Overweening Generalist

Friday, May 25, 2012

Imre Lakatos: Another Favored Hungarian

How does science work? In the long history of physics, from Aristotle to the string theorists of today, what precisely went on to bring about the change from one model or theory or mode of working to a newer way? How did similar things happen in math, chemistry, or other areas of knowledge that humans have sought to inquire into, to probe the inner workings of "reality"?

Perhaps the most influential High Culture text of the second part of the roaring 20th century was Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn's creativity and rhetoric has proven very powerful. When your friends drop the word "paradigm," they may not know it, but they're probably borrowing from Kuhn at an nth removal. Kuhn said - of course this is far more complex than befits a single blog-post - but after a bunch of stabs in the dark, a new science gets going because some thinkers used metaphors that turned out to yield more satisfying corollaries. Eventually specialists working under the sway of a theory that seems to have won out cannot see any alternatives, or have been inculcated by their mentors in this theory that any rival theory or new idea must be wrong, or mistaken, or fraudulent. This is when a science is in its "normal" stage: scientists are working under such a powerful theory that it provides plenty of good problems to solve, and workers under this paradigm, while acknowledging that certain phenomena keep appearing that can't be accounted for in the theory, figure it's only a matter of time before someone working under this Great Theory will come along and figure it out. Meanwhile, anomalies keep piling up, and scientists keep putting them on the To Be Solved Later shelf. (Philosopher Ian Hacking's recent Q&A on the 50th anniversary of Kuhn's famous book, and how it's holding up.)

Eventually, a different way of thinking comes along. It is attacked by the dominant paradigm-workers; they have their whole lives invested in the reigning order. But the new paradigm starts to show that it can not only account for the older paradigm, but it starts to account satisfactorily for many of the anomalies the older paradigm couldn't solve; the older order and its adherents eventually die off, and the younger people with their new paradigm carry on, in their version of "normal science." A revolution has occurred.

Prior to Kuhn, possibly the most influential thinker in the philosophy of science was Karl Raimund Popper, who - and I'm leaving a woeful amount out here - said that a good theory must be "falsifiable" to be taken seriously. When tested, if falsified, great doubt is shed on the theory. If the theory is subjected to a thoroughgoing round of conjectures and is still found to fail, it should be abandoned for something better. (Popper's "Three Worlds" of knowledge idea.)

                                                    Imre Lakatos: One wily, funny,
                                                    rational cat!

Enter Imre Lakatos (say "EE moo ray LAK uh tosh"), who was born Imre Lipschitz, changed it to Imre Molnar to avoid Nazi persecution when they rolled into Hungary, then he later changed it to Lakatos (which means "locksmith" in Hungarian), possibly in honor of a Hungarian General who fought against Nazi rule in Hungary, but also maybe because his old shirts had "I.L." on them, so why not save money when it's scarce after WWII?

During WWII, Imre became a communist. He also attended the private seminars of Georgy Lukacs, the prime mover of the Frankfurt School. But eventually he had a difficult time dogmatically toeing the Communist party line (It's Imre Lakatos! Of course he couldn't help but question the Authorities!), and they threw him in prison for the crime of "revisionism." Imre spent 1950-53 in prison, then went back to academic life, radicalized and allied with at least one group that furthered the march toward the disastrous 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

And here we have that same old story, of political strife in Hungary driving its geniuses out of the country, where they usually flourished in England or especially Unistat. Imre found his home at the London School of Economics (LSE), where he met Karl Popper and a host of high-powered thinkers, became a very popular professor until Imre's untimely death in 1974, his lectures crowded with excited young intellectuals. Imre was never boring and told many jokes. As the philosopher Ernest Gellner said of Imre's talks: "He lectured on a difficult, abstract subject riddled with technicalities: the philosophy of mathematics and science; but he did so in a way that made it intelligible, fascinating, dramatic, and above all, conspicuously amusing even for the non-specialists."

He developed his method of doing the philosophy of science by first developing a method of dialogue surrounding a theorem in mathematics, showing that, if one questioned every attempted conjecture, a counterexample was almost always found. How did conjectures and counterexamples arise in the first place? One might be tempted to say they were arrived by well-educated thinkers using creativity on the problem, or even by something like Charles Saunders Peirce's "abduction" in logic.

Lakatos said a form of "thought experiment" was used, and, being the Hungarian sort of mathematical mind and seeming to fetishize "rationality" above all (more on this below), he admitted that thought experiments that led to tests of a theorem qualified as "quasi-empiricism." This mode of thought was very important and indeed, heuristic: it helped to generate auxiliary hypotheses, kernels of thought that, Hegelian-like (Lakatos was heavily influenced by Hegel) and with refutations and counterexamples...led to to the growth of knowledge. Moving on...

Lakatos wanted to find a middle way between Popper and Kuhn. At the LSE he became heavily influenced by Popper, but Kuhn's book (first edition published in 1962) had to be criticized and accounted for, and justified with Popper's falsifiability idea. Over the years, Lakatos often spoke of Popper1 and Popper2. The former was the Popper that is misread by his readers, or the Popper represented by bad readings of Popper; the latter represents the close, insightful readings of Popper, but many critics have said that Popper2 is really Lakatos himself.

Popper had said something along the lines that, scientists propose hypotheses, and these are tested. If the tests show the hypotheses did not work as thought, then this was Nature saying "No!" Think of something better. Here's Imre's rejoinder to that: "It is not that we propose a theory and Nature may shout 'No!'; rather we propose a maze of theories and nature may shout 'Inconsistent!'" - p.130, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. There's something telling here: in Imre's very complex epistemic formulations, we do not criticize individuals, we criticize the methodology being done within a certain research program. As his pioneering work in mathematics - in which he argued via imaginative reconstructions of actual different mathematicians' attempts to prove a conjecture, arriving at the idea that no theorem in informal math is "true" and "final," only that no counterexample had arrived yet - this was also how scientific knowledge should be worked upon. Highly mathematized, too rationalistic, too Idealistic? Maybe...

Imre thought that, because Kuhn rejected Popper's falsification and justification ideas, he'd fallen back on "mysticism" and, because Kuhn had not demonstrated a logic of scientific discovery other than something resembling a political revolution - or even plate tectonics - that his ideas were tantamount to irrationality and "mob rule." (See Imre in this passage from 1970's Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge) Speaking from my current state of confusion and ignorance, I think Imre wanted people to be as Hungarianly rationalistic as he was; however, they are not. I'm not sure they ever were. Rarely have groups of humans - even scientists! - behaved rationally in the way that Imre idealized. Scientists are humans too, with emotional stakes, cutthroat competitiveness, and adhering to party-line dogmas like Churchmen.

But now we're getting to why I think Imre Lakatos is such a fascinating thinker on the human stage. (He died of a brain hemorrhage suddenly at the age of 51.)

Eventually, Lakatos struck up a friendship with the anarchist-epistemologist and philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend, an Austrian, had fought for the Nazis, as he details in his wonderfully readable autobiography, Killing Time, eventually ending up with a professorship in Berkeley. Imre's mother and grandmother had died in Auschwitz. But Imre's and Paul's intense intellectual interests led to very heated and civil exchanges, and very many letters, all of Imre's to Paul lost, because of Feyerabend's carelessness. He said he tacked some to his walls in Berkeley to keep the rain out, if memory serves. Imre, meanwhile, dutifully filed every letter from Paul, and you can read Paul's letters to Imre in the delightful For and Against Method: Imre Lakatos/Paul Feyerabend, edited magnificently by Matteo Motterlini.

(John Kadvany's photos of Imre, Popper, Feyerabend, and Imre's Hungarian milieux.)

Despite Imre's intensely rationalistic mind, and his deep desire to take Popper's thought further, Feyerabend, a very close reader of Imre, Popper, Kuhn, and many others, repeatedly failed to see a difference between Imre's implied historical "logic" used in scientific discovery, and Feyerabend's own, "anything goes," best seen in the third edition of Feyerabend's, in my view vastly underrated Against Method. Throughout their correspondence, Feyerabend, playing Socrates tinged with Pyrrho, points up again and again that, when followed to its conclusion, Lakatos's "method" is virtually the same as his: anarchistic!

How could two seemingly polar temperaments be friends at all? First, both were deeply in love with intellectual thought, and especially dialogue. It was Imre who cornered Feyerabend at a party in 1970 and said, "Paul, you have such strange ideas. Why don't you write them down? I shall write a reply, we publish the whole thing, and I promise you - we shall have lots of fun." Paul's Against Method was his side; Imre died too soon to write his reply. Nevertheless, we can read the book of letters, and Imre's books and come to our own conjectures.

The second reason these two men were such good friends was humor. Imre's students knew that, no matter how difficult the subject of a lecture, some jokes would be forthcoming to retain levity. Feyerabend, a fascinating, irascible, complex character who I think qualifies as one of the great guerrilla ontologists of the 20th century, wrote in a letter to Imre dated 16 April, 1971:

"Criterion for being a lefty: you lose your sense of humour and become a self-righteous bastard (or bitch, as the case may be). In this, of course, you do homage to an age old American tradition: Puritanism. Now, I am un-American to the extent that I despise Puritanism, whether it comes from the right, left, or centre. 'But what about the truth?,' people ask. The truth, whatever it is, be damned. What we need is laughter. You have got the gift for laughter, even where your own position is concerned, so, as far as I am concerned, you are a good guy (and you are 'good' even theoretically, for your theory is equivalent to mine, as I have said above and in chapter 25 of my magnificent AM."

There is very much more to be said of Imre Lakatos, thinker extraordinaire, but I have gone on too long once again. I will leave by exhorting readers of Robert Anton Wilson, who are interested in his epistemology and his ontology, to maybe check out Lakatos and Feyerabend. Popper and Kuhn are far more well-known, but Imre and Paul should go a long way toward further mindcopulae, and I'm thinking especially of readers of RAW's The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science. Also, as per Imre's inner working from within the logic of scientific discovery: when an idea within a research program is being tested via creative criticism and the dialectical sparks that occur therein, a progressive program will yield startling innovations. Nick Herbert talks about a couple instances of conjecture and refutation that led to innovation or new ideas that he was involved with, in quantum theory, here.


Eric Wagner said...

Great post. I'd like to have the characters on The Big Bang Theory discuss this blog.

One might say Nature doesn't shout, or if it does it doesn't shout "Inconsistency!" Rather, it shouts roses + concrete + clouds + birdsong + human chatter + bumperstickers + eyesight + cognition + breathing with some pollution, etc.

michael said...

I really need to watch a few eps of the Big Bang Theory. Recently someone told me I would've really liked NUMB3RS, which I never saw.

I tend to fall much closer to your lines about what Nature herself (tself?) would shout. That's why I enjoy Lakatos so much: he's an incredibly stimulating intellectual, with very many ideas, and yet on another level he reminds me a satire on intellectuals that RAW might've written.

I just think his intense desire for "rationality" in human workings is a Fools Errand. And the ironies pile up: persecuted by fascists and then communists, he escapes to a haven of relative sanity and free thought, then at one point, in his essay in the book collected as In Memory of Rudolf Carnap, he asserts that adherents of "degenerating research programmes" (those people working under a theory that is covering up it lack of progress, basically) should not be allowed to publish their results! Why?Well, because these papers only contain solid iterations of their positions or attempts to "reabsorb counter-evidence by ad hoc adjustments." Additionally, they should be denied funding! (I inserted the link at the end of my blog to Nick Herbert's blog, which links to a Scientific American paper, in attempt to quietly drive a wedge into Imre's over-neatness. I tend to mostly agree with Feyerabend: Imre's overall search for the inner logics of scientific discovery, over long periods, was itself something of a degenerating research program - which I find hilarious, but Imre didn't see it that way - and furthermore, Imre ended up far far closer, by default, to Feyerabend's "anything goes" in methodology. Nick's gedankenexperiments about FTL in the quantum theory, derived from Bell, were refuted, but the core idea led to fruitful discoveries, and i think quantum cryptography is going to be a Huge Deal. Not bad for a LSD-dropping hippie physicist!

I think at moments Imre became a tad unhinged, but he probably never appeared that way, as I think his intellectual demeanor was probably closer to Chomsky's, but with more jokes, smiling, laughter, and self-deprectation. But Chomsky would NEVER advocate that a fringe group that he saw as whack be denied the right to publish; in fact, Chomsky's rather famous for doing the opposite of that. If ony Chomsky the rationalist had Lakatos's sense of humor...

There is so much in Lakatos's thought that seems to me outrageous and extreme, but he came at it from what seems to me an earnest,intellectually honest angle. I just think he's one of William James's "tender-minded" temperaments of special sort; Feyerabend seems quite the model for James's "tough-minded": these two complement each other well...

After the war, Imre got a job translating the great Hungarian mathematician (and one who was scared of John von Neumann's abilities) George Polya's book How To Solve It, back into Hungarian! You may have read that book at some point.

Imre considered sociology a pseudoscience, which opens up an entire can of worms for me, and leads to those sorts of cosmic giggle-factor ironies that RAW saw in so many places. Perhaps I'll get to this one day...

Eric Wagner said...

Do you have a Netflix account? I highly recommend watching "The Big Bang Theory" from the beginning.

If you read I, Wabenzi, I will read How to Solve It.

David Haas said...

I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could email me?

michael said...

@Eric: no Netflix for me. I do have a DVR, but unless they do a Big Bang Theory marathon from show #1, I probably won't catch up unless they release the entire series on DVD and my local library buys it.

At some point in the year 2012 I'll write on Rafi's novel.

Polya ain't for everyone. X-ray it and see for yourself?

Eric Wagner said...

Hot dog. I hope you enjoy I, Wabenzi. I sure did.

I finished reading Goethe's Faust, Part One yesterday, along with finishing rereading Ulysses. I picked up a David Thomson book on Warren Beatty today from the shelf, and I ordered the new Charles Rosen book. Ah, summer.

Andrew Crawshaw said...

I have recently read a book about Popper and Kuhns influence on science, it was very interesting how popper seemed to be put in the Postivist camp, though he actuallt though the "positivist" theory was self-defeating; I think that was just because he came out of the austrian group though. I still think Popper is misread, the best contemporary defender of Popper is david deutzche, who is also incidentally one of the best contemporary defenders of The Many Worlds Hypothesis.

michael said...

@Andrew Crawshaw: I still see a lingering positivism in Popper - by no means am I a top-notch reader of Popper (yet!) because the falsifiability retains - to my way of thinking - that flavor of logical positivism. But by and large, I think Popper, Godel and Wittgenstein went a long way towards taking the shine off the pants of the Vienna Circle.

I still see value in positivist thinking as a model.

Do you remember the title of the book you read on Popper and Kuhn?

Great thinkers seem more often "misread" than the not-as-great; Popper's thought was so fecund and changed over the years; there's plenty of room to give creative misreadings of him, I think...

I love that David Deutsch has embraced/argued for the Everett/Wheeler/Graham model. Deutsch is one of those Wiggy thinkers I've followed for a long time. He literally wants to concoct the best TOE (Theory of Everything) in the world, and the reason I haven't written about him in this blog yet is that I don't think I've adequately grasped his TOE.

Thanks for bringing him up in connection with Popper!

Andrew Crawshaw said...

I think positivism was robustly discredited by popper, with a simple statement that the varifiabilty principle itself can not be varified (WVO Quine tried to save it by saying something like the principle is part of a logical "meta-language" this is what I was lead to believe by a philophy of science student, I might have misunderstood). the things popper shares with positivists are there philosophical roots, but positivisms reliance on varifiability and inductive reasoning which define the positive enterprise is what popper disagreed with, which makes him only a positive by association and not in "creed" (for want of a better word).

The book i read is here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kuhn-Popper-Struggle-Soul-Science/dp/1840467223

Sorry I took so long to reply I haven't been lurking here for a while.

michael said...

@Andrew Crawshaw: Yea, I think Popper seems more of a non-Positivist by the end of his life. Quine did try to rescue the Positivist program, but in doing so he undermined it, knowingly and ironically, ending in something much more firmly like Pragmatism. His examples about different languages and "mapping reality" one-to-one was thrilling for me: it doesn't work. No matter how "good" we get at it, no matter how hard we work, there is no One category that all the languages conform to, and we ought not try too hard to get there.

WVO Quine ended up as a pragmatist, and a Reagan Republican.

I see the models that attempt to verify, using induction, as viable; they simply aren't the ONLY models.

One of the reasons I love the sociology and philosophy of science is that it's soooo RICH: I'll never exhaust it. And for me, it's never a dull moment. There's just too damned much to understand before even being able to see where Hume, Kant, Popper, Mach, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, Latour, Gardner, Wittgenstein, etc...are arguing from.

I had the book you linked to in a pile of library books once; I recall perusing it, but I think it lost out for concerted attention to some other books and had to return to the book-room in the city.

I'm gratified that you lurk and appreciate your comments, Mr. Crawshaw. Please: no ned to apologize!