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A new philosophy of science? Surely that’s been outlawed

The main thing that drew me to the history and philosophy of science was the simple desire to understand the nature of science. I was introduced to the exciting ideas of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend, but it soon became clear that there were serious problems with each of these views and that those heydays were long gone.

Professionals in the field would no longer presume to generalize as boldly as the famous quartet had done. For the past 40 years or so the field has seen increasing levels of specialization. These days, philosophers of science tend to work on specific topics such as reduction, emergence, causation, the realism-anti-realism debate, or the latest band-wagon—mechanism. Meanwhile many other historians and philosophers have gone off at the deep end by concentrating almost exclusively on the context of discovery rather than on the actual science at stake. As we all know this development led to the nefarious Science Wars, which are only now finally starting to recede into the background.

As for my own work I have specialized in the history and philosophy of chemistry and in particular on the periodic table, including the question of the extent to which this system of classification reduces to quantum mechanics. More recently I have worked on the discovery of the elements and on scientific discovery in general. I have pondered over the question of scientific priority and multiple discovery. I seem to have now arrived, or maybe have stumbled into, a general approach to the philosophy of science of the form that one is no longer supposed to indulge in. Let me share a little of this view with you in case you have not now decided to switch off.

scientists
From left to right: 1) Charles Bury, chemist. Used with permission. 2) Dutch amateur scientist Antonius van den Broek (1870-1926). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My work has focused on several minor figures in the history of modern chemistry and physics. They include such virtually unknown scientists as John Nicholson, Anton van den Broek, Edmund Stoner, Charles Bury, John Main Smith, Richard Abegg, and Charles Janet, none of whom are exactly household scientific names. What I see convinces me that these ‘little people’ represent the missing links in the evolution of scientific knowledge. I take the evolutionary approach quite literally as I will try to explain. Rather than concentrating on the heroic figures like Bohr, Pauli, and G.N. Lewis, in the period that interests me, I see an organic whole, the body scientific that is continually putting out random mutations in the form of hunches, guesses, speculations. No doubt the recognized giants of the field are those that seize upon these half-baked ideas most effectively. But in trying to understand the nature of science, we need to stand back and view the whole process from a distance.

What I see when I do that is something like a living, fully unified, and evolving organism that I have called SciGaia by analogy to James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, whereby the earth is one big living organism. But I reject any notion of teleology in my version. Science is not heading towards some objective “Truth” and here I agree with Thomas Kuhn who always insisted on this point.

But I disagree with the venerable Kuhn over the question of scientific revolutions. To focus on revolutions is to miss the essential inter-relationship and underlying unity between the work of all scientists whether it be the little or the big people. Talk of revolutions unwittingly perpetuates the notion that science advances through a series of leaps conducted by the heroes of science.

I also part company with most analytical philosophers of science by not placing any special premium on the analysis of the logical and linguistic aspects of science. I regard logic and language as being literally “superficial,” by which I mean that they enter into the picture after discoveries are made, for the purposes of communication and presentation. Discovery itself lies deeper than logic and language and has more to do with human urges and instincts, or so I believe.

Of course I do not claim to have invented the notion of evolutionary epistemology. I just seem to have arrived in somewhere in that camp by examining the grubby details in the development of early twentieth century atomic chemistry and physics such as the introduction of the quantization of angular momentum, the discovery of atomic number, the emergence of the octet rule, the use of a third quantum number to specify the electronic configurations of atoms, and so on.

What I find rather curious is that Kuhn more or less disavowed his early insistence on scientific revolutions in later life and turned to talk of changing lexicons. Indeed, in his final interview, he went as far as to say that the Darwinian analogy, that he had briefly mentioned in his famous book, had been his most important contribution and that he wished it had been taken more seriously.

Featured image by vladimir salman via Shutterstock. Used with permission. 

Recent Comments

  1. Viktor Blåsjö

    “in his final interview, [Kuhn] went as far as to say that the Darwinian analogy, that he had briefly mentioned in his famous book, had been his most important contribution.”

    No, he didn’t. It seems the author has Road Since Structure, p. 307, in mind, but it says nothing of the sort.

  2. J. F. Ogilvie

    Any philosophy of science must be based on the science itself, but, as science evolves, what might be a practical philosophy at one time becomes obsolescent and superseded as further information is discovered or recognised. Some philosophers of science are certainly failed scientists, those who lack the intelligence or ingenuity to understand the details of science or to create directions of thought or analysis, and who, for that reason, retreat into a vocal philosophy replete with abstract terms and vague generalisations and devoid of substantive facts other than selected historical recollections. Becoming an historian of science is easier than acting as a productive and credible philosopher, because one has simply to delve into libraries for old books and scientific papers and to generate a commentary thereon. Sans doute, the recalling of largely forgotten ideas to seal the interstices between major discoveries is a useful exercise, as an alternative to new analysis and discovery, for whatever purposes of professional sustainability and advancement might be applicable. The degree awarded to researchers in countries of the British tradition is generally Ph. D. (for instance in Cambridge University), but sometimes other, such as D. Phil. (Oxford University), despite the fact that intrinsic philosophy plays little or no role in the conduct or communication of the research.

  3. Bhupinder Singh Anand

    “Science is not heading towards some objective ‘Truth’ and here I agree with Thomas Kuhn who always insisted on this point. … I also part company with most analytical philosophers of science by not placing any special premium on the analysis of the logical and linguistic aspects of science. I regard logic and language as being literally ‘superficial’, by which I mean that they enter into the picture after discoveries are made, for the purposes of communication and presentation. Discovery itself lies deeper than logic and language and has more to do with human urges and instincts, or so I believe.”

    Yes, a new philosophy of science is, indeed, needed.

    And no, it should give little reason to be outlawed if one were to balance the perspective of this brief overview by:

    (a) first, treating as peers—rather than as heirarchical—the three disciplines:

    * Applied science, whose concern is our sensory observations of a `common’ external world;

    * Philosophy, whose concern is abstracting a coherent perspective of the external world from our sensory observations; and

    * Mathematics, whose concern is adequately expressing such abstractions in a formal language of unambiguous communication.

    (b) and, second, recognising that our development of a mechanical intelligence exposes the inadequacy—if not the fallacy—of any Platonic (can it really be termed as objective?) ‘Truth’ that implicitly reflects the classical perspective inherited from traditional logicians such as Kurt Goedel (a self-confessed Platonist) and Alfred Tarski.

    Both were apparently predisposed to hold (which, perhaps, is what could have discomforted Kuhn) that an objective mathematical truth cannot be evidence-based, but is an ubiquitous attribute of the panpsychistic content which precedes both the mathematical language that seeks to describe the content and its logic.

    Accommodating (a) may not pose much of a perceptual challenge.

    However, it is (b) which awaits a paradigm shift that—mandated by our development of a mechanical intelligence (probe) that is seeking the existence of an alter ego beyond our solar system which would signify the presence of an advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence in our universe—would admit recognising that:

    (i) language precedes logic, which precedes both truth and provability;

    (ii) a well-defined logic of a language is merely a set of deterministic rules that can constructively assign unique, and verifiable, values of objective, evidence-based, truth and provability to the propositions of a language (such as the first order Peano Arithmetic PA) so as to ensure that the language can adequately represent and unambiguously communicate the content for which it is designed (the properties of the natural numbers in the case of PA);

    (iii) although we can conceptualise what there is within individual paradigms, of that which is common to individual paradigms we can unambiguously communicate only that which we can express in a language with a well-defined logic.

    The philosophical significance of such a perspective is highlighted in the following paper which is due to appear in the December 2016 issue of ‘Cognitive Systems Research’:

    The Truth Assignments That Differentiate Human Reasoning From Mechanistic Reasoning: The Evidence-Based Argument for Lucas’ Goedelian Thesis

    That such a definitional approach to ‘logic’ and ‘evidence-based truth’ could also offer fresh insight into, and possible resolution of, some of the philosophically troubling abstractions of the physical sciences is the subject of the following paper, presented in July 2015 at the ‘Workshop on Emergent Logics’ presented at Unilog 2015, 5th World Congress and School on Universal Logic, at the University of Istanbul, Turkey:

    Algorithmically Verifiable Logic vis a vis Algorithmically Computable Logic: Could resolving EPR need two complementary Logics?

    Kind regards,

    Bhup

  4. John Wilkins

    Eric, Kuhn’s “evolutionary” metaphor is at best Lamarckian and progressive. It is highly problematic IMO.

  5. Gray

    “I also part company with most analytical philosophers of science by not placing any special premium on the analysis of the logical and linguistic aspects of science. I regard logic and language as being literally “superficial,” by which I mean that they enter into the picture after discoveries are made, for the purposes of communication and presentation.”

    I think I see your point here, and don’t necessarily disagree that the ultimate source of these ideas is prior to logic and language, but this sentences makes it seem like you’re discounting the role both of them play in the individual discovery process of the thinkers who make up this scientific ecology.

    Maybe you mean the linguistic and logical analysis of that ecology itself (i.e. philosophy of science) is superficial, but I also think ‘superficial’ is a word that discounts the role this plays…after all, aren’t these part of the selective pressures that help shape and hone the ecology?

  6. Vincenzo Politi

    “But I disagree with the venerable Kuhn over the question of scientific revolutions. To focus on revolutions is to miss the essential inter-relationship and underlying unity between the work of all scientists whether it be the little or the big people. Talk of revolutions unwittingly perpetuates the notion that science advances through a series of leaps conducted by the heroes of science.”

    Saying that Kuhn focussed on revolutions is misleading, if not incorrect. Interestingly enough, of the 13 chapters of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, only the last 5 chapters are about revolutions. The first 8 chapters are about what is going on during periods of normal science. He regarded normal science and revolutions as being in a `dialectical relation’: surely there cannot be a revolution without a dominant paradigm to reject, but a dominant paradigm is what makes normal science possible, and normal science is the condition of possibility for a revolution to occur.

    Because revolutions come from normal science — by definition, a revolution is the ‘response’ to things happening within the normal tradition — Kuhn places a lot of emphasis on the structure of the “scientific community”. The role of the scientific community in Kuhn’s philosophy cannot be underestimated. It was Popper, not Kuhn, who put a lot of emphasis on the “genius”, the heroes of science; Popper actually despised Kuhn’s ideas about normal science and, above all, about “normal scientists”. But Kuhn had a great interest, as well as a great respect, for the problem-solving and puzzle-solving duties carried on by normal scientists. He extensively speaks of “group commitments”, and in the Postscript he even says that if he could rewrite the whole Structure anew he would surely begin from a finer specification of the notion of scientific community. In his late writings, he even rejects his early metaphor of a revolution as a “Gestalt switch”: such a metaphor is too “psychological” and individualist, whereas revolutions are always a community’s affair, and a community has not a “mind”.

    Finally, a revolution is rarely made and completed by a single, exceptional individual. Quite the opposite: Kuhn claims that the individuals who *begin* a revolution very often are not capable of taking their ideas to their more extreme and interesting conclusions. The Copernican Revolution took 200 years and the concerted effort of many (big and small) scientists. Only Einstein and others saw the implications of Plank’s h, 20 or so years after Plank. These examples are taken from Kuhn’s books The Copernican Revolution (1957) and The Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity 1894-1912 (1987).

  7. Bhupinder Singh Anand

    Dear Vincenzo,

    Thanks for an interesting clarification.

    Apropos the differing perceptions as to the role of ‘genius’ in a scientific revolution, I am reminded of the remark:

    “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”

    It is conceivable that whilst Popper might not have taken issue with interpreting ‘standing on the shoulders of Giants’ as ‘standing on the shoulders of geniuses’, rather than as ‘building on previous discoveries’, Kuhn may have had serious reservations about the former.

    Reason: Prior to Isaac Newton’s tribute to Rene Descartes and Robert Hooke in a letter to the latter, it was reportedly the 12th century theologian and author John of Salisbury who was recorded as having used an even earlier version of this humbling admission—in a treatise on logic called ‘Metalogicon’, written in Latin in 1159, the gist of which is translatable as:

    “Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.

    I suspect that Kuhn’s perspective would have reflected that of Bernard of Chartres, who apparently intended to suggest that it doesn’t necessarily take a genius (defined as a visionary who sees qualitatively and/or quantitively farther than his peers) to see farther than a Giant; only someone both humble and willing to:

    (i) first, clamber onto the shoulders of the Giant and have the self-belief to see things at first-hand as they appear from a higher perspective (achieved more by the nature of height—and the curvature of our immediate space as implicit in such an analogy—than the nature of genius); and,

    (ii) second, avoid trying to see things first through the eyes of the Giant upon whose shoulders one stands (for the vision of the Giant might indeed be that of a vision-blinding genius)!

    Newton’s tribute: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/268025.html

    Giants: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_giants

  8. ERIC SCERRI

    Viktor,

    Please check your sources before criticizing such a trivial part of my blog in such a dismissive fashion. I was referring to an interview not a book.

  9. ERIC SCERRI

    To John Wilkins,
    Please say more. In any case I am not trying to defend Kuhn’s evolutionary description of science but just pointing out that he had the right idea in general.

  10. ERIC SCERRI

    Dear Vincenzo,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    You may be right in saying that in terms of number of chapters or pages Kuhn spends more time on normal science than on revolutions. But since when is philosophy done by counting pages?

    My study of minor figures in science and what I see as their important roles has led me to criticize Kuhn’s views on revolutions. I do not see it as my task to try to rank what is or is not the most important part of Kuhn’s message. I leave that entirely to Kuhn scholars such as yourself.

    In a recent talk to the Philosophy of Science Association, Paul Teller suggested that the real target should be incommensurability rather than Kuhnian revolutions. Again I am not primarily in the business of criticizing or assessing what is most objectionable in Kuhn’s work. My interest is in revolution as opposed to evolution. And I do see them as being opposed contra what people like Brad Wray claim. I have a section in the book in which I specifically take up Wray’s views on Kuhn.

    On a more positive response to your comments, I should perhaps be more friendly to Kuhn regarding normal science, if by normal one means the role of minor figures. But again I am not all that interested in criticizing Kuhn but more in advancing my own agenda on the nature of science.

    Also your final paragraph about he/she who starts a revolution is well taken. Incidentally, Planck is spelled with a “c” and it was 5 rather than 20 years after Planck that Einstein (1905) legitimated his notion of energy quantization in the course of his work on the photoelectric effect and the articulate nature of light.

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