How does science progress: Feyerabend

0.1 Introduction

Given the problems with the inductivist, falsificationist, Bayesianism, Kuhn’s theory, and Lakatos’s theory, we might be skeptical that there is any distinctive method to science that distinguishes it from other methods. This is the approach taken by Paul Feyerabend in Against Method.

0.2 The case against method

Feyerabend’s theory can be understood in two parts. First, there is the negative part, which involves the case against method. On this point, Feyerabend claims that

  1. there is no single, identifiable method that is consistent with scientific progress
  2. no distinctive method to science that makes it better than other methods
  3. no distinctive principles belonging to science that makes it better than other methods
  4. if there is any principle or method, it is that “anything goes”

We won’t examine the details of his argument for this particular claim. The argument, however, is essentially that when looking at how scientists actually establish their claims,

  1. neither the inductivist, the falsificationist, nor Kuhn, nor Lakatos get things right (there are serious philosophical objections to each account)
  2. the examination of paradigmatic scientific arguments (e.g. Galileo’s attempts to persuade individuals of the heliocentric hypothesis) reveal a variety of non-rational argumentative tactics (propaganda, rhetoric, humor, peer-pressure, etc.) and the decision to switch (or accept) theories is often due to non-empirical factors, e.g. personal preference, social factors, simplicity.

From this, Feyerabend concludes that “the high status attributed to science in our society, and the superiority it is presumed to have not only over Marxism, say, but over such things as black magic and voodoo, are not justified” (see Chalmers, What is this thing Called Science, p.144).

In other words, there isn’t some distinct method to science that elevates it above all other methods (e.g. black magic).

0.3 The case for freedom

The second part of Feyerabend’s view concerns the positive part. For Feyerabend, of fundamental importance is human liberty (that is, that human beings are free).

Definition 1 (negative freedom (liberty)) Negative freedom (liberty) to do X refers to the absence of active (external) resistance to do X. These include, the absence of law or physical restraint to do X.

Example 1 (freedom of speech) When we say a person has freedom of speech or expression, we mean that they will not be punished, censured, killed or actively prevented from saying what they want.

Example 2 (freedom of religion) When we say a person has freedom of education, we mean that a person can practice whatever religion they want without fear of persecution from the State.

Promoting a certain kind of human freedom is a good thing: it is a kind of humanitarianism (it makes human beings in particular and humanity as a whole better). That is, insofar as we can promote the kind of freedom that helps human beings live a more rewarding life, then we have done something to improve human life.

The anarchistic view of science then can be seen to promote human freedom in two ways:

  1. the anarchistic view of science increases the freedom of scientists (they are no longer bound to follow the strictures of any particular method)
  2. the anarchistic view of science increases the freedom of people more generally (people are not bound only to follow what science says is the case)

Definition 2 (anarchistic theory of science) Feyerabend’s anarchistic theory of science is the theory of science that contends (i) there is no distinctive method to science (the negative, against method part) and (ii) that individuals and scientists should be free to follow whatever method they wish (the positive, libertarian part).

0.4 Criticisms of Feyerabend

Objection 1 (Irrationality.) If anything goes, then even irrational methods goes. And, if irrational methods go, then I can simply decide what by guessing (chance). This is an absurd result since science must be guided by some kind of method, even if it isn’t a single method. Therefore, the anarchistic theory of science is mistaken.

Objection 2 (Persuasiveness of theories and methods.) If anything goes, then why are certain scientific theories and methods more persuasive than others? If every method is as good as any other, then why are certain methods so strongly preferred? The person that is a proponent of there being some universal scientific method can explain this by arguing that scientists will (in general) gravitate toward methods that are better at tracking truth. Anything does not go because methods that don’t track truth will only have limited, temporary, or superficial attractiveness.