Scientific Progress

20 February 2010


Recently in Philosophy of Science in the FT I mentioned the well-known theories of Thomas Kuhn on epistemic paradigms, theory change, and scientific revolutions. This is a large topic, and cannot easily be reduced to manageable size. Kuhn’s work has also been enormously influential, so one cannot only talk about what Kuhn wrote; one must also take into account the influence and what Kuhn has been interpreted as saying. This raises the complexity to a higher order of magnitude.

In some quarters Kuhn has been treated as the most destructive philosophical skeptic since Sextus Empiricus. I do not share this opinion, but I understand the source from which it stems. Recent philosophy, and especially recent philosophy of science, has closely tied itself to science proper, so that in defending the dignity and honor of science, they are defending their own conception of the world. And to defend the dignity and honor of science is to defend the fact of — or, at very least, the possibility of — scientific progress. Since the experience of the horrors of the twentieth century, which are widely interpreted as being tied to morally ambiguous scientific progress, the defense to scientific progress is also widely viewed as problematic in an essentially Rousseauian sense.

While there are clear examples of scientific progress emerging from both normal science and revolutionary science, one need not assert that progress is the overall law of scientific change. I am skeptical that there is any such law. The history of the scientific tradition, containing examples as it does of both rigorous rationalism and utter charlatanism, progresses in fits and starts, and not as a matter of a law of the development of knowledge. Because of this there is room within scientific knowledge for partial inductive verification, rational coherence of theories, gradual approximation through falsification of former hypotheses, idealization of empirical realities, improved empirical access to the world through improving technological instrumentation, essentially irrational and arbitrary shifts in epistemic interest for personal, social, and political reasons, and a host of other forms of change all exemplified within the broad tradition of scientific inquiry, which is, in sum, the history of human knowledge.

Say, then, that the Kuhnian makes some background assumptions of either the coherency of knowledge or the correspondence of truth. Well, an equally thorough and painstaking examination of the scientific rationalist’s views would reveal dependence upon a tradition that includes error, dishonesty, fudged data, honest mistakes, forgeries, and a great many problematic examples. The history of knowledge is a human history, and as such it contains a generous share of human frailties.

No one can prove everything. No one creates a science ex nihilo. We begin with the science we find in the world, and go from there. Sometimes the creative scientific work of an era calls for simply destroying the corrupt tradition that passes for knowledge. Sometimes it calls for close cooperation and incremental improvement. In either case, we begin in medias res, and in so beginning we cannot wish away the drastic changes in the history of exact knowledge, including its bouts of irrationality and its periods of decline and decay.

Time, change, and the modal structure of the world make it possible for science to be progressive, but it does not guarantee that science will be progressive. The modal structure of the world that makes progress possible also makes a retrograde movement in knowledge possible. Progress is illustrated by the possibility of learning from mistakes and improving accuracy of knowledge. Decline is illustrated by the possibility of forgetting errors and allowing accuracy to slip. But knowledge is now so extensive and so complex it doesn’t change in just one way. Accuracy moves around, now highlighting one area of knowledge, now another. Some things are always being remembered while others are being forgotten. Everyday someone applies a lesson learned, and everyday someone makes the same old mistake.

Paradigms cannot be studied by the empirical, scientific means that they are intended to explain; they are no more material than the principles of logic and mathematics, or the moral tenants of the world’s belief systems. All of these things have a history; they are embodied in practices that are in turn part of the lives of individual persons. In this sense, they can be studied empirically. But empirical studies of abstractions often miss the point. This is one way that the scientific approach to things often goes wrong. That is not to say that there are not those who attempt to live by the scientific approach. Though they are relatively rare, they certainly do exist, no less than those who attempt to live by belief systems emergent in the Bronze Age. Both are equally impractical; both are not so impractical that it is impossible. It just gets so many things wrong.

Knowledge acquisition is the province of science, and here science has repeatedly proved itself without any peer. But understanding is a different matter that requires reflection, not the acquisition of further knowledge. One could call the lessons learned from reflection “knowledge” but that wouldn’t get us any closer to understanding understanding.

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