Paul Feyerabend

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Paul Feyerabend (13 January 1924 – 11 February 1994) was an Austrian-born American philosopher of science famous for rejecting the existence of a fixed and universal scientific method and proposing allegedly anarchistic/dadaistic view of science. Feyerabend has been described as "the wild man of twentieth century philosophy of science".1p. 102 In the 1960s and 70s, the notion of a changing or dynamic scientific method (which is scarcely refuted today) first surfaced - this was regarded as "one of the key tenets of both Kuhn’s Structure and Feyerabend’s Against Method".2p. 217 Both philosophers of science subscribed to the point of view that there is no such thing as an unchangeable method of science (known in contemporary terms as the Static Method Thesis). Feyerabend’s anarchistic views of science are exemplified throughout his extensive works. His propositions developed into his conclusion that all science was irrational.

Historical Context

Though Feyerabend adopted an anarchic view, there have been many other attempts to explicate the Scientific Method (a method of appraisal in light of evidence to determine which theory is better). Below are three prominent Philosophers who attempted to achieve such an explanation, and a brief description of their subjective criterion.

Rudolf Carnap, the Father of Logical Positivism, believed that scientific theories cannot be proven, but that they can have different probabilities. There are three main requirements to the notion of probabilism:

  1. Probabilism prefers a theory which is more probable given the evidence.
  2. There are hard facts established on the basis of observations and experience.
  3. A new hypothesis should not question the evidence, but should conform to it.

Karl Popper, renowned for his “critical rationalism", argues that the objective probability of scientific theories is always zero, but they can have different empirical content. Popper therefore prefers a theory with excess empirical content. Furthermore, Popper asserts that all empirical knowledge is fallible, so the task of scientists is to compare competing theories. Popper’s assertions are reflected in his methodological rules.

Imre Lakatos built his views in regard to scientific progress based on the belief that the growth of knowledge is best determined within the framework of his "research programmes". He believed that Popper was on the right track about ‘empirical content', but he doesn’t see that scientists actually appraise entire ‘research programmes’ rather than individual theories.

Major Contributions

Feyerabend on Dynamic Methods

In response of Rudolf Carnap

Feyerabend attests that logical analysis shows that there are no “pure statements of fact,” because all propositions are theory laden. Therefore, sometimes “evidence” can be wrong. He supports this claim with examples from the history of science, showing that new theories often come into being through the reinterpretation or even rejection of well-known facts. For instance, consider Aristotelian Medieval Physics, which was accepted until the end of the 17th century. According to Aristotelian Medieval Physics, it was accepted as a “pure statement of fact” that the earth has no diurnal motion. Instead, the experience of an object falling straight downward (towards the centre of the centre of the universe) suggested that the earth does not move. If the earth were indeed rotating, an object dropped from a high tower would still move towards the centre of the universe, however it would hit the ground far from the base of the tower. Since the object fell right next to the tower, the conclusion, according to Aristotelian Medieval Physics, was that the earth does not rotate.

Feyerabend states that in reality, the hypothesis of the Earth’s diurnal rotation was contradicting the facts because they were perceived through an “Aristotelian lens.” Once the inertial physics of Descartes and Newton was accepted, Aristotelian philosophy was rejected. The problem, Feyerabend found, was that probabilism assumes that there is an accumulation of observational propositions, but in reality science is not cumulative even in regard to “statements of fact.” Facts are often reinterpreted by new theories. Therefore, Feyerabend concludes that probabilism fails to capture what scientists “actually do.”

In addition, Feyerabend states that Carnap fails to explicate the scientific method.

In response to Karl Popper

Feyerabend demonstrates, by using examples from the history of science, that there have been many instances where a new theory has been accepted without any confirmed novel predictions. First proposed in 1687, Newton’s four Laws (1st, 2nd, 3rd, Gravity) provided accurate predictions for a wide range of terrestrial and celestial phenomena. Notably, the theory made a ‘novel prediction’ that the Earth was oblate (meaning that the equatorial diameter was slightly greater than the polar diameter). The oblate-spheroid hypothesis, however, was not confirmed until 1740, before which time Newton’s theory was not accepted on the European continent. Nevertheless, back in Britain, Newton’s laws had been accepted and taught at British universities.

Feyerabend states that the acceptance of Newtonian physics before the confirmation of its novel predictions was a violation of Popper’s requirement for confirmed excess empirical content in theory acceptance. Feyerabend also shows through logical analysis that said requirement is only practical when two theories ‘speak the same language’ (see Kuhn’s notion of incommensurability for further information).

In response to Imre Lakatos

Lakatos prefers modifications which are in tune with the programmes’ spirit and that introduce corroborated excess empirical content. He also states that when comparing two ‘research programmes’, progressive ones are preferable to degenerating ones. Feyerabend, again, uses examples from the history of science to explicate flaws in Lakatos’ notion of a ‘research programme’, and argues that "ad hoc" modifications have often been considered progressive.

For instance, in 1543, Copernicus’ astronomical theory would become part of the ‘Heliocentric Research Programme.’ The theory claimed that all planets in our solar system revolve around the central sun (called a "hard core" part of the theory) and that the orbits of the planets are circular (an auxiliary hypothesis to the theory). In 1609, Kepler proposed a modification to the auxiliary hypothesis (he did not touch the hard core) of the Heliocentric Research Programme, suggesting that planets orbited in ellipses rather than perfect circles. Feyerabend questioned whether this modification was progressive or regressive because it decreased the empirical content, and in effect claims it was an ad hoc modification. Feyerabend shows the Copernican version as having been more restrictive because it predicted a specific type of ellipse (the circle), which ultimately gave the Copernican circle a higher level of empirical content than the Keplerian ellipse. Yet philosophers of science like Lakatos would consider Kepler’s proposition to be a progressive modification.

Feyerabend says Lakatos’ requirement of preferable research programmes has been violated in many instances because it is so unrestrictive that one can reasonably hold onto any research programme without any time limit.

Feyerabend's Proposition

Traditionally, scientific change was conceived as a process of theory change. Carnap, Popper and Lakatos all claim that there exists a “scientific method” which concerns only theories and evidence, and is immune to change.

Claims that the scientific method is universal and unchangeable helped Feyerabend develop his main thesis. By referring to the history of science and using logical analyses, Feyerabend shows that even the most popular methodological rules have flaws and have been violated at one time or another. He showed that the ‘fixed method’ pursued by the likes of Carnap, Popper and Lakatos does not exist. Feyerabened consequently proposes “The Dynamic method thesis” (a view that is virtually unchallenged nowadays) which claims that there are no methodological rules consistently used by scientists across multiple time periods. He establishes this radical position (concerning his anarchistic view of science) on page 154 of his Against Method, where he states: “I believe that a reform of the sciences that makes them more anarchic and more subjective is urgently needed.” The “method” is merely a template for making sense of the world.

Feyerabend on Scientific Progress

The problem Feyerabend now faced was such: without an “unchangeable method of science” we are no longer in a position to tell which theory is the best one. We are left with differing, changeable methods (with their own respective rules of appraisal and different theories and evidence). This realization is why Feyeraband agreed with Thomas Kuhn and his notion of Scientific Revolutions, for Kuhn had already established that each paradigm comes with its own methods and produces its own evidence.

Feyerabend’s research concerning progress without a method compelled him to propose the principle of proliferation to ‘guide’ science and answer the question of what happens to the notion of progress in science without universal and unchangeable criteria. Feyerabend’s notion of “progress through proliferation” states that new theories and methods should not replace old ones, but rather ‘proliferate’ by providing new perspectives and ways of perceiving things. He argues that new theories make it possible to see different facts and to notice things we would not otherwise notice, while different methods allow us to choose different theories and therefore enrich our overall worldview.

Criticism

Feyerabend’s views and propositions subsequently led other philosophers to consider theories of scientific change that take the Dynamic Method Thesis into account. Below are examples that give insight into what the field of HPS was like after Feyerabend. Larry Laudan is one example of how philosophers of science were trying to come up with different theories of scientific change that do not utilize a ‘fixed/static method.’ Taking the Dynamic Method into account, Laudan initially creates the ‘hierarchical model,’ which preserves rationality in science by having fixed values rather than methods. Ultimately, he presents a ‘reticulated model’ where there are new/modified rules about how theories, methods and values affect one another, while still preserving rationality in science.

David Bloor, having introduced SSK (the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge), believes that theories, methods and evidence are all social constructs from which scientific change cannot be separated. He expands on this claim by stating that the process of scientific change is shaped by a vast array of social factors such as: psychology, politics, economics, and religion. The notion is that even our most fundamental theories reflect the social contexts in which they originate and function. Furthermore, he asserts that “statements of fact” are a product of social factors like negotiations, compromises, exhaustion, lack of money, personal interest, or national pride. In addition, he argues that our choice of method depends on our cultural values. Bloor concludes that the process of scientific change falls under the field of sociology and should therefore be studied as a social phenomenon.

Publications

Here are the works of Feyerabend included in the bibliographic records of this encyclopedia:

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Related Topics

Method
Role of Sociocultural Factors in Scientific Change

References

  1. ^  Godfrey-Smith, Peter. (2003) Theory and Reality. University of Chicago Press.
  2. ^  Barseghyan, Hakob. (2015) The Laws of Scientific Change. Springer.

Contributors

Hakob Barseghyan (54.1%), Nicholas Overgaard (8.3%), Zachery Brown (37.6%)