lack 1983), so the evolving microbiological specialties also required conceptual isolation from one another and from other biology specialties and their lexicons. TI accounts for or explains the evolution of science and its specialties in terms of providing the necessary conceptual opportunity for the specialties to emerge and then to evolve.

Moreover, it is of interest to note that an apparent relationship exists between the various tempos and modes and the different types of TI. For example, the retrovirology case study suggests that local TI is commonly associated with a horotelic tempo and speciation mode—which to some extent makes sense intuitively. In other words, speciation requires far fewer lexical changes than phylogeny, which requires many more lexical changes or an almost completely new lexicon—as the evolution of bacteriology illustrates.

The proposed evolutionary philosophy of science, then, accounts for the emergence of bacteriology in terms of a specific tempo and mode, as well as a particular type of TI; and, it thereby provides a rich explanation for its emergence. Furthermore, the quantity and quality of taxonomically incommensurable terms and concepts involved in the evolution of the microbiology specialties suggest the following relative frequency for the different types of TI: local TI > regional RI > global TI.

The Potential of Evolutionary Paradigms

Finally, I proposed in my chapter that Kuhn’s revised evolutionary philosophy of science is a good candidate for a general philosophy of science, even in light of philosophy of science’s current pluralistic or perspectival stance. Interestingly, regardless of the increasing specialization within the natural sciences, these sciences are moving towards integration in order to tackle complex natural phenomena. For example, cancer is simply too complex a disease to succumb to a single specialty (Williams 2015).

The revised Kuhnian evolutionary philosophy of science helps to appreciate and account for the drive and need for integration of different scientific specialties to investigate complex natural phenomena, such as cancer. Specifically, one of the important reasons for the integration is that no single scientist can master the necessary lexicons, whether biochemistry, bioinformatics, cell biology, genomic biology, immunology, molecular biology, physiology, etc., needed to investigate and eventually to cure the disease. A scientist might be bilingual or even trilingual with respect to specialties but certainly not multilingual.

The conceptual and methodological approach, which integrates these various specialties, stands a better chance in discovering the pathological mechanisms involved in carcinogenesis and thereby in developing effective therapies. Integrated science, then, requires a systems or network approach since no one scientists can master the various specialties needed to investigate a complex natural phenomenon.

In the end, TI helps to make sense of why integrated science is important for the future evolution of science and of how an evolutionary philosophy of science can function as a general philosophy of science.

Contact details: james_marcum@baylor.edu

References

Bryant, Amanda. “Each Kuhn Mutually Incommensurable”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 1-7.

Hoyningen-Huene, Paul. “Three Biographies: Kuhn, Feyerabend, and Incommensurability”, In Rhetoric and Incommensurability. Randy A. Harris (ed.), West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, (2005): 150-175.

Kuhn, Thomas S. “Commensurability, Comparability, Communicability”, PSA: 1982, no. 2

(1983): 669-688.

Lack, David. Darwin’s Finches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (1983).

Marcum, James A. Thomas Kuhn’s Revolutions: A Historical and an Evolutionary Philosophy of Science. London: Bloomsbury, (2015).

Marcum, James A. “Revolution or Evolution in Science?: A Role for the Incommensurability Thesis?”, In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? Moti Mizrahi (ed.), Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, (2018): 155-173.

Simmons, Lance. “Three Kinds of Incommensurability Thesis”, American Philosophical Quarterly 31, no. 2 (1994): 119-131.

Williams, Sarah C.P. “News Feature: Capturing Cancer’s Complexity”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112, no. 15 (2015): 4509-4511.

Author Information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology, mmizrahi@fit.edu

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 41-50.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Yx

See also:

One of Galileo’s original compasses, on display at the Museo Galileo, a feature of the Instituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence, Italy.
Image by Anders Sandberg via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bernard Wills (2018) joins Christopher Brown (2017, 2018) in criticizing my defense of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 2017b, 2018a). Unfortunately, it seems that Wills did not read my latest defense of Weak Scientism carefully, nor does he cite any of the other papers in my exchange with Brown. For he attributes to me the view that “other disciplines in the humanities [in addition to philosophy] do not produce knowledge” (Wills 2018, 18).

Of course, this is not my view and I affirm no such thing, contrary to what Wills seems to think. I find it hard to explain how Wills could have made this mistake, given that he goes on to quote me as follows: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge” (Mizrahi 2018a, 7; quoted in Wills 2018, 18).

Clearly, the claim ‘Scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge’ entails that there is non-scientific knowledge. If the view I defend entails that there is non-scientific knowledge, then it cannot also be my view that “science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18).

Even if he somehow missed this simple logical point, reading the other papers in my exchange with Brown should have made it clear to Wills that I do not deny the production of knowledge by non-scientific disciplines. In fact, I explicitly state that “science produces scientific knowledge, mathematics produces mathematical knowledge, philosophy produces philosophical knowledge, and so on” (Mizrahi 2017a, 353). Even in my latest reply to Brown, which is the only paper from my entire exchange with Brown that Wills cites, I explicitly state that, if Weak Scientism is true, then “philosophical knowledge would be inferior to scientific knowledge both quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success)” (Mizrahi 2018a, 8).

If philosophical knowledge is quantitatively and qualitatively inferior to scientific knowledge, then it follows that there is philosophical knowledge. For this reason, only a rather careless reader could attribute to me the view that “other disciplines in the humanities [in addition to philosophy] do not produce knowledge” (Wills 2018, 18).

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

Right from the start, then, Wills gets Weak Scientism wrong, even though he later writes that, according to Weak Scientism, “there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences” (Wills 2018, 18). He says that he will ignore the quantitative claim of Weak Scientism and focus “on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18). Wills can focus on whatever he wants, of course, but that is not Weak Scientism.

Weak Scientism is not the view that only science produces real knowledge; that is Strong Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353). Rather, Weak Scientism is the view that, “Of all the knowledge we have [i.e., there is knowledge other than scientific knowledge], scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017a, 354). In other words, scientific knowledge “is simply the best; better than all the rest” (Mizrahi 2017b, 20). Wills’ criticism, then, misses the mark completely. That is, it cannot be a criticism against Weak Scientism, since Weak Scientism is not the view that “science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18).

Although he deems the quantitative superiority of scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge “a tangential point,” and says that he will not spend time on it, Wills (2018, 18) remarks that “A German professor once told [him] that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone!” Presumably, Wills’ point is that research output in literature exceeds that of scientific disciplines. Instead of relying on gut feelings and hearsay, Wills should have done the required research in order to determine whether scholarly output in literature really does exceed the research output of scientific disciplines.

If we look at the Scopus database, using the data and visualization tools provided by Scimago Journal & Country Rank, we can see that research output in a natural science like physics and a social science like psychology far exceeds research output in humanistic disciplines like literature and philosophy. On average, psychology has produced 15,000 more publications per year than either literature or philosophy between the years 1999 and 2017. Likewise, on average, physics has produced 54,000 more publications per year than either literature or philosophy between the years 1999 and 2017 (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Research output in Literature, Philosophy, Physics, and Psychology from 1999 to 2017 (Source: Scimago Journal & Country Rank)

Contrary to what Wills seems to think or what his unnamed German professor may have told him, then, it is not the case that literary scholars produce more work on Shakespeare or Kafka alone than physicists or psychologists produce. The data from the Scopus database show that, on average, it takes literature and philosophy almost two decades to produce what psychology produces in two years or what physics produces in a single year (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359).

In fact, using JSTOR Data for Research, we can check Wills’ number, as reported to him by an unnamed German professor, to find out that there are 13,666 publications (i.e., journal articles, books, reports, and pamphlets) on Franz Kafka from 1859 to 2018 in the JSTOR database. Clearly, that is not even close to “40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone” in the first half of the 20th Century (Wills 2018, 18). By comparison, as of May 22, 2018, the JSTOR database contains more publications on the Standard Model in physics and the theory of conditioning in behavioral psychology than on Franz Kafka or William Shakespeare (Table 1).

Table 1. Search results for ‘Standard Model’, ‘Conditioning’, ‘William Shakespeare’, and ‘Franz Kafka’ in the JSTOR database as a percentage of the total number of publications, n = 12,633,298 (Source: JSTOR Data for Research)

  Number of Publications Percentage of JSTOR corpus
Standard Model 971,968 7.69%
Conditioning 121,219 0.95%
William Shakespeare 93,700 0.74%
Franz Kafka 13,667 0.1%

Similar results can be obtained from Google Books Ngram Viewer when we compare published work on Shakespeare, which Wills thinks exceeds all published work in other disciplines, for he says that “Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat” (Wills 2018, 18), with published work on a contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616) from another field of study, namely, Galileo (1564-1642). As we can see from Figure 2, from 1700 to 2000, ‘Galileo’ consistently appears in more books than ‘William Shakespeare’ does.

Figure 2. Google Books results for ‘William Shakespeare’ and ‘Galileo’ from 1700 to 2000 (Source: Google Books Ngram Viewer)

Racking Up the Fallacies

Wills continues to argue fallaciously when he resorts to what appears to be a fallacious ad hominem attack against me. He asks (rhetorically?), “Is Mr. Mizrahi producing an argument or a mere rationalization of his privilege?” (Wills 2018, 19) It is not clear to me what sort of “privilege” Wills wants to claim that I have, or why he accuses me of colonialism and sexism, since he provides no arguments for these outrageous charges. Moreover, I do not see how this is at all relevant to Weak Scientism. Even if I am somehow “privileged” (whatever Wills means by that), Weak Scientism is either true or false regardless.

After all, I take it that Wills would not doubt his physician’s diagnoses just because he or she is “privileged” for working at a hospital. Whether his physician is “privileged” for working at a hospital has nothing to do with the accuracy of his or her diagnoses. For these reasons, Wills’ ad hominem is fallacious (as opposed to a legitimate ad hominem as a rebuttal to an argument from authority, see Mizrahi 2010). I think that SERRC readers will be better served if we focus on the ideas under discussion, specifically, Weak Scientism, not the people who discuss them.

Speaking of privilege and sexism, however, it might be worth noting that, throughout his paper, Wills refers to me as ‘Mr. Mizrahi’ (rather than ‘Dr. Mizrahi’ or simply ‘Mizrahi’, as is the norm in academic publications), and that he has misspelled my name on more than one occasion (Wills 2018, 18, 22, 24). Studies suggest that addressing female doctors with ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’ rather than ‘Dr.’ might reveal gender bias (see, e.g., Files et al. 2017). Perhaps forms of address reveal not only gender bias but also ethnic or racial bias when people with non-white or “foreign” names are addressed as Mr. (or Ms.) rather than Dr. (Erlenbusch 2018).

Aside from unsubstantiated claims about the amount of research produced by literary scholars, fallacious appeals to the alleged authority of unnamed German professors, and fallacious ad hominem attacks, does Wills offer any good arguments against Weak Scientism? He spends most of his paper (pages 19-22) trying to show that there is knowledge other than scientific knowledge, such as knowledge produced in the fields of “Law and Music Theory” (Wills 2018, 20). This, however, does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism. For, as mentioned above, Weak Scientism is the view that scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge, which means that there is non-scientific knowledge; it’s just not as good as scientific knowledge (Mizrahi 2017a, 356).

The Core of His Concept

Wills finally gets to Weak Scientism on the penultimate page of his paper. His main objection against Weak Scientism seems to be that it is not clear to him how scientific knowledge is supposed to be better than non-scientific knowledge. For instance, he asks, “Better in what context? By what standard of value?” (Wills 2018, 23) Earlier he also says that he is not sure what are the “certain relevant respect” in which scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge (Wills 2018, 18).

Unfortunately, this shows that Wills either has not read the other papers in my exchange with Brown or at least has not read them carefully. For, starting with my first defense of Weak Scientism (2017a), I explain in great detail the ways in which scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. Briefly, scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of research output (i.e., more publications) and research impact (i.e., more citations). Scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success (Mizrahi 2017a, 364; Mizrahi 2017b, 11).

Wills tries to challenge the claim that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge by exclaiming, “Does science produce more knowledge that [sic] anything else? Hardly” (Wills 2018, 23). He appeals to Augustine’s idea that one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of [one’s] own existence” (Wills 2018, 23). In response, I would like to borrow a phrase from Brown (2018, 30): “good luck getting that published!”

Seriously, though, the point is that Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research. In terms of research output, scientific disciplines outperform non-scientific disciplines (see Figure 1 and Table 1 above; Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-21). Besides, just as “recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics,” they can also extend our knowledge in other fields as well, including scientific fields. That is, one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the” (Wills 2018, 23) Standard Model in physics or any other scientific theory and/or finding. For this reason, Wills’ objection does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism.

Wills (2018, 23) tries to problematize the notions of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success in an attempt to undermine the claim that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success. But it seems that he misunderstands these notions as they apply to the scientism debate.

As far as instrumental success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) asks, “Does science have (taken in bulk) more instrumental success than other knowledge forms? How would you even count given that craft knowledge has roughly 3 million-year head start?” Even if it is true that “craft knowledge has roughly 3 million-year head start,” it is irrelevant to whether Weak Scientism is true or false. This is because Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research produced by academic fields of study (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 11; Mizrahi 2018a, 12).

Solving the Problem and Explaining the Issue

As far as explanatory success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) writes, “Is science more successful at explanation? Hardly, if science could solve problems in literature or history then these fields would not even exist.” There are a couple of problems with this objection. First, explaining and problem solving are not the same thing (Mizrahi and Buckwalter 2014). Second, what makes scientific explanations good explanations are the good-making properties that are supposed to make all explanations (both scientific and non-scientific) good explanations, namely, unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17).

I have already made this point several times in my replies to Brown, which Wills does not cite, namely, that Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) is used in both scientific and non-scientific contexts (Mizrahi 2017a, 362). That is, “IBE is everywhere” (Mizrahi 2017b, 20). It’s just that scientific IBEs are better than non-scientific IBEs because they exhibit more of (and to a greater extent) the aforementioned properties that make any explanation a good explanation (Mizrahi 2018b).

As far as predictive success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) asks, “Does science make more true predictions? Again how would you even count given that for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily?” There are a few problems with this objection as well. First, even if it is true that “for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily,” it is irrelevant to whether Weak Scientism is true or false, since Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research produced by academic fields of study (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 11; Mizrahi 2018a, 12).

Second, contrary to what Wills (2018, 24) seems to think, testing predictions in science is not simply a matter of making assertions and then checking to see if they are true. For one thing, a prediction is not simply an assertion, but rather a consequence that follows from a hypothesis plus auxiliary hypotheses (Mizrahi 2015). For another, a prediction needs to be novel such that we would not expect it to be the case except from the vantage point of the theory that we are testing (Mizrahi 2012).

As I have advised Brown (Mizrahi 2018, 17), I would also advise Wills to consult logic and reasoning textbooks, not because they provide support for the claim that “science is instrumentally successful, explanatory and makes true predictions,” as Wills (2018, 23) erroneously thinks, but because they discuss hypothesis testing in science. For Wills’ (2018, 24) remark about Joyce scholars suggests a failure to understand how hypotheses are tested in science.

Third, like Brown (2017, 49), Wills (2018, 23) admits that, just like science, philosophy is in the explanation business. For Wills (2018, 23) says that, “certainty, instrumental success, utilitarian value, predictive power and explanation all exist elsewhere in ways that are often not directly commensurable with the way they exist in science” (emphasis added). But if distinct fields of study have the same aim (i.e., to explain), then their products (i.e., explanations) can be evaluated with respect to similar criteria, such as unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17).

In other words, there is no incommensurability here, as Wills seems to think, insofar as both science and philosophy produce explanations and those explanations must exhibit the same good-making properties that make all explanations good explanations (Mizrahi 2018a, 17; 2018b).

“You Passed the Test!”

If Wills (2018, 24) wants to suggest that philosophers should be “testing their assertions in the ways peculiar to their disciplines,” then I would agree. However, “testing” does not simply mean making assertions and then checking to see if they are true, as Wills seems to think. After all, how would one check to see if assertions about theoretical entities are true? To test a hypothesis properly, one must derive a consequence from it (plus auxiliary assumptions) that would be observed only if the hypothesis (plus the auxiliary assumptions) is true.

Observations and/or experimentation would then indicate to one whether the consequence obtains or not (Mizrahi 2012). Of course, some philosophers have been doing just that for some time now (Knobe 2017). For instance, some experimental philosophers test hypotheses about the alleged intuitiveness of philosophical ideas and responses to thought experiments (see, e.g., Kissinger-Knox et al. 2018). I welcome such empirical work in philosophy.

Contrary to what Wills (2018, 19) seems to think, then, my aim is not to antagonize philosophers. Rather, my aim is to reform philosophy. In particular, as I have suggested in my recent reply to Brown (Mizrahi 2018a, 22), I think that philosophy would benefit from adopting not only the experimental methods of the cognitive and social sciences, as experimental philosophers have done, but also the methods of data science, such as data mining and corpus analysis (see, e.g., Ashton and Mizrahi 2018a and 2018b).

Indeed, the XPhi Replicability Project recently published a report on replication studies of 40 experimental studies according to which experimental studies “successfully replicated about 70% of the time” (Cova et al. 2018). With such a success rate, one could argue that the empirical revolution in philosophy is well under way (see also Knobe 2015). Resistance is futile!

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

References

Ashton, Z., and Mizrahi, M. “Intuition Talk is Not Methodologically Cheap: Empirically Testing the ‘Received Wisdom’ About Armchair Philosophy.” Erkenntnis 83, no. 3 (2018a): 595-612.

Ashton, Z., and Mizrahi, M. “Show Me the Argument: Empirically Testing the Armchair Philosophy Picture.” Metaphilosophy 49, no. 1-2 (2018b): 58-70.

Brown, C. M. “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s So Bad About Scientism?’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 42-54.

Brown, C. M. “Defending Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s Arguments for Weak Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 1-35.

Cova, Florian, Brent Strickland, Angela G Abatista, Aurélien Allard, James Andow, Mario Attie, James Beebe, et al. “Estimating the Reproducibility of Experimental Philosophy.” PsyArXiv, April 21, 2018. doi:10.17605/OSF.IO/SXDAH.

Erlenbusch, V. “Being a Foreigner in Philosophy: A Taxonomy.” Hypatia 33, no. 2 (2018): 307-324.

Files, J. A., Mayer, A. P., Ko, M. G., Friedrich, P., Jenkins, M., Bryan, M. J., Vegunta, S., Wittich, C. M., Lyle, M. A., Melikian, R., Duston, T., Chang, Y. H., Hayes, S. M. “Speaker Introductions at Internal Medicine Grand Rounds: Forms of Address Reveal Gender Bias.” Journal of Women’s Health 26, no. 5 (2017): 413-419.

Google. “Ngram Viewer.” Google Books Ngram Viewer. Accessed on May 21, 2018. https://books.google.com/ngrams.

JSTOR. “Create a Dataset.” JSTOR Data for Research. Accessed on May 22, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/dfr/.

Kissinger-Knox, A., Aragon, P., and Mizrahi, M. “Does Non-Moral Ignorance Exculpate? Situational Awareness and Attributions of Blame and Forgiveness.” Acta Analytica 33, no. 2 (2018): 161-179.

Knobe, J. “Experimental Philosophy.” Philosophy Compass 2, no. 1 (2007): 81-92.

Knobe, J. “Philosophers are Doing Something Different Now: Quantitative Data.” Cognition 135 (2015): 36-38.

Mizrahi, M. “Take My Advice–I Am Not Following It: Ad Hominem Arguments as Legitimate Rebuttals to Appeals to Authority.” Informal Logic 30, no. 4 (2010): 435-456.

Mizrahi, M. “Why the Ultimate Argument for Scientific Realism Ultimately Fails.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 43, no. 1 (2012): 132-138.

Mizrahi, M. “Don’t Believe the Hype: Why Should Philosophical Theories Yield to Intuitions?” Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 34, no. 3 (2015): 141-158.

Mizrahi, M. “What’s So Bad about Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017a): 351-367.

Mizrahi, M. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017b): 9-22.

Mizrahi, M. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018a): 7-25.

Mizrahi, M. “The ‘Positive Argument’ for Constructive Empiricism and Inference to the Best Explanation.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science (2018b): https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-018-9414-3.

Mizrahi, M. and Buckwalter, W. “The Role of Justification in the Ordinary Concept of Scientific Progress.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 45, no. 1 (2014): 151-166.

Scimago Journal & Country Rank. “Subject Bubble Chart.” SJR: Scimago Journal & Country Rank. Accessed on May 20, 2018. http://www.scimagojr.com/mapgen.php?maptype=bc&country=US&y=citd.

Wills, B. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

Author Information: Amanda Bryant, Trent University, amandabryant@trentu.ca

Bryant, Amanda. “Each Kuhn Mutually Incommensurable.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 1-7.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3XM

Image by Denis Defreyne via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This volume is divided into four parts, in which its contributors variously Question, Defend, Revise, or Abandon the Kuhnian image of science. One immediately wonders: what is this thing, the Kuhnian Image of Science? It isn’t a question that can be decisively or quickly settled, of course. Perhaps one of the reasons why so much has been written on Kuhn’s philosophy of science is that it gives rise to such rich interpretive challenges.

Informed general philosophy of science readers will of course know the tagline version of Kuhn’s view — namely, that the development of science unfolds in wholesale revolutions of scientific paradigms that are in some sense incommensurable with one another. However, one might think that whatever the image of science at issue in this volume is, it should be a sharper image than that.

Many Thomases Kuhn

But of course there isn’t really a single, substantive, cohesive, uncontroversial image at issue. Alexandra Argamakova rightly points out in her contribution, “there exist various images of science belonging to different Thomas Kuhns at different stages of his work life and from different perspectives of interpretation, so the target for current analysis turns out to be less detectable” (46). Rather, the contributors touch on various aspects of Kuhn’s philosophy, variously interpreted — and as such, multiple Kuhnian images emerge as the volume unfolds. That’s just as it should be. In fact, if the volume had propped up some caricature of Kuhn’s views as the Kuhnian image of science, it would have done a disservice both to Kuhn and to his many interpreters.

One wonders, too, whether the so-called Kuhnian image of science is really so broadly endorsed as to be the potential subject of (echoing Kuhn’s own phrase) a ‘decisive transformation’. In his introduction, Moti Mizrahi emphasizes Kuhn’s undeniable influence. Kuhn has, Mizrahi points out, literally tens of thousands of citations; numerous books, articles, and journal issues devoted to his work; and a lasting legacy in the language of academic and public discourse. While all of this signals influence, it’s clearly no indication of agreement.

To be fair, Mizrahi acknowledges the “fair share” of Kuhn critics (2). Nevertheless, if the prospect of decisively transforming the Kuhnian image of science were to be a serious prospect, then the image would have to be widely accepted and enjoy a lasting relevance. However, Argamakova again rightly emphasizes that Kuhn’s philosophy of science “never fully captured the intellectual market” (45) and “could not be less attractive for so many minds!” (47). Moreover, in a remarkable passage in his contribution, Howard Sankey describes a central component of the so-called Kuhnian image of science as as an old battlefield and a dead issue:

Returning to the topic from the perspective of the contemporary scene in the philosophy of science is like visiting a battlefield from a forgotten war. The positions of the warring sides may still be made out. But the battlefield is grown over with grass. One may find evidence of the fighting that once took place, perhaps bullet marks or shell holes. But the fighting ceased long ago. The battle is a thing of the past.

The problem of incommensurability is no longer a live issue. The present chapter has taken the form of a post-mortem examination of a once hotly debated but now largely forgotten problem from an earlier period in the philosophy of science. (87)

If the same holds true for the rest of the Kuhnian image (or images), then the volume isn’t exactly timely.

But dead philosophical issues don’t always stay dead. Or rather, we’re not always right to pronounce them dead. In 1984, Arthur Fine famously proclaimed scientific realism “well and truly dead” (in The Natural Ontological Attitude), and clearly he was quite wrong. At any rate, we may find interest in an issue, dead or not, and there is certainly much of it to be found in this volume. I have been asked to focus my comments on the second half of the book. As such, I will discuss the Introduction, as well as Parts I and II in brief, then I will discuss parts III and IV at greater length.

On the Incommensurable

In his Introduction, Mizrahi argues that, far from initiating a historical turn in the philosophy of science, Kuhn was ‘patient zero’ for anecdotiasis — “the tendency to use cherry-picked anecdotes or case studies… to support general claims (about the nature of science as a whole)” (3). Mizrahi argues that anecdotiasis is pervasive, since significant proportions of articles in the PhilSci-Archive and in leading philosophy of science journals contain the phrase ‘case study’.

But neither using the phrase ‘case study’ nor doing case studies is inherently or self-evidently problematic. Case studies can be interesting, informative, and evidential. Of course the challenges are not to ignore relevant problem cases, not to generalize hastily, and not to assign undue evidential weight to them. But if we are to suppose that all or most philosophers of science who use case studies fail to meet those challenges, we will need a substantial body of evidence.

Part I begins with Mizrahi’s contribution, which the successive contributions all engage. In it, he defines taxonomic incommensurability as conceptual incompatibility between new and old theories. Against those who claim that Kuhn ‘discovered’ incommensurability, Mizrahi argues that there are no good deductive or inductive arguments for taxonomic incommensurability. He cites just two authors, Eric Oberheim and Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who use the language of discovery to characterize incommensurability. As such, it isn’t clear that the assumption Mizrahi takes pains to reject is particularly widespread.

Nevertheless, even if everyone universally agreed that there are no legitimate cases of incommensurability, it would still be useful to know why they’d be justified in so thinking. So the work that Mizrahi does to establish his conclusion is valuable. He shows the dubious sorts of assumptions that arguments for the taxonomic incommensurability thesis would hang on.

Argamakova’s helpful and clear contribution lays out three general types of critique with respect to Kuhn’s view of scientific development — ambiguity, inaccuracy, and limitation — and raises, if tentatively, concerns about Kuhn’s universalist ambitions. She might have been more explicit with respect to the force and scope of her comments on universalism — in particular, whether she sees the flaws in Kuhn’s theory as ultimately stemming from his attempts at universal generalizations, and to what extent her concerns extend beyond Kuhn to general philosophy of science.

Seungbae Park advances several arguments in response to Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis. One such argument takes up Kuhn’s analogy in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (henceforth Structure) between the development of science and the evolution of organisms. Park suggests that in drawing the analogy, Kuhn illicitly assumes the truth of evolutionary theory. He doesn’t consider that Kuhn could adopt the language of a paradigm (for the purposes of drawing an analogy, no less!) without committing to the literal truth of that paradigm.

Park also claims that “it is self-defeating for Kuhn to invoke a scientific theory to give an account of science that discredits scientific claims” (66), when it’s not clear that the analogy is at all integral to Kuhn’s account. Kuhn could, for instance, have ascribed the same characteristics to theory change without referring to evolutionary theory at all.

Sankey’s illuminating contribution fills in the interpretive background on incommensurability — the semantic version of Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis, in particular. He objects, with Mizrahi, to the language of discovery used by Oberheim and Hoyningen-Huene with respect to incommensurability. He argues, convincingly, that the purported paradigm shift that allowed Kuhn to finally comprehend Aristotle’s physics isn’t a case of incommensurability, but rather of comprehension after an initial failure to understand. While this doesn’t establish his conclusion that no cases of incommensurability have been established (76), it does show that a historically significant purported case is not genuine.

Vasso Kindi fills in some historical detail regarding the positivist image of science that Kuhn sought to replace and the “stereotypical” image attributed to him (96). She argues that Kuhn’s critics (including by implication several of her co-contributors) frequently attack a strawman — that, notwithstanding Kuhn’s avowed deference to history, the Kuhnian image of science is not meant to be a historical representation, and so doesn’t need to be supported by historical evidence. It is, rather, a “a philosophical model that was used to challenge an ideal image of science” (95).

Finally, Lydia Patton emphasizes the practical dimension of Kuhn’s conception of paradigms in Structure. It ought to be uncontroversial that on Kuhn’s early characterization a paradigm is not merely a theory, but a series of epistemic, evaluative, and methodological practices, too. But Patton argues that there has been too strong a semantic tendency in the treatment of Kuhnian paradigms (including by the later Kuhn himself). She argues for the greater interest and value of a practical lens on Kuhn’s project for the purposes of understanding and explaining science.

Vectors of Glory

Andrew Aberdein’s contribution deals with the longstanding and intriguing question of whether there are revolutions in mathematics. He imports to that discussion distinctions he drew in previous work among so-called glorious, inglorious, and paraglorious revolutions, in which, respectively, key components of the theory are preserved, lost, or preserved with new additions. Key components are, he says, “at least all components without which the theory could not be articulated” (136).

He discusses several examples of key shifts in mathematical theory and practice that putatively exemplify certain of these classes of revolution. The strength of the paper is its fascinating examples, particularly the example of Inter-Universal Teichmüller theory, which, Aberdein explains, introduces such novel techniques and concepts that some leading mathematicians say its proofs read as if they were “from the future, or from outer space” (145).

Aberdein doesn’t falsely advertise his thesis. He acknowledges that “it is not easy to determine whether a given episode is revolutionary” (140), and claims only that certain shifts “may be understood” as revolutionary (149) — that the cases he offers are putative mathematical revolutions. As to how we should go about identifying putative mathematical revolutions, Aberdein suggests we look directly for conceptual shifts (or ‘sorites-like’ sequences of shifts) in which key components have been lost or gained.

A fuller discussion of these diagnostics is needed, since the judgment of whether there are revolutions (genuine or putative) in mathematics will hang largely on diagnostics such as these. Is any key conceptual shift sufficient? If so, have we really captured the spirit of Kuhn’s view, given that Kuhn seems to ascribe a certain momentousness to revolutions? If the conceptual shift has to be substantial, how substantial, and how should we gauge its substantiality? Without some principled, non-arbitrary, and non-question-begging standards for what counts as a revolution, we cannot hope to give a serious answer to the question of whether there are, even putatively, revolutions in mathematics.

The paper would also have benefited from a more explicit discussion of what a mathematical paradigm is in the first place, especially as compared to a scientific one. We can infer from Aberdein’s examples that conceptions of number, ratio, proportion, as well as systems of conjecture and mathematical techniques belong to mathematical paradigms — but explicit comment on this would have been beneficial.

Moreover, Aberdein sees an affinity between mathematics and science, commenting toward the end of the paper that the methodology of mathematics is not so different from that of science, and that “the story we tell about revolutions [should] hold for both science and mathematics” (149). These are loaded comments needing further elaboration.

The Evolution of Thomas Kuhn

In his contribution, James Marcum argues that Kuhn’s later evolutionary view is more relevant to current philosophy of science (being ‘pluralistic and perspectival’) than his earlier revolutionary one. On Kuhn’s later evolutionary view, Marcum explains, scientific change proceeds via “smaller evolutionary specialization or speciation” (155), with a “gradual emergence of a specialty’s practice and knowledge” (159). On this view, scientific development consists in “small incremental changes of belief” rather than “the upheaval of world-shattering revolutions” (159).

Marcum uses the emergence of bacteriology, virology, and retrovirology to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of Kuhn’s evolutionary view. Its main strength, he says, is that it illuminates the development of and relationships among these sorts of scientific specialties; its weakness is that it ascribes a single tempo — Darwinian gradualism — and a single mode — speciation — to the evolution of science. Marcum adopts George Gaylord Simpson’s “richer and more textured approach” (165), which distinguishes several tempos and modes. Since these refinements better enable Kuhn’s view to handle a range of cases, they are certainly valuable.

According to Marcum, current philosophy of science is ‘pluralistic and perspectival’ in its recognition that different sciences face different philosophical issues and in its inclusion of perspectives from outside the logico-analytic tradition, such as continental, pragmatist, and feminist perspectives (166). Marcum seems right to characterize current philosophy of science as pluralistic, given the move away from general philosophy of science to more specialized branches.

If this pluralism is to be embraced, one might wonder what role (if any) remains for general philosophy of science. Marcum makes the interesting suggestion that a general image of science, like Kuhn’s evolutionary image, while respecting our contemporary pluralistic stance, can at the same time offer “a type of unity among the sciences, not in terms of reducing them to one science, but rather with respect to mapping the conceptual relationships among them” (169).

One of Marcum’s central aims is to show that incommensurability plays a key explanatory role in a refined version of Kuhn’s evolutionary image of science. The role of incommensurability on this view is to account for scientific speciation. However, Marcum shows only that we can characterize scientific speciation in terms of incommensurability, without clearly establishing the explanatory payoff of so doing. He does not succeed in showing that incommensurability has a particularly enriching explanatory role, much less that incommensurability is “critical for conceptual evolution within the sciences” or “an essential component of… the growth of science” (168).

All a Metaphor?

Barbara Gabriella Renzi and Giulio Napolitano frame their contribution with a discussion of competing accounts of the nature and role of metaphor. They avow the commonly accepted view that metaphors are not merely linguistic, but cognitive, and that they are ubiquitous. They claim, I would think uncontroversially, that metaphors shape how individuals approach and reason about complex issues. They also discuss historical empiricist attitudes toward metaphor, competing views on the role of models and metaphor in science, and later, the potential role of metaphor in social domination.

Renzi and Napolitano also address Kuhn’s use of the metaphor of Darwinian evolution to characterize scientific change. They suggest that an apter metaphor for scientific change can be made of the obsolete orthogenetic hypothesis, according to which “variations are not random but directed by forces regulated and ultimately directed by the internal constitution of the organism, which responds to environmental stimuli” (184).

The orthogenetic metaphor is a better fit for scientific change, they argue, because the emergence of new ideas in science is not random, but driven by “arguments and debates… specific needs of a scientist or group of scientists who have been seeking a solution to a problem” (184).

The orthogenetic metaphor effectively highlights a drawback of the Darwinian metaphor that might otherwise be overlooked, and deserves further attention. The space devoted to discussing metaphor in the abstract contributes little to the paper, beyond prescriptions to take metaphor seriously and approach it with caution. Much of that space would have been better devoted to using historical examples to compare Kuhn’s Darwinian metaphor to the proposed orthogenetic alternative, to make concrete the fruitfulness of the latter, and to flesh out the specific kinds of internal and external pressures that Renzi and Napolitano see as important drivers of scientific change.

Methodological Contextualism

Darrell Rowbottom offers a summary and several criticisms of what he sees as Kuhn’s early-middle period image of science. By way of criticism, he points out that it isn’t clear how to individuate disciplinary matrices in a way that preserves a clear distinction between normal and extraordinary science, or ensures that what Kuhn calls ‘normal science’ is really the norm. Moreover, in linking the descriptive and normative components of his view, Kuhn implausibly assumes that mature science is optimal.

Rowbottom suggests a replacement image of science he calls methodological contextualism (developed more fully in previous work). Methodological contextualism identifies several roles — puzzle-solving, critical, and imaginative — which scientific practitioners fulfill to varying degrees and in varying combinations. The ideal balance of these roles depends on contextual factors, including the scientists available and the state of science (200).

The novel question Rowbottom considers in this paper is: how could piecemeal change in science be rational from the perspective of methodological contextualism? I have difficulty seeing why this is even a prima facie problem for Rowbottom’s view, since puzzle-solving, critical and imaginative activities are clearly consonant with piecemeal change. I suppose it is because the view retains some of Kuhn’s machinery, including his notion of a disciplinary matrix.

At any rate, Rowbottom suggests that scientists may work within a partial disciplinary matrix, or a set of partially overlapping ones. He also makes the intriguing claim that “scientists might allow inconsistency at the global level, and even welcome it as a better alternative than a consistent system with less puzzle-solving power” (202). One might object that Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis seems to block the overlapping matrix move, but Rowbottom proclaims that the falsity of Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis follows “as a consequence of the way that piecemeal change can occur” (201). One person’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens, as they say.

A Digestible Kuhn

The brevity of the contributions makes them eminently digestible and good potential additions to course syllabi at a range of levels; on the other hand, it means that some of the most provocative and topical themes of the book — such as the epistemic and methodological status of generalizations about science and the role of general philosophy of science in contemporary philosophy — don’t get the full development they deserve. The volume raises more questions than it satisfactorily addresses, but several of them bring renewed relevance and freshness to Kuhnian philosophy of science and ought to direct its future course.

Contact details: amandabryant@trentu.ca

References

Mizrahi, Moti (Ed.) The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Author Information: Markus Arnold, University of Klagenfurt, markus.arnold@aau.at

Arnold, Markus. “Is There Anything Wrong with Thomas Kuhn?.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 42-47.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references: Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Xs

Image by Rob Thomas via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Twenty-two years after his death, Thomas Kuhn’s work is still able to provoke lively debates, where arguments are exchanged and competing interpretations of his theories are advanced. The Kuhnian Image of Science is a good example, as the book brings together ten scholars in a debate for and against Thomas Kuhn’s legacy. The question, the edited volume raises, is straightforward:

“Does the Kuhnian image of science provide an adequate model of scientific change? If we abandon the Kuhnian picture of revolutionary change and incommensurability […], what consequences would follow from that vis-à-vis our understanding of science as a social, epistemic endeavor?” (7)

In this review I will concentrate on the first two parts of the book, i.e. and in particular on the debate between those who are questioning (Mizrahi, Argamakova, Park, Sankey), and those who are defending Kuhn (Kindi, Patton), since their arguments are closely related. Therefore, I will discuss some of their major arguments in topological order.

Debating Kuhn’s Evidence

The editor Moti Mizrahi opens the debate in his introduction with a confrontational thesis: Kuhn, in his opinion, is responsible for an “infectious disease” (3), for “the pathological state of the field of philosophy of science in general, and general philosophy of science in particular” (3). Kuhn’s vice is his use of case studies (from the history of science) as arguments, although – according to Moti Mizrahi – they are nothing more than “anecdotal evidence” leading to “hasty generalizations” and “fallacious inductive reasoning” (6).

Hearing the trumpets of the troops ready to battle one is eager to learn how to do it right: How the standards of inductive reasoning within philosophy of science are re-erected. Yet, anticipating one of the results of this review, the “inductive reasoning” intended to refute Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis (found in the first part of the book) is actually its weakest part.

However, to understand the intricacy of this difficult task, we have to recognize, that it is not easy to support or falsify inductively a complex theory of science. Broadly speaking, in Kuhn’s account we should empirically observe sciences displaying at least four different manifestations: (1.) “proto-science” in the pre-paradigm phase, when there is no general consensus about theories, methods and standards, (2.) “normal science”, when scientists are most of the time focused on preserving, but also adapting existing paradigms to new problems and new scientific fields, (3.) sciences in a state of crisis, when more and more “anomalies” occur, which defy explanations in conformity with established procedures, and finally (4.) on rare occasions a “revolutionary” state, when different paradigms compete with each other and scientific theories based on one paradigm are to some extent “incommensurable” with those based on another paradigm.

There are good reasons to suppose that Kuhn’s somehow schematic and ideal-typical description of scientific change is too simple compared with the complexities shown by many historical case studies. Nevertheless, the counter-arguments under consideration brought forward against his model seem, paradoxically, to underestimate the complexity of Kuhn’s claims. For example, in Kuhn’s Incommensurability Thesis Mizrahi decides to discuss scientific change only in general.  He claims that Kuhn argues:

“Scientific change (specifically, revolutionary change) is characterized by taxonomic incommensurability.” (33)

The compounded phrase “[s]cientific change (specifically, revolutionary change)” indicates that, in Mizrahi’s interpretation, for Kuhn not all scientific change is per definition revolutionary. But then arguments against Kuhn’s theory should consider at least two kinds of scientific change separately: revolutionary change and those (commensurable) non-revolutionary scientific changes within “normal science.”

Keeping in mind that for Kuhn theory change is possible to a certain degree within normal science (only changing paradigms must be averted)[1], it is not clear, why Kuhn’s “image of science” should be dismissed because “as far as theory change is concerned” taxonomic incommensurability “is the exception rather than the rule” (38).[2]

Or another example, in Can Kuhn’s Taxonomic Incommensurability Be an Image of Science? where Seungbae Park comes to the conclusion that historical evidence shows that “scientific revolution is rare, taxonomic incommensurability is rare, and taxonomic commensurability is common” (61). It is, for similar reasons, unclear why this conclusion should not be commensurable with Kuhn’s description of normal science, since Kuhn claimed that normal science is common and scientific revolutions are rare.

However, this is not Park’s last argument about scientific change: He asks furthermore if we should not distinguish between the distant scientific past, when scientific revolutions were more common, and the recent past, “since most recent past theories have been stable, most present theories will also be stable” (70). Kuhn’s theory of revolutionary paradigm change is, in his opinion, first of all not appropriate for understanding the development of contemporary and future science.

Incommensurable Paradigms of Language?

After a discussion of the critical reception of Thomas Kuhn’s and Paul Feyerabend’s work and the objections raised against their claim that scientific theories or paradigms are incommensurable, Howard Sankey admits in The Demise of the Incommensurability Thesis that:

“the idea that there is conceptual change in science now seems commonplace. But the much-feared consequences, such as incomparability, communication breakdown, and irrationality now all seem to have been greatly overblown.” (88)

Prima facie it seems like a self-critical admission of an inappropriate former reception of Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability, especially by those philosophers of science who tried to fight “irrationality” with the means of referential semantics. However, Sankey seems to think that the dissolution of the exaggerated accusations of Kuhn’s critics somehow makes now Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability obsolete. Hence, Sankey can summarize:

“with the demise of the incommensurability thesis, the debate about scientific realism is free to proceed in a manner that is unencumbered by the semantic concerns about wholesale referential discontinuity that were prompted by the incommensurability thesis.” (88)

For Sankey, Kuhn’s concept of incommensurability is dead (87). He seems to blame Kuhn for the misguided interpretations of his opponents. It comes down to the argument: if it’s not possible to criticize Kuhn’s concept of incommensurability as “irrational” anymore, then Kuhn’s concept cannot claim any relevance for future discussions.

However, more importantly: These arguments against Kuhn are based on referential semantics, i.e. semantic concerns about referential continuity. Hence, what their objections against Kuhn’s incommensurability theory inadvertently show is, paradoxically, the incommensurability of competing paradigms of language. This becomes apparent, for example, when Mizrahi criticizes Kuhn’s sometimes-vague formulations, especially in his early Structure. Mizrahi refers to statements where Kuhn argues with caution:

“The normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution is not only incompatible but often [sic] actually incommensurable with that which has gone before.” (Kuhn 1996, 103)

Formulations such as this prompt Mizrahi to ask: If taxonomic incommensurability (TI):

“is not a general thesis about the nature of scientific change, then what is its explanatory value? How does (TI) help us in terms of understanding the nature of scientific change? On most accounts of explanation, an explanans must have some degree of generality […] But if (TI) has no degree of generality, then it is difficult to see what the explanatory value of (TI) is.” (37)

Kuhn could have responded that his arguments in Structure are explicitly based on Wittgenstein’s theory of “language games” with its central concept of “family resemblance”, which by definition does not allow the assumption that there are unambiguous conceptual boundaries and a distinguishing characteristic, which all or even most of the phenomena aligned by a concept have in common.[3]

Indeed, understanding Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblance” is central to understand Kuhn’s theory of “paradigms”, “paradigm shifts”, and the meaning of “incommensurability”.[4] Yet, it is possible to come to similar conclusions without referring to the late Wittgenstein: For example, Alexandra Argamakova despite of her negative evaluation of many of Kuhn’s arguments, unlike Mizrahi, is closer on this issue to Kuhn where she claims in Modeling Scientific Development: “distinct breakthroughs in science can be marked as revolutions, but no universal system of criteria for such appraisal can be formulated in a normative philosophical manner” (54).

Defending Kuhn’s Epistemology

In two of the book’s most interesting discussions of Kuhn’s epistemology, Vasso Kandi’s The Kuhnian Straw Man and Lydia Patton’s Kuhn, Pedagogy, and Practice, the allegation that Kuhn developed his theory on the basis of selected historical cases is refuted. Furthermore, Kindi, defending the innovative character of Kuhn’s work asks “for a more faithful reading”:

“Kuhn’s new image of science, which is actually a mosaic of different traditions, was not put together by generalizing from instances; it emerged once attention was drawn to what makes scientific practice possible, namely paradigms and what follows from them (normal science, anomalies, revolutions). In accordance with Kuhn’s own understanding of scientific revolutions, his revolution in the perception of science did not have to summon new facts or make new discoveries; it only needed a new perspective.” (104)

While Lydia Patton forcefully argues that:

“Kuhn’s original work did not restrict ‘paradigm’ to ‘theoretical framework’, nor did he restrict the perspective of scientific practice to the content of propositions with a truth-value. And it is mainly because Kuhn’s arguments in Structure are outside the semantic view, and focus instead on the practice of science, that they are interesting and fresh.” (124)

Both, Patton and Kindi, offer a close reading of Kuhn’s work, trying to give new perspectives on some of the more contested concepts in Kuhn’s epistemology.

The Social in Social Epistemology

One explicit aim of this edited volume is, as the editor asserts, to outline what consequences would follow from this debate for “our understanding of science as a social, epistemic endeavor” (7). But for this reviewer it is not obvious how the strong emphasis on discounting Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis in the first part of the book should lead to a better understanding of science as a social practice.

Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability of competing paradigms is precisely the point within his epistemology where value judgments and social decisions come into play. While traditionally those who defended the “progress of science” (cf. Sankey: 87) against what they saw as Kuhn’s “anti-realist” position were often those who wanted to defend the objectivity of science by excluding “external” influences, like the “social” and the political, from the scientific core.[5]

It is therefore important when talking about incommensurability of paradigms, and the possibility of a “communication breakdown”, to distinguish between two distinct meanings: (a) the impossibility to communicate at all because people do not understand each other’s language or paradigms and (b) the decision after a long and futile debate to end any further communication as a waste of time since no agreement can be reached. It is this second meaning, describing a social phenomenon, which is very common in science. Sankey argues against the first meaning when he declares:

“Given that scientists are able to understand what is said by theories whose terms are untranslatable into their own, no insuperable obstacle stands in the way of full communication between the ‘proponents of competing paradigms.’” (87)

While Sankey “wonders what all the fuss was about” (87), he has only shown (in accordance with Kuhn: cf. Kuhn 2000) that in theory full communication may be possible, but not that communication breakdowns are not common between scientists working with different paradigms. While on a theoretical level these workday problems to communicate may seem, for some philosophers of science, trivial. However, on the social level for working scientists, such communication breakdowns are often not only the reason for fraught relations between colleagues, but also for disciplinary segmentation and sometimes for re-drawing boundaries of scientific disciplines.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that in this volume those who discuss social as well as epistemological practices of scientists are not those who criticize incommensurability from a semantic point of view. Social and epistemological practices are considered in one way or the other by those defending Kuhn, like Kindi and Patton, and those whose main concern is to revise certain aspects of Kuhn’s image of science, like James A. Marcum, Barbara Gabriella Renzi & Giulio Napolitano, and David P. Rowbottom.

However, as I confined this review to the discussion of the first six articles I can only point out that the four remaining articles go beyond the topics discussed thus far and would deserve not only attentive readers but also a thorough discussion. They analyze, for example, scientific revolutions in mathematics (Andrew Aberdein), the role of evolutionary metaphors (Gabriella Renzi/Napolitano, Marcum) and of methodological contextualism in the philosophy of science (Rowbottom). Hence, although this edited volume has some weaknesses, there are several contributions, which open new avenues of thought about Kuhn, and are worth reading for those interested in Kuhn and in philosophy of science.

Contact details: markus.arnold@aau.at

References

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Kuhn, Thomas S. „Commensurability, Comparability, Communicability,“ In Thomas S. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Road Since Structure. Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993, 33-57. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Mizrahi, Moti (Ed.) The Kuhnian Image of Science. Time for a Decisive Transformation? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Transl. by G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

[1] Kuhn discusses this type of theory change, for example, as divergent „articulation(s) of the paradigm“ (Kuhn 1996, 83; cf. Kuhn 1996, 23, 29-34, 122).

[2] Always on condition that, like Moti Mizrahi in this argument, we accept the concept of „incommensurability“ as defined by referential semantics. On some problems with „referential continuity“ as main argument against incommensurability see further below.

[3] “Instead of pointing out something common to all […], I’m saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common in virtue of which we use the same word for all – but there are many different kinds of affinity between them“ (Wittgenstein 2009, § 65) “I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family – build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, and so on and so forth – overlap and criss-cross in the same way.” (§ 67)

[4] Cf. Kuhn 1996, Ch. 5. Later, Kuhn argued explicitly against referential semantics but then on the basis of a hermeneutic (holistic) theory of language (Kuhn 2000; but cf. Kuhn 1996, 128f.).

[5] This, despite the fact that Kuhn himself tried to restrict the relevant „social“ factors in his epistemology to social dynamics within scientific communities.

Author Information: Stephen Turner, University of South Florida, turner@usf.edu

Turner, Stephen. “Fuller’s roter Faden.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 25-29.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3WX

Art by William Blake, depicting the creation of reality.
Image via AJC1 via Flickr / Creative Commons

The Germans have a notion of “research intention,” by which they mean the underlying aim of an author’s work as revealed over its whole trajectory. Francis Remedios and Val Dusek have provided, if not an account itself, the material for an account of Steve Fuller’s research intention, or as they put it the “thread” that runs through his work.

These “intentions” are not something that is apparent to the authors themselves, which is part of the point: at the start of their intellectual journey they are working out a path which leads they know not where, but which can be seen as a path with an identifiable beginning and end retrospectively. We are now at a point where we can say something about this path in the case of Fuller. We can also see the ways in which various Leitmotifs, corollaries, and persistent themes fit with the basic research intention, and see why Fuller pursued different topics at different times.

A Continuity of Many Changes

The ur-source for Fuller’s thought is his first book, Social Epistemology. On the surface, this book seems alien to the later work, so much so that one can think of Fuller as having a turn. But seen in terms of an underlying research intention, and indeed in Fuller’s own self-explications included in this text, this is not the case: the later work is a natural development, almost an entailment, of the earlier work, properly understood.

The core of the earlier work was the idea of constructing a genuine epistemology, in the sense of a kind of normative account of scientific knowledge, out of “social” considerations and especially social constructivism, which at the time was considered to be either descriptive or anti-epistemological, or both. For Fuller, this goal meant that the normative content would at least include, or be dominated by, the “social” part of epistemology, considerations of the norms of a community, norms which could be changed, which is to say made into a matter of “policy.”

This leap to community policies leads directly to a set of considerations that are corollaries to Fuller’s long-term project. We need an account of what the “policy” options are, and a way to choose between them. Fuller was trained at a time when there was a lingering controversy over this topic: the conflict between Kuhn and the Popperians. Kuhn represented a kind of consensus driven authoritarianism. For him it was right and necessary for science to be organized around ungroundable premises that enabled science to be turned into puzzle-solving, rather than insoluble disputes over fundamentals. These occurred, and produced new ungroundable consensual premises, at the rare moments of scientific revolutions.

Progress was possible through these revolutions, but our normal notions of progress were suspended during the revolutions and applied only to the normal puzzle-solving phase of science. Popperianism, on the contrary, ascribed progress to a process of conjecture and refutation in which ever broader theories developed to account for the failures of previous conjectures, in an unending process.

Kuhnianism, in the lens of Fuller’s project in Social Epistemology, was itself a kind of normative epistemology, which said “don’t dispute fundamentals until the sad day comes when one must.” Fuller’s instincts were always with Popper on this point: authoritarian consensus has no place in science for either of them. But Fuller provided a tertium quid, which had the effect of upending the whole conflict. He took over the idea of the social construction of reality and gave it a normative and collective or policy interpretation. We make knowledge. There is no knowledge that we do not create.

The creation is a “social” activity, as the social constructivists claimed. But this social itself needed to be governed by a sense of responsibility for these acts of creation, and because they were social, this meant by a “policy.” What this policy should be was not clear: no one had connected the notion of construction to the notion of responsibility in this way. But it was a clear implication of the idea of knowledge as a product of making. Making implies a responsibility for the consequences of making.

Dangers of Acknowledging Our Making

This was a step that few people were willing to take. Traditional epistemology was passive. Theory choice was choice between the theories that were presented to the passive chooser. The choices could be made on purely epistemic grounds. There was no consideration of responsibility, because the choices were an end point, a matter of scientific aesthetics, with no further consequences. Fuller, as Remedios and Dusek point out, rejects this passivity, a rejection that grows directly out of his appropriation of constructivism.

From a “making” or active epistemic perspective, Kuhnianism is an abdication of responsibility, and a policy of passivity. But Fuller also sees that overcoming the passivity Kuhn describes as the normal state of science, requires an alternative policy, which enables the knowledge that is in fact “made” but which is presented as given, to be challenged. This is a condition of acknowledging responsibility for what is made.

There is, however, an oddity in talking about responsibility in relation to collective knowledge producing, which arises because we don’t know in advance where the project of knowledge production will lead. I think of this on analogy to the debate between Malthus and Marx. If one accepts the static assumptions of Malthus, his predictions are valid: Marx made the productivist argument that with every newborn mouth came two hands. He would have been better to argue that with every mouth came a knowledge making brain, because improvements in food production technology enabled the support of much larger populations, more technology, and so forth—something Malthus did not consider and indeed could not have. That knowledge was in the future.

Fuller’s alternative grasps this point: utilitarian considerations from present static assumptions can’t provide a basis for thinking about responsibility or policy. We need to let knowledge production proceed regardless of what we think are the consequences, which is necessarily thinking based on static assumptions about knowledge itself. Put differently, we need to value knowledge in itself, because our future is itself made through the making of knowledge.

“Making” or “constructing” is more than a cute metaphor. Fuller shows that there is a tradition in science itself of thinking about design, both in the sense of making new things as a form of discovery, and in the sense of reverse engineering that which exists in order to see how it works. This leads him to the controversial waters of intelligent design, in which the world itself is understood as, at least potentially, the product of design. It also takes us to some metaphysics about humans, human agency, and the social character of human agency.

One can separate some of these considerations from Fuller’s larger project, but they are natural concomitants, and they resolve some basic issues with the original project. The project of constructivism requires a philosophical anthropology. Fuller provides this with an account of the special character of human agency: as knowledge maker humans are God-like or participating in the mind of God. If there is a God, a super-agent, it will also be a maker and knowledge maker, not in the passive but in the active sense. In participating in the mind of God, we participate in this making.

“Shall We Not Ourselves Have to Become Gods?”

This picture has further implications: if we are already God-like in this respect, we can remake ourselves in God-like ways. To renounce these powers is as much of a choice as using them. But it is difficult for the renouncers to draw a line on what to renounce. Just transhumanism? Or race-related research? Or what else? Fuller rejects renunciation of the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of making the world. The issue is the same as the issue between Marx and Malthus. The renouncers base their renunciation on static models. They estimate risks on the basis of what is and what is known now. But these are both things that we can change. This is why Fuller proposes a “pro-actionary” rather than a precautionary stance and supports underwriting risk-taking in the pursuit of scientific advance.

There is, however, a problem with the “social” and policy aspect of scientific advance. On the one hand, science benefits humankind. On the other, it is an elite, even a form of Gnosticism. Fuller’s democratic impulse resists this. But his desire for the full use of human power implies a special role for scientists in remaking humanity and making the decisions that go into this project. This takes us right back to the original impulse for social epistemology: the creation of policy for the creation of knowledge.

This project is inevitably confronted with the Malthus problem: we have to make decisions about the future now, on the basis of static assumptions we have no real alternative to. At best we can hint at future possibilities which will be revealed by future science, and hope that they will work out. As Remedios and Dusek note, Fuller is consistently on the side of expanding human knowledge and power, for risk-taking, and is optimistic about the world that would be created through these powers. He is also highly sensitive to the problem of static assumptions: our utilities will not be the utilities of the creatures of the future we create through science.

What Fuller has done is to create a full-fledged alternative to the conventional wisdom about the science society relation and the present way of handling risk. The standard view is represented by Philip Kitcher: it wishes to guide knowledge in ways that reflect the values we should have, which includes the suppression of certain kinds of knowledge by scientists acting paternalistically on behalf of society.

This is a rigidly Malthusian way of thinking: the values (in this case a particular kind of egalitarianism that doesn’t include epistemic equality with scientists) are fixed, the scientists ideas of the negative consequences of something like research on “racial” differences are taken to be valid, and policy should be made in accordance with the same suppression of knowledge. Risk aversion, especially in response to certain values, becomes the guiding “policy” of science.

Fuller’s alternative preserves some basic intuitions: that science advances by risk taking, and by sometimes failing, in the manner of Popper’s conjectures and refutations. This requires the management of science, but management that ensures openness in science, supports innovation, and now and then supports concerted efforts to challenge consensuses. It also requires us to bracket our static assumptions about values, limits, risks, and so forth, not so much to ignore these things but to relativize them to the present, so that we can leave open the future. The conventional view trades heavily on the problem of values, and the potential conflicts between epistemic values and other kinds of values. Fuller sees this as a problem of thinking in terms of the present: in the long run these conflicts vanish.

This end point explains some of the apparent oddities of Fuller’s enthusiasms and dislikes. He prefers the Logical Positivists to the model-oriented philosophy of science of the present: laws are genuinely universal; models are built by assuming present knowledge and share the problems with Malthus. He is skeptical about science done to support policy, for the same reason. And he is skeptical about ecologism as well, which is deeply committed to acting on static assumptions.

The Rewards of the Test

Fuller’s work stands the test of reflexivity: he is as committed to challenging consensuses and taking risks as he exhorts others to be. And for the most part, it works: it is an old Popperian point that only through comparison with strong alternatives that a theory can be tested; otherwise it will simply pile up inductive support, blind to what it is failing to account for. But as Fuller would note, there is another issue of reflexivity here, and it comes at the level of the organization of knowledge. To have conjectures and refutations one must have partners who respond. In the consensus driven world of professional philosophy today, this does not happen. And that is a tragedy. It also makes Fuller’s point: that the community of inquirers needs to be managed.

It is also a tragedy that there are not more Fullers. Constructing a comprehensive response to major issues and carrying it through many topics and many related issues, as people like John Dewey once did, is an arduous task, but a rewarding one. It is a mark of how much the “professionalization” of philosophy has done to alter the way philosophers think and write. This is a topic that is too large for a book review, but it is one that deserves serious reflection. Fuller raises the question by looking at science as a public good and asking how a university should be organized to maximize its value. Perhaps this makes sense for science, given that science is a money loser for universities, but at the same time its main claim on the public purse. For philosophy, we need to ask different questions. Perhaps the much talked about crisis of the humanities will bring about such a conversation. If it does, it is thinking like Fuller’s that will spark the discussion.

Contact details: turner@usf.edu

References

Remedios, Francis X., and Val Dusek. Knowing Humanity in the Social World. The Path of Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3WS

See also:

Image by Matt via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Moti Mizrahi has been defending something he calls ‘weak scientism’ against Christopher Brown in a series of exchanges in the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. His animus seems to be against philosophy in particular though he asserts that other disciplines in the humanities do not produce knowledge either. He also shows remarkable candor in admitting that it all comes down to money: money spent on philosophy would be better spent on the sciences because scientific knowledge is better qualitatively (i.e. because it makes true predictions) and quantitatively (scientists pump out more stuff than philosophers). (11)

Measuring Success

As he tells us: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.” (Mizrahi; 7). Furthermore: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge- in the form of scholarly publications-than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact)” (7)

The relevance of this latter claim seems to me unclear: surely by a quantitative measure, Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat.[1] A German professor once told me that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone! I will not, however, spend time scratching my head over what seems a tangential point. The quantity of work produced in the sciences would be of little significance were it not valuable by some other measure. No one would think commercials great works of art on the grounds that there are so many of them.

Then again some concerned by the problem of over-specialization might view the sheer quantity of scientific research as a problem not an advantage.  I will focus, then, on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else. I will then consider Mr. Mizrahi’s peculiar version of this claim ‘weak scientism’ which is that while there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences (it is hard, he thinks, to show otherwise) this knowledge is of a qualitatively lesser kind.

He says this is so “in certain relevant aspects”. (10) I’m not sure what he means by this hedge. What makes an aspect relevant in this context? I will proceed though on the assumption that whatever these relevant aspects are they make for an over-all context independent superiority of science over non-science.[2]

Of course, were I a practitioner of the hermeneutic of suspicion I would point out the glaring conflict of interest in Mr. Mizrahi making these claims from the fastness of a technical institute. If someone pops up claiming that only half the university really earns its keep it is a little bit suspect (if not surprising exactly) when that half of the university happens to the very one in which he resides. I might also point out the colonialist and sexist implications of his account, which is so contrived to conveniently exclude all sorts of ‘others’ from the circle of knowledge. Is Mr. Mizrahi producing an argument or a mere rationalization of his privilege?

However, as Mr. Mizrahi seems unlikely to be overly impressed by such an analysis I will stick to something simpler.[3] Does science alone produce knowledge or do other epistemic forms produce knowledge as well? This is the question of whether ‘strong scientism’ is correct. Secondly, if strong scientism is not correct does weak scientism offer a more defensible alternative or does it suffer from the same drawbacks? Accordingly, I will refute strong scientism and then show that weak scientism is vulnerable to precisely the same objections.

Politicized Words and Politicizing Ideas

There are dangers to antagonizing philosophers. We may not be pulling in the big grants, true , but we can do a great deal of damage regardless  for when the ‘scientistic class’ is not accusing philosophy of being useless and ineffectual it is accusing it of corrupting the entire world with its po-mo nonsense.[4] This is because one of the functions of philosophy is the skeptical or critical one. When scientists go on about verification and falsification or claim the principle of induction can be justified by induction philosophers perform the Socratic function of puncturing their hubris. Thus, one of the functions of philosophy is deflationary.

A philosopher of science who makes himself unpopular with scientists by raising questions the scientist is unequipped to answer and has no time for anyway is only doing her job. I think this is a case in point. Since Descartes at least we been fascinated by the idea of the great epistemic purge. There is so much ‘stuff’ out there claiming to be knowledge that we need to light a great bonfire and burn all of it. This bonfire might be Cartesian doubt. It might be ‘scientific method’. Either way all the ‘pretend’ knowledge is burned off leaving the useful core. This may well be a worthwhile endeavour and in the time of Descartes it surely was.

However, I suspect this tradition has created a misleading impression. The real problem is not that we have too little knowledge but too much: as a phenomenologist might say it is a saturated phenomenon. Knowledge is all around us so that like bats our eyes are blinded by the sun. This is why I find the idea that only scientists produce knowledge the very definition of an ivory tower notion that has no basis in experience. To show this let me make a list of the kinds of non-scientific knowledge people have.

As we shall see, the problem is not making this list long but keeping it short. I offer this list to create an overwhelming presumption that strong scientism at very least is not true (I shall then argue that weak scientism is in no better a case).  This procedure may not be decisive in itself but I do think it puts the ball in the court of the ‘strong scientist’ who must show that all the things I (and most everybody else) call knowledge are in fact something else.

What is more, the ‘strong scientist’ must do this without violating the criterion of strong scientism itself: he cannot avail himself of any but scientific arguments. Moreover, he must show that science itself meets the criterion of knowledge he sets out which is not an easy task given such well known difficulties as the problem of induction. At any rate, prima facie, there seems overwhelming empirical evidence that strong scientism is incorrect: a claim so extraordinary should have an unusually strong justification, to paraphrase Hume. Let’s see if the ‘strong scientist’ can produce one.

Making a Problem of “Results”

To begin, I should point out is that there are bodies of knowledge that produce ‘results’ not through scientific method but through analysis and application to cases. Two prominent examples would be Law and Music Theory, practitioners of which use an established body of theory to solve problems like whether Trinity Western should have a law school or how Scriabin invented the ‘Prometheus chord’. What sense of ‘know’ can we appeal to in order to show that my daughter, who is a music theory student, does not ‘know’ that the Prometheus chord was derived from the over-tone series?

Secondly, there is knowledge about the past that historians uncover through the interpretation of primary documents and other evidence. In what sense do we not ‘know’ that the Weimar Republic fell? This claim is even more remarkable given there are sciences that deal with the past, like Paleontology, which ‘interpret’ signs such as fossils or tools in a manner much more like historians (there is hermeneutic judgment in science which functions no differently than hermeneutic judgment elsewhere).

Thirdly, there is first person knowledge which is direct. “Did that hurt?” asks the doctor because without accepting first-person reportage he cannot proceed with treatment. This is a kind of knowledge without which we could not even do science so that if Strong scientism wants to deny this is knowledge science itself will be the primary victim. Again science can go nowhere without direct factual knowledge (the strip turned green when I put it in water) that is not produced by science but which science itself rests upon.

What about know how? Craftsmen and engineers know all kinds of things by accumulated experience. They know how a shoe is made or what makes for good beer. They also built the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What are we to make of disciplines like mathematics, geometry or logic? What about ethical or aesthetic or critical judgments? In what sense does a translator not ‘know’ Japanese? Does anyone really think literature scholars don’t ‘know’ anything about the texts they discuss even on a factual level? What scientific justification does the claim “Marlowe did not write King Lear’ have or even require?  And while we are at it may well be that philosophers do not know much but they do know things like ‘logical positivism fails its own criterion of meaning’ or ‘Berkeley cannot be refuted by kicking a stone’. [5]

It could well be that in regarding all the above as instances of knowledge I am missing something fundamental. If so I wish someone would point it out to me. Let’s take a hypothetical knower, Jill: Jill knows she is feeling cold, knows how to repair watches, knows why the Weimar Republic fell, knows how to speak Portuguese, knows there are 114 Surahs in the Quran, knows how Beethoven transformed the sonata form, has extensive topographical knowledge of places she has travelled, prefers the plays of Shakespeare to those of Thomas Preston, can identify Barbara as valid syllogism, considers racial prejudice indefensible, understands how attorney client privilege applies to the Stormy Daniels affair, can tell an stone age arrowhead from a rock, can comment on the philology of Hebrew, can understand Euclid’s proofs, is engaged in correcting the received text of Finnegans Wake , can explain the Quine/Duhem thesis and its relevance to the question of falsification, has written a commentary on Kant’s third critique and on top of all this is performing experiments in chemistry.

Strong scientism may be correct that only the last endeavour constitutes Jill’s ‘knowledge’ but on what grounds can it defeat what to me looks like the overwhelming presumption that Jill is not just a Chemist who wastes her time at hobbies but a genuine polymath who knows many things in many fields along with all the ordinary knowledge all humans possess?

Problems of Both the Strong and the Weak

The ‘strong scientist’ has surprisingly few options here. Will he point out that science makes true predictions? So have craftsmen for millennia. Further, many of these forms of knowledge do not need to make true predictions: I don’t need to test the hypothesis that there 114 Surahs in the Quran because I know already having checked.[6] Is science more certain of its conclusions? According to the post-Popper consensus at least, scientific statements are always tentative and revisable and in any case first person knowledge so surpasses it in certainty that some of it is arguably infallible. Is science more instrumentally successful?

Craftsmen and hunters kept the species alive for millennia before science even existed in difficult circumstances under which no science would have been possible. What is more some craft knowledge remains instrumentally superior to science to this day: no baseball player chooses a physicist over a batting coach.[7] At any rate success is relative to one’s aims and lawyers successfully produce legal arguments just as philologists successfully solve problems of Homeric grammar.

Now as Aristotle would say science does have the advantage over craft of being explanatory but is explanation unique to science? No; because hermeneutic practices in history, literature, classics and so on also produce explanations of the meaning of things like documents and if the ‘strong scientist’ wants to say that these explanations are tentative and changing (abductions as it were not inductions) then the same is true of a great deal of science. In short, none of the features that supposedly make for the superiority of science are unique to science and some are not even especially exemplified by it. It seems then that there is no criterion by which scientific claims can be shown to be knowledge in a unique and exclusive sense. Until such a criterion is identified it seems to me that my initial presupposition about Jill being a polymath rather than a chemist with distractions stands.   

Perhaps it is the awareness of such difficulties that leads Mizrahi to his stance of ‘Weak Scientism’. It is not a stance he himself entirely sticks to.  Some of his statements imply the strong version of scientism as when he tells us the knowledge is “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields, such as the humanities.” (22)[8] Still, when pushed, he seems content with the position that all the things I mentioned above might count as knowledge in a weaker sense but that scientific knowledge is still better and, presumably, more worthy of grants.

Unfortunately, the exact same objections which tell against strong scientism tell against weak scientism too. It is interesting that at this point Mizrahi employs a kind of knowledge I did not discuss above: to defend weak scientism he appeals to the authority of textbooks! (17) These textbooks tell him that science is instrumentally successful, explanatory and makes true predictions. He then tells us that while other disciplines may also betray these traits they do not do so to the same extent so that any money spent on them would be better spent on science on the maxim of prudence (another knowledge form I did not discuss) that one should seek the most bang for one’s buck.

Mizrahi gains little by this move for the question immediately arises better how and at what? Better in what context? By what standard of value? Just take the example of quantity so favored by Mizrahi. Does science produce more knowledge that anything else? Hardly. As Augustine pointed out I can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of my own existence. (City of God; XI, 26) Indeed, I can do this by reflecting recursively on my knowledge of ANY fact. Similar recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics.

Does science have (taken in bulk) more instrumental success than other knowledge forms? How would you even count given that craft knowledge has a roughly 3 million-year head start? This does not even count the successful record of problem solving in law, politics, or art.[9] Is science more successful at explanation? Hardly, if science could solve problems in literature or history then these fields would not even exist. Science only explains the things it is good at explaining which is no more and no less than one can say of any other discipline. This is why many proponents of scientism tacitly assume that the explanations produced in other disciplines only concern frilly, trivial things that science needn’t bother about anyway.[10]

Does science make more true predictions? Again how would you even count given that for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily? What is more, the inductive procedures of science seem relatively useless in the many endeavours that do not involve true prediction but some other method of justification like deduction or direct observation.

Thus, weak scientism seems in no better a case than strong scientism for the same reasons: there is no clearly applicable, context-independent, criterion that shows the superiority the ‘weak scientist’ claims: certainty, instrumental success, utilitarian value, predictive power and explanation all exist elsewhere in ways that are often not directly commensurable with the way they exist in science. As I told someone once (who asserted the superiority of the French language over all others) French is indeed the best language for speaking French in.[11] Science is the best way to do science.

Why Make Science an Ism at All?

Thus, if Mr. Mizrahi wants a thesis to defend it may well be possible to show that science is at least somewhat better on average at certain things than other approaches. He may call that ‘even weaker’ scientism. This would be to admit after all, that science is superior only in ‘certain relevant aspects’ leaving it to be inferred that it is not superior in others and that the ‘superiority’ that science demonstrates in one context, like particle physics, may vanish in another, like film criticism. If that is what ‘scientism’ amounts to then we are all proponents of it and it is hard to escape the impression that a mountain of argument has given birth to a mouse.

What is more, he informs us: “Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation. To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable.” (17) I suppose then it remains open to say that, after all, Joyce scholars ‘test’ their assertions about Ulysses against the text of Ulysses and are to that extent scientists. Perhaps, craftsmen, music theorists, historians and (gasp!) even philosophers, all in their various ways, do likewise: testing their assertions in the ways peculiar to their disciplines. Perhaps, then, all these endeavors are just iterations of science in which case Mirhazi’s mouse has shrunk to something the size of a pygmy shrew.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Aristotle, Metaphysics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Augustine, The City of God. Trans. H. Bettenson. (Penguin Classics, London, 1984)

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no 4 (2018) 7-25.   

Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987) 595-597

[1] Does Mirhazi mean to say that if a particular sub-discipline of English produces more articles in a given year than a small subfield of science then that discipline of English is superior to that subfield of science? I’m sure he does not mean to say this but it seems to follow from his words.

[2] The qualitative superiority of science must be based on the value of its goals firstly (like curing disease or discovering alien life) and, secondly, its superiority in achieving those goals over all other methods. The discussion surely assumes that the things done by science must be worth doing more than their opposites. The question has of necessity an axiological component in spite of Mizrahi’s claim to the contrary (9). This means the values of science must be commensurable with the values of non-science if we are to say one is better overall than the other. Not only must science be instrumentally superior at answering scientific questions it must answer the questions of other disciplines better than those disciplines. Otherwise one is simply making the innocuous claim that science answers scientific questions better than geometry or rhetoric can. Mizrahi marshals only one example here: he tells us that the social sciences produce more knowledge about friendship than philosophy does. (19) Of course this assumes that philosophers and social scientists are asking the same or at least commensurable questions about friendship but even if I grant this there are still a vast multitude of instances where this is manifestly not the case, where non-scientists can produce better explanations on non-trivial questions than scientists can. I shall note some of these below.

[3] Mr. Mizrahi might consider, though, whether ideological self-critique might, after all, be a useful way of acquiring self-knowledge (which may not be so contemptible an attainment after all).

[4] This is the ‘Schrodinger’ phenomenon where an antagonist makes two contradictory accusations at once. (https://davewebster.org/2018/02/28/schrodingers-snowflake/) For what seems to be the fons et origo of this narrative see Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987).

[5] The underlying question here is one of Platonism vs. Aristotelianism. Strong Scientism argues that there is one paradigmatic form of ‘knowledge in itself’. I argue the Aristotelian position that just as ‘being’ is said in many senses (Metaphysics;9, 992b 15) so there are many analogical forms of knowledge. What all the things I have listed have in common is that each in its own peculiar way supports beliefs by appeals to evidence or other forms of justification. Everyday discourse may be wrong to use the word knowledge for these other forms of justified belief but I think the onus is on the ‘strong scientist’ to show this. Another thing I should point out is that I do not confine the word knowledge to beliefs that are indefeasible: a knower might say “to the best of knowledge” and still be a knower. I say this to head off the problem of skepticism which asks whether the criterion of indefeasible knowledge (whatever it is said to be) is ever actually fulfilled. There are valid responses to this problem but consideration of them would take us far afield.

[6] It is silly to imagine me hypothesizing the various numbers of Surahs the Quran could contain before testing my hypothesis by opening the book. Of course, if Mizrahi wishes, I can always put ordinary factual knowledge in the form of a testable proposition. Open War and Peace and you will find it contains an account of the battle of Borodino. Why is a true prediction of this kind any different than a true prediction in science?

[7] Here in fact we get to the nub of the problem. The ultimate problem with scientism weak or strong is that in the real world different knowledge forms interact with each other constantly. Science advances with the help of craftsmen as with the invention of the telescope. Craftsmen make use of science as when a running coach consults a physician. Archeologists and paleontologists employ abduction or hermeneutic reasoning. Art historians call on chemists while biologists call on the local knowledge of indigenous peoples. In a sense there is no such thing as ‘science’ pure and simple as other knowledge forms are inherent to its own structure (even deductive reasoning, the proper province of logicians, is essential to standard accounts of scientific method). This is one reason why, in fact, there is no one superior knowledge form but rather systematic interdependence of ALL knowledge forms.

[8] This is not the only instance of Mizrahi, apparently, trying to use a persuasive definition to win what looks like a mere verbal victory. Of course you can define knowledge as “what the sciences do”, assign another word to “what the humanities do” and go home waving the flag of triumph. But why should any of the rest of take note of such an arbitrary procedure?

[9] Again the problem is that the instrumental success of science rests on the instrumental success of a multitude of other things like the knowledge of bus schedules that gets us to the lab or the social knowledge that allows us to navigate modern institutions. No science tells us how to write a winning grant proposal or informs us that for as longs as Dr. Smith is chief editor of Widgetology the truth about widgets is whatever he says it is. Thus even if we confined the question to the last 50 years it is clear that science cannot claim instrumental superiority over the myriad other anonymous, unmarked processes that make science possible in the first place.

[10] My son, when he was a toddler, ran about the playground proclaiming himself ‘the greatest’. When he failed at any task or challenge he would casually turn to his mother and say “well, the greatest doesn’t do that”! This seems to be the position of many proponents of scientism. If scientists cannot produce good explanations in a field like literature or classics, then it must be that those fields are not really knowledge.

[11] Aristotle made this point ages ago. No inquiry into ethics he tells can have the rigour of geometry any more than the geometer need employ the art of rhetoric. (Nichomachean Ethics; 3, 20,25) Ethics employs phronesis or prudential judgment not logical deduction. Each discipline is answerable to its own internal standards which do not apply outside that discipline. There is, then, no overall ‘super-science’ (like the Platonic dialectic) that embodies a universal method for dealing with all subjects. Aristotle’s world is pluralist, discontinuous and analogical. For this reason, scientists have tended to be Platonists and modern science might be viewed as the revenge of the Platonic/Pythagorean tradition against its wayward pupil. Contemporary philosophy of science, if this author understands it correctly, seems to have restored Aristotelian praxis to the centre of the scientific enterprise. Students of Wittgenstein will no doubt appreciate the point that knowledge comes in as many varieties as games do and there is no more a single account of the first than there is of the second.