Saturday, October 8, 2011

Weeks 8–9: Is There a Scientific Method?

Let’s review. We’ve examined some reason for concern over the idea that there is such a thing as “The Scientific Method”. The worries take various forms. For one, it appears difficult either to independently justify or to describe how scientists behave in different circumstances — even when we get close to such descriptions, they seem to fall apart under the pressure of certain philosophical thought-experiments or counterexamples. For two, it’s not clear that any of the attempts to attribute a special “scientific status” to certain theories have been successful or rule out even creationism or astrology.

One natural response to the second set of worries is to admit that a demarcation between science and non-science is bound to be vague, but that there are still clear cases of each. Compare: ‘bald’ is a vague concept, but there are certainly clear cases of bald people and “thatched” people. It might be difficult to come up with a demarcation criterion that provides even a vague separation between science and non-science, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Perhaps there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for a theory’s being a science; but this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to say about the matter. To repurpose an example of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s, it might be difficult to offer necessary and sufficient conditions for something’s being a game — it’s a “family resemblance concept” — but that hardly means that there are no games or that games aren’t in some way special

This response goes hand-in-hand with a natural response to the first set of worries: “Okay, so we learn that describing and justifying scientific methods (induction, testing, &c.) is difficult, but that shouldn’t surprise us much. And even if scientists fall short of behaving in the simple ways described by our models of these methods, they still have value as regulative ideals. Science is a rational enterprise even if individual scientists might not be entirely rational.” 

Here’s were we pick up the story with Paul Feyerabend, whose thought we will study for at least three meetings. Feyerabend is an iconoclast in the philosophy of science. He has sometimes been called an epistemological anarchist, since he claims that the only rule of scientific methodology that deserves any assent is “Anything goes!” Feyerabend thus offers a rejoinder to the idea of scientific method as a regulative ideal. Scientists employ propaganda to convince others; they cajole, connive, misrepresent, believe when they shouldn’t. . . . And (here’s the radical thought): this is more or less as it should be! So buckle up for some radical views of science.

Thursday (10/13): Feyerabend’s Epistemic Anarchy
• Feyerabend, Against Method: Introduction, Chs. 1–4

Tuesday (10/18): Observation (Case Study: The Telescope)
Against Method: Chs. 5–10 (skim pp. 79–82)
• French, Ch. 5

Thursday (10/20): The Social Status of Science
Against Method:  Chs. 11, 13, 15, 19 (Optional recommended: Ch. 17)
    — 1st Box Project Presentation

Questions: Since we’re reading an anarchist, I thought it’d be an appropriate change of place to go a little anarchic with your Short Writing Assignments (#7 and 8) for a spell. For the next three meetings (those listed above), there are no particular questions to answer. Write on whatever interests you about the reading. These may be questions, descriptions, responses, or other sorts of reflections. We’ll revert back to normalcy in Week 10. 

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