Philosophy of science nerd-fest

UPDATE: In the comments, Paul notes that my truncated quote somewhat misstates both him and Feyerabend. I should have been more careful as I know Feyerabend probably would not have insisted on methodological anarchy. My bad. Read Paul’s full post for more context.

I first turn to Paul Newall’s keen observation that Feyerband’s historical approach to understanding the progress of science itself violates his insistence on methodological anarchy:

The result was to place the epistemic systematists in the absurd position of advocating a methodology for science that would have killed the very progress allegedly brought about because early scientists followed the methodology.

Although this reductio succeeds, I want to suggest that Feyerabend’s historiography, and perhaps the historical approach in general, is somewhat paradoxical.  The aim of his historiography is to free us from methodological or epistemological strictures but we find ourselves using the lessons of history to show that there are no lessons to be learned from history.  This is too simplistic, though: what Feyerabend argued was not that there is and can be no methodology worth adopting but rather that all methods have their limits.  Nevertheless, the paradoxical aspect comes from considering the use Feyerabend makes of history.  Faced with a methodological rule, we can look to the history of science – and to apparently paradigmatic cases of good practice in particular – and show that an application of the rule would have been disastrous.  However, it seems that this relies implicitly on a fixed interpretation of the events under consideration; after all, if it were possible for a rationalist or anyone else to recast the episode in a more favourable light for the rule at issue, we might be able to show that in fact its application would have worked then as now.

I now turn to a rather ancient Massimo Pigliucci post on why Occam’s Razor isn’t as useful as it’s sometimes made out to be:

The obvious question to ask about Ockham’s razor is: why? On what basis are we justified to think that, as a matter of general practice, the simplest hypothesis is the most likely one to be true? Setting aside the surprisingly difficult task of operationally defining “simpler” in the context of scientific hypotheses (it can be done, but only in certain domains, and it ain’t straightforward), there doesn’t seem to be any particular logical or metaphysical reason to believe that the universe is a simple as it could be.

Indeed, we know it’s not. The history of science is replete with examples of simpler (“more elegant,” if you are aesthetically inclined) hypotheses that had to yield to more clumsy and complicated ones. The Keplerian idea of elliptical planetary orbits is demonstrably more complicated than the Copernican one of circular orbits (because it takes more parameters to define an ellipse than a circle), and yet, planets do in fact run around the gravitational center of the solar system in ellipses, not circles.
Lee Smolin (in his delightful The Trouble with Physics) gives us a good history of 20th century physics, replete with a veritable cemetery of hypotheses that people thought “must” have been right because they were so simple and beautiful, and yet turned out to be wrong because the data stubbornly contradicted them.

The responses on The Dish makes me think they didn’t click through and read the full post.

Finally, a very long Karl Popper entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that I’m slowly working my way through:
One of the many remarkable features of Popper’s thought is the scope of his intellectual influence. In the modern technological and highly-specialised world scientists are rarely aware of the work of philosophers; it is virtually unprecedented to find them queuing up, as they have done in Popper’s case, to testify to the enormously practical beneficial impact which that philosophical work has had upon their own.  But notwithstanding the fact that he wrote on even the most technical matters with consummate clarity, the scope of Popper’s work is such that it is commonplace by now to find that commentators tend to deal with the epistemological, scientific and social elements of his thought as if they were quite disparate and unconnected, and thus the fundamental unity of his philosophical vision and method has to a large degree been dissipated. Here we will try to trace the threads which interconnect the various elements of his philosophy, and which give it its fundamental unity.


  1. Thanks for the mention, Praj. However, after the section you quote I suggested how Feyerabend might respond to my criticism. Moreover, I did not say that Feyerabend insisted on methodological anarchism and indeed he would be unlikely to, given the emphasis he placed on tenacity as a methodological principle to be paired with proliferation (which I explained here).

    Separately, and with apologies for offering another link, I critiqued Ockham’s Razor as a methodological principle here and included some examples from the history of science, which might be of interest to you in light of Pigliucci’s argument.

    1. Hi Paul. Good to hear from you. Thanks for pointing this out. My writing was sloppy, and I should have been more careful. From your own writing I know that Feyerabend would have been unlikely to advocate methodological anarchism as a rule. I also did read your post on Ockham’s Razor but figured that linking to one of your posts was plenty:-) In all seriousness, I do appreciate the specific examples you cited.

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