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Paul feyearabend and his take on the state of science

  1. Sep 4, 2009 #1
    What do you guys think of Paul Feyerabend approach to science? He basically equates modern science with religion because he believes that scientists only seriously take rationalism and the scientific method into account when seeking to make scientific discoveries; He argues that once scientists disregard all other approaches to attempting to make scientific discoveries, then science itself becomes a dogma just like the basic doctrines and tenets of an organized religion;

    My problem with his philosophy is that even though there might be other approaches to making scientific discoveries, he fails to noticed that the standard approach that scientists to assist them and making scientific discoveries , i.e. rationalism and the scientific method, have been overall the best approaches for the scientists and has been a benefit for science as a whole; If non-rational approaches worked just as well as rational approaches, then many approaches rather than just one approach to scientific Inquiry would be taken into serious consideration;
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 4, 2009 #2
    He's a bit of showboat and crank.... ok, not just a bit, a complete-nutter describes him well.

    But a lot of the criticisms from him and other philosophers of science are valid in that they criticise how science is actually done by scientists, versus the high ideals of rationalism and method which scientists often lay claim to.

    Lots of scientific results come from the application of rigourous scientific principles, but it can be argued that very often major discoveries are accidental, inspired by circumstance or more emotional and eccentric sources. And further that scientists are just as influenced by concerns about money, politics, and reputation, as other fields of endeavor. The publish or perish mentality in academic science, the politics of government grants, and corporate sponsorship, all play a part in how science *actually* gets done. Science doesn't exist in a vacuum like many scientists would like to think.

    Now that doesn't mean we throw out science, but while some criticism of science may appear disparaging, it is also important to science.

    The science as religion claim is hyperbolic, but it does describe a certain measure of reality, where a small number of people (scientists) have, and have control of the 'truth' of science. This isn't due to any conspiracy, or oppression, but the majority of people even in industrialized countries, have at most, a highschool science education, so when science decisions get made, they are often talked down to, like priests often do with religious matters.

    I think scientists have a responsibility in a democracy to educate and explain to the public as best as they can about important issues in science, not just lecture people. There are some good people doing just that, but science ignorance is still a real problem and thats a problem for democracy.
  4. Sep 5, 2009 #3
    I don't think Paul feyerband considered the claim science as a religion an overexaggeration. I think he was being serious;What distinguishes science and religion so different from each other is that scientific theories will be revised or replace if the current theory does not describe a new physical description of the world , whereas religion will ignore evidence or newly discovered evidence that might contradict its central and orbital tenets;That is why I am bewilderment of why Feyerband would draw such an analogy between religion and science;

    I could better visualized the analogy to maybe a field like medicine compared to science since people I am told , in that field have a tendency to ignore alternative treatments to modern medicine like herbalism and acupuncture; This philosopher seems like a relativist to me; He should observed which approaches produced the best outcomes for the fields they are working in and not just which approaches are more dominant in a field;

    I do think that the scientific community has slightly gotten more elitist in the past 50 years and I think it is harder to have your discoveries and developments in your respective field acknowledge if you had not had your published your work in a top scientific journal; I think this recent phenomena is ironic, considering that when have the internet and you are able to put your scientific work in pre-print format and a 100 years ago, Albert einstein published his special relativity paper in a journal where the rejection rate was 5%-10% ;
  5. Sep 5, 2009 #4
    He liked to be provocative. Gloried in it, really. So hard to say.
    The history of religion is full of holy-men consulting with each other about religious truth. The method used to determine truth is different with scientists. But the way the science establishment deals with non-scientists, who make up a majority of people, is actually very similar. Many scientists view themselves as the elite, the experts, and only really pay attention to the criticisms of 'other scientists'.

    Its true, the 'methods' of science are quite different, but to a non-scientist, it might as well be magic.
    If his criticism of science has any validity, it's a thousand times worse in the 'alternative medicine' industry, which is overflowing with fraudsters, placebos, and 'secret' formulas.
    If you're skeptical of doctors, acupuncture and herbal 'cures' are the last thing you should put your trust in, they are even more 'religious'.
    Well, yes. That's a given. But you make it sound like a bad thing.
  6. Sep 5, 2009 #5
    Science can be taken to mean several things - eg a body of knowledge and facts or a method for obtaining knowledge and facts. I suspect feyearabend was referring to the latter when he compared it to religion. Scientists (as far as I'm aware) do not change the scientific method in light of new evidence about the world. It is not that scientists take their physical laws in a religious way, but rather that they have constructed a "religion" with which they learn facts about nature.
    I would agree with him to a large extent. A scientific truth is true within the framework of the scientific method. However, the scientific method has proved incredibly useful in providing us with technology and medicine etc. This is reason enough to accept the scientific "religion" and perhaps elevate its truths above truths found within other frameworks. I still consider it important to remember that it is a framework for gaining knowledge, and not an absolute and infallible one.
  7. Sep 5, 2009 #6
    They do change their method based on other factors however. For instance, experimentation is a key element to the standard 'method'. But you won't see many astronomers bringing a star into a lab. Just like you won't see a medical scientist doing clinical trials in a jungle without sterile equipment.

    Archeology and anthropology work similarly, but chemistry is usually done in a lab. With biology it depends.... and with physics it might involve nothing but a pencil and paper, and maybe a chalk board.

    The way scientists do science also changes based on their monetary resources. Science is done, acceptably, in all sorts of ways. And new evidence does often have an effect on how science is done. Think about the history of medicine, and the impact of the discovery of germs.
  8. Sep 5, 2009 #7
    Yes of course, but that isn't the point I was making. These are due to practical constraints on how empirical data can be gathered. The "religon" (I wouldn't call it that myself) is that the way to find objective truth is by emprical measurement along with some other assumptions such as induction, falsifiability (for the non-positivists) etc. Many people have tried to argue that quantum mechanics has rid us of the distinction between subject and object, observer and observed, but no one has fundamentally changed our scientific method in light of this. I'm not saying that these people are right, or that we should change the scientific method, but this is more the kind of thing I had in mind.
  9. Sep 5, 2009 #8
    Religion is generally premised on divine revelation as the method of finding truth. That hasn't changed much either. And religion has been around longer.
    I think that is largely because quantum mechanics is really in its infancy and very few people have even a vague understanding of it, let alone any experience with it.

    Evolution and Einstein's Relativity have had huge impacts however.
  10. Sep 5, 2009 #9
    Not all religions rely on divine revelation, mainly the Abrahamic ones. Buddhism doesn't for example, and I don't think Hinduism does either. I did say that I think religion is the wrong term here. How have evolution and relativity changed the scientific method? Wouldn't you need some kindof meta-method for changing the scientific method, which one only push the problem one step back?
  11. Sep 5, 2009 #10
    He loved being a ****-stirrer. And you can only understand him fully by taking into account his relationship with Popper, whom he despised. But when he did serious professional philosophy of science he was unbeatable. "Mach's Theory of Research and its Relation to Einstein", "Some Observations on Aristotle's Theory of Mathematics and of the Continuum", "Putnam on Incommensurability" ... even "Galileo and the Tyranny of Truth". All available in "Farewell to Reason". Superior stuff.

    Anyway here's a gorgeous quote. He could get poetic:

    "The world we live in contains an abundance of things, events, processes. There are trees, dogs, sunrises; there are clouds, thunderstorms, divorces; there is justice, beauty, love; there are the lives of people, gods, cities, of the entire universe. It is impossible to enumerate and to describe in detail all the incidents that happen to an individual in the course of a single boring day.

    "Not everybody lives in the same world. The events that surround a forest ranger differ from the events that surround a city dweller lost in a wood. They are different events, not just different appearances of the same events. ..."

    (FtR p.104 -- "Knowledge and the Role of Theories")
  12. Sep 5, 2009 #11
    Well, with regards to Buddhism, that would depend on how you define divine revelation. Enlightenment is not really that different. But I'm pretty sure the hindu gods were pretty active in the lives of mortals. Even the ancient greeks have their Prometheus myth.

    Regardless, modern science is based on rationalism and empiricism. Both have long histories before the European Enlightenment, but that time is generally thought of as a great shift from rationalism to more emphasis on empiricism. Both are about understanding the world. Is this the sort of thing you want?

    I'd say your standard for change is set too high, even within modern science there have been huge shifts in the way science is done. You wouldn't have psychology or sociology, and some would even include economics as a science. Even law has forensic science. And every time another field uses it, it gets changed somewhat to suit that field.

    One step, maybe two would be better. How do you define scientific method?
  13. Sep 5, 2009 #12
    My point is really that rationalism and empiricism are fundamental tenets of science, they aren't questioned. Scientific facts are true within this framework, which turns out to be the best framework we have (at least if the massive progress in technology is anything to go by). Although I wouldn't call this a religion, I think it's important to acknowledge that the scientific method is not the only possible way we might find "truth". In fact I think there are a few more assumptions in the scientific method than rationalism and empiricism, including induction among others.
  14. Sep 5, 2009 #13
    If scientists are not going to go through the process of ,making observations, hypothesizing their observations and testing their hypothesises over and over again through conducting experiments, all pertinent processes of the scientifific method, how would they reach the truth if there approaches to seeking the truth don't contain any of the important steps of the scientific method? It is ironic that the analogy of the scientific method being compared to the main tenets of religion when faced with opposition, considering islamic practictioner developed the scientific method.( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_scientific_method)
  15. Sep 5, 2009 #14
    I didn't say scientists shouldn't use the scientific method, the point is the we have _decided_ that this method gives us "truth". It isn't necessarily obvious that this is the only way to discover "truth", otherwise we would have come up with the idea much earlier. It is possible to discover other kinds of truths without using the scientific method, as is done in pure mathematics.
  16. Sep 6, 2009 #15
    Science has been used for a while by humans. The word is fairly new however. I would say that ancient Egyptians definitely had 'science'.

    And yes the scientific method has and does change. It's a self-correcting paradigm meaning it will change on it's own to correct flaws that are apparent. (what I make of it anyways)
  17. Sep 6, 2009 #16
    Even if it were true that the scientific method adapts to correct its own flaws, I would still argue that truths found by the scientific method are only true within this framework. Just like specifying a set of axioms in pure mathematics allows you to find truths relative to these axioms, so too specifying the axioms of the scientific method (eg empiricism, induction, objectivism etc) allows you to find truths relative to these axioms.
  18. Sep 6, 2009 #17
    While this is certainly true, with regard to pure math, your axioms can be completely arbitrary, so its 'truth' value is purely definitional. Science, which utilizes both empirical observation and a mathematical framework is really two systems used in tandem, which is why science has been so successful, in my view. Math would be navel gazing, if you didn't relate it to observation, and observation would, of course, have no theoretical framework without abstract reasoning, ie logic and math.

    As to other ways to 'truth', irrational emotional-instinctive inspiration also contributes to science on occassion, as do random accidents. But I would'nt rely on the latter too heavily.
  19. Sep 7, 2009 #18
    I think science, well particular the particle physics community is straying away from this mindset seeing that physicists are investing there time and devotion to in string 'theory' since it currently lacks empirical data to support the claim that every objects is made of tiny little vibrating strings; Then again, There was no experimental data to support the theory of black holes and general theory of relativity when those theories were first formulated
  20. Sep 7, 2009 #19
    I have no doubt that when/if our technology adances far enough to get empirical data, that physicists will shift their attention to it. Its the lack of data that causes the massive shift to theorizing... if they didn't do that, they'd have no jobs. :-)
  21. Sep 8, 2009 #20


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    Perhaps a multitude of logical constructs are required to define our universe. I dont think causality is necessarily constrained by our descriptions.
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