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Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation, Professor of Theoretical Physics, Michigan State University

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Feyerabend on the giants

I was struck by the following comments of Paul Feyerabend in For and Against Method. They appeared in a 1969 letter to Feyerabend's Berkeley philosophy chair Wallace Matson, which is reproduced in Appendix B of the book.

The withdrawal of philosophy into a "professional" shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth -- and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.

The entry on Feyerabend in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is fascinating.

Further discussion of this topic by Sean Carroll and Lubos Motl. Lubos links to the excellent essay Against Philosophy by Steve Weinberg (chapter from his book Dreams of a Final Theory).


Sabine Hossenfelder said...

I admit on having gotten stuck somewhere in the middle of the book. He could have been more to the point. Maybe I should at least read the appendix?

Steve Hsu said...

I don't particularly recommend For and Against Method. I requested Feyerabend's autobiography from the library, which I expect should be quite interesting. Lakatos' book Proofs and Refutations is quite good.

Anonymous said...

Feyerabend's book Against Method (1975) is way over the top - the final chapter is particularly anarchistic and is hosted on the internet by a Marxist archive - but the conclusion rings true from my experiences:

"... We accept scientific laws and scientific facts, we teach them in our schools, we make them the basis of important political decisions, but without ever having subjected them to a vote. ...

"But the fairy-tale is false, as we have seen. ... Basically there is hardly any difference between the process that leads to the announcement of a new scientific law and the process preceding passage of a new law in society: one informs either all citizens or those immediately concerned, one collects 'facts' and prejudices, one discusses the matter, and one finally votes. ...

"No scientist will admit that voting plays a role in his subject. Facts, logic, and methodology alone decide - this is what the fairy-tale tells us. ...

"... This is how scientists have deceived themselves and everyone else about their business, but without any real disadvantage: they have more money, more authority, more sex appeal than they deserve, and the most stupid procedures and the most laughable results in their domain are surrounded with an aura of excellence. ...

"... It is the vote of everyone concerned that decides fundamental issues such as the teaching methods used, or the truth of basic beliefs such as the theory of evolution, or the quantum theory, and not the authority of big-shots hiding behind a non-existing methodology. ... Science itself uses the method of ballot, discussion, vote, though without a clear grasp of its mechanism, and in a heavily biased way. But the rationality of our beliefs will certainly be considerably increased."

It is only where there are alternative theories being sidelined that Feyerabend's argument for democracy is really compelling: democracy is not perfect but it is better than elite experts in status quo banning alternatives from getting any hearing at all.

However, Feyerabend fails totally to address the failures of democracy. He seems to think that democracy permits people with new ideas to force the government to give them a fair hearing and have a vote. In fact, modern democracies aren't that much different from dictatorships: you get to vote every four years for an effective choice of two possible leaders who have very similar agendas, so you either have to bribe politicians, become one yourself, or - if rich enough - lobby the media (which isn't interested in listening unless you do a big publicity stunt that their readers will pay to read about or watch).

The bottom line is, democratic voting has nothing to offer science, contrary to Feyerabend. If it did have voting, you can be sure that none of the candidates that made it on to the ballot papers would be right. They'd be the ones with the money, fame, etc.

‘Scientists have thick skins. They do not abandon a theory merely because facts contradict it. They normally either invent some rescue hypothesis to explain what they then call a mere anomaly or, if they cannot explain the anomaly, they ignore it, and direct their attention to other problems. ... The history of science refutes both Popper and Kuhn: on close inspection both Popperian crucial experiments and Kuhnian revolutions turn out to be myths: what normally happens is that progressive research programmes replace degenerating ones.’ – Imre Lakatos, Science and Pseudo-Science, pages 96-102 of Godfrey Vesey (editor), Philosophy in the Open, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1974.

Ian Smith said...

It is less surprising that a theoreticl physicist should take the "philosophy of science" seriously than should a real scientist. F could only go on as he does if he knew nothing about science. Theoretical physicists also know nothing about science.

The "philosphy of science" post Hume and Kant is a joke anyway.

Ponder Stibbons said...

Feyerabend is considered extreme even within the philosophy community. I would also recommend Lakatos; in addition to Proofs and Refutations (which is more relevant to math than science), The Methodology of Scientific Programmes (Vol 1) is excellent, particularly the parts covering the history of quantum mechanics.

illllllllllllli said...

Oh God, what prudes. First, the Marxist Archive hosts everybody, including Darwin, Bohr, Einstein and Adam Smith. In what century are you living that calling someone "Red" is a legitimate argument?

He is also not "extreme" within "the philosophy community" (what does that even mean?), another argument from outlier. It's almost like you're willing to invoke social codes instead of verifiable data in order to make an argument. Hmmm. That said, I don't read Feyeraband as advocating for a Democracy of Science but for a theory of how science is actually produced in semi-democratic forms, a la Latour, as well as a political form of opposing any excessively rationalist system that pre-determines modes of inquiry according to unbending theoretical grounds, alien to their own construction and natural utilization.

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