Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

There Is No "Scientific Method"

Or at least that's what the anarchist academic epistemologist/ontologist Paul Feyerabend argued, in his classic Against Method, which first arrived in 1975 and was amended significantly over the next two editions, the third coming out in 1993, a year before Feyerabend died of a brain tumor at age 68. There exists a 4th edition as of 2010, but I have not perused it yet and so will stifle the urge to comment on it.

                                  The pugnacious Feyerabend, ready to spar intellectually with all-comers.

He was officially a Professor at Berkeley from 1958 to 1989, when he left Unistat with a woman who'd seen him give a talk; both had been rattled by the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and it was time to leave.

A brief bracketed tangent on sources and "facts":
[The seemingly requisite Wiki article (I include links to Wikipedia because, while hit and miss, the entries are sometimes detailed and quite fine, and, if not, they at least give a few stats and links.) is here.]

[The always top-notch Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, should you choose to accept reading it, is here. If you happen to read Wiki and/or Stanford or some other linked source and something is at odds with what I say in the blog, so much the better, as one of my aims is to impart some learned cognitive dissonance and spur you to your own exertions. That's what I want from my reading; I will assume my Ideal Reader as being somewhat akin to myself. - the OG]

Among a handful of books (less than 15 but more than 7) that I regularly delve into that are about the sociology of knowledge, Feyerabend's Against Method is one. What a bold and entertaining intellectual!

                            Imre Lakatos, Hungarian Popperian whose sense of humor Feyerabend greatly appreciated

It was supposed to be called For and Against Method, a collaborative work with his equally brilliant and dear friend Imre Lakatos (say "LAK-uh-tosh"), who was a disciple of Sir Karl Raimund Popper, and had developed Popper's ideas about rationality in science in novel ways. Feyerabend says that Lakatos told him, "You have such strange ideas. Why don't you write them down?," and Feyerabend suggested they pit each other's ideas about the scientific method (which Paul thought was a fiction) against one another in a book, possibly as an exchange of letters. But Imre died in 1974, shortly before the first edition of Paul's writings on the topic came out.

Basically: Feyerabend said that, contrary to secondary school stories, in fact scientists have tinkered and bumbled and stumbled and used innumerable quirky methods in order to make their breakthroughs. And after tinkering enough, happy accidents occur. The Francis Bacon story about empiricism just doesn't really fly. Science as an endeavor is far messier than the textbooks make it out. Are there many scientists who themselves buy into the mythos of "the scientific method" and try to work along those lines? Yes, there are: but the results seem pretty sketchy. At best the narrative of "the" method cashes out at a lot less than you'd think. And different sciences have different approaches. And it's far, far, far more of a social endeavor than ever. And the sophisticated gadgetry and measuring devices increasingly lead to computer modeling and statistical analysis. And...well, you get the picture.

For enthusiasts of the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of science, and maverick anarchistic ideas in philosophy, I consider Against Method a must-read, and I'll try to highlight a few reasons why...

Oh, but first: I wrote on David Kaiser's recent book How The Hippies Saved Physics here. And Kaiser's cogent ideas about the structural reasons for physicists' unemployment in the 1970s should hold sway, but I would like to point out that Feyerabend was one powerful thinker around Berkeley throughout this period, and he had some ideas that may have gotten into the air and then the minds of the Berkeley hippie physicists. In his 1987 preface to the 3rd edition of Against Method, he says:

"None of the ideas that underlie my argument is new. My interpretation of scientific knowledge, for example, was a triviality for physicists like Mach, Boltzmann, Einstein and Bohr. But the ideas of these great thinkers were distorted beyond recognition by the rodents of neopositivism and the competing rodents of the church of critical rationalism. Lakatos was, after Kuhn, one of the few thinkers who noticed the discrepancy and tried to eliminate it by means of a complex and very interesting theory of rationality. I don't think he has succeeded in this. But the attempt was worth the effort; it has led to interesting results in the history of science and to new insights into the limits of reason."

Feyerabend was always against the "shut up and do your math" mantra with which physicists were inculcated during and after WWII in Unistat. (He also became friends with David Bohm, who influenced his thinking on quantum mechanics. Bohm also influenced the Berkeley hippie physicists.)
Feyerabend noted that Thomas Kuhn had become duly famous and influential, but was preceded by John Stuart Mill and Niels Bohr in his line of thought. For Mill, see the passage on p.31 of the 3rd ed; Feyerabend quotes from Mill's Autobiography and it reads like proto-Kuhn...from a book published in 1873!
He does something I like a lot, a throwback: he includes an "Analytical Index" at he beginning of his book, which summarizes the basic argument in every chapter. I've seen this in many olde pre-20th century books and always found this rhetorical flourish charming. For Chapter 3, we read this statement, which is one the first hooks he got into me:

"There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge. The whole history of thought is absorbed into science and is used for improving every single theory. Nor is political interference rejected. It may be needed to overcome the chauvinism of science that resists alternatives to the status quo." And then he elaborates in the chapter. This seems like a world turned upside down to many of us in Unistat in 2011: we would rather political ideas stay out of science, as the State-Military-Industrial-Corporate-Entertainment Complex seems to be doing us in, slowly.

But Feyerabend has, ultimately, a longue duree in mind. He agrees in the separation of Church (in this he considers not only the Churches, but rationalists, secular humanists and Marxist ideologies as "religious" and interfering!) and State, but he also - and this blew me away when I first encountered it - thinks "democratic societies must be protected from science." Dig this epistemological wildness and weirdness:

"This does not mean scientists cannot profit from a philosophical education and that humanity has not and never will profit from the sciences. However, the profits should not be imposed; they should be examined and freely accepted by the parties of the exchange. In a democracy scientific institutions, research programmes, and suggestions must therefore be subject to public control [NB: recent concerns over nanoparticles, not to mention animal testing and those little things called "nuclear weapons" - the OG], there must be a separation between state and science just as there is a separation between state and religious institutions, and science should be taught as one view among many and not the one and only road to truth and reality. There is nothing in the nature of science that excludes such institutional arrangements or shows that they are liable to lead to disaster."

Oh wow! I've already gone on too long, but you must read him to understand where he's coming from here, especially with that bombshell of a statement of "one view among many." To quote Mr. X from the movie JFK, "You may think you know what's going on..." (Oh wait: wasn't that Noah Cross in Chinatown?)
Feyerabend, who grew up in Nazi-controlled Vienna and fought for the Germans in WWII, wrote a surpassingly readable autobiography just before he died. Even though it's written by a philosopher of science, it's the sort of under-300 page book that any intelligent person can read for fun, and contains frank passages on his very active sex life (even though he was shot during the war, the bullet lodging near his spine, leaving him impotent for the rest of his life...he married four times and had many affairs!) and lurid anecdotes about Popper, Lakatos, and even the eminent philosophy professor John Searle, a longtime colleague at Berkeley. It's title is Killing Time, and is a play on Feyerabend's name, which in German means "work-free time" or "after work."
Finally, Paul was much-misunderstood - after reading his autobiography I'm not sure if he understood himself, emotionally, all that well - and he fed into this by his frequent changes of mind (any intelligent being "flip-flops" when they encounter new knowledge; it's part of a survival mechanism, something the Republican Party in Unistat seems to know NOTHING about), and Paul liked to say provocative things. But some seem to deliberately misread him. Here's an article from the National Catholic Register that seeks to defend Pope "Rats" Ratzinger in his "science ain't everything" screed of not long ago. Yes, "Rats" and Paul were both concerned about science run amok, but Feyerabend would vehemently distance himself from such an Authoritarian schmuck as the mitered infallible Pope-man, He who wears a dress and speaks on behalf of Gee Oh Dee. Oh, well...
While I don't agree with Feyerabend on everything - far from it - he was, to me, an overwhelmingly interesting thinker and personality. Sombunall readers of Robert Anton Wilson's book The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science might find they generate an abundance of dialectical sparks when they rub that book against Against Method. Just sayin'.


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Your comment "some ideas that may have gotten into the air" reminds me of Tillyard's discussion of intellectual currents in Shakespeare's London in his book on the Histories which I just finished.

I don't like Feyerabend's use of the word "rodents."

Your mention of the "world turned upside down" makes me think of Bob Wilson's unwritten novel.

Mr. X in "JFK" reminded me of my dad.

michael said...

The idea of "ideas in the air" has long fascinated me, and I often catch myself and wonder, "Do I think this because it's in the air lately? Have I sifted enough?" Also: really good ideas can be in the air, and I suspect this is an exciting historical moment of intellectual fermentation.

I found "rodents" an unkind word choice, but that's Feyerabend. He seemed irascible, good-humored, mean-spirited, a part-time guerrilla ontologist, and was candid about his depressions. What a complex figure. He truly thought that disagreements were vital for science to progress and for democracy in general. Lots of disagreements. He is very much misunderstood, and I probably misunderstand a lot of him. I also suspect he was damaged by the political climate in which he was born.

And when the first volume of Against Method came out, he got attacked on all sides. And he didn't know how to handle it. I think his role as a _type of intellectual_ was wildly misunderstood, and he shares this with RAW, I think.

In fact, I seriously doubt our society has learned to make sense of guys like Feyerabend the Enigmatic.

Thanks for reading, Mr. Wagner. And thanks always for your comments.

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