What is philosophy of science? Is it in any way useful? If so, for whom is it useful? Is it at all useful to scientists in their scientific endeavors?
Mark Perakh, a physicist, has said, “I dare to claim that the sole value of philosophy of science is its entertaining ability.” Philosophers of science are, of course, to be expected to take umbrage at such dismissiveness, but it is not very likely that many of them could forcefully or convincingly counter Perakh when he says:
I doubt that all the multiple opuses debating various aspects of the philosophy of science have ever produced even a minute amount of anything that could be helpful for a scientist, be he/she physicist, biologist, geologist, you name it.
John S. Wilkins responded to Perakh by citing “operationalism” as one example of work in philosophy of science which has “affected everything from physics to taxonomy.” However, a reference to operationalism neither diminishes the rhetorical force nor deflects the thrust of Perakh’s critique.
Perakh’s point can be reiterated in terms of the problems which science has encountered and which have been overcome by scientists doing science and not by philosophers of science doing philosophy. Perakh might even go so far as to allow that operationalism has some utility for some science and then note that operationalism arose not from philosophers doing philosophy but from a scientist (Nobel Prize winning physicist Percy Williams Bridgman) doing philosophy from within science rather than as anthropology or as the sociology of science.
To reassert his insistence about just how practically irrelevant the philosophy of science is to the great bulk of scientific endeavors, Perakh could point to essays such as are found in The Philosophy of Science1 published by the Oxford University Press. What is to be found there are essays rife with discussions about such matters as realism versus anti-realism and the semantic account of scientific theories as distinguished from the syntactic account – issues which, no matter how interesting they are in their own right or to those immersed in philosophical manners of discussion, are likely to communicate (and, hence, contribute) next to nothing at all to those trained for and directly engaged in the ways and practices of the scientific enterprise.
Wilkins says that “the philosophy of science is about understanding how science is done when it works”, but, to most scientists, this type of thoroughly retrospective focus probably seems more like – and seems to have more to do with – anthropology than science. And even if anthropology were to be regarded more as science than as history, an investigation restricted to retrospection could not help but be the sparest sort of science, because science is no longer simply concerned with how nature is or how the world has been; science is no longer simply interested in how nature functions; rather, science has come to be interested in how nature can be manipulated.
Some may find themselves inclined to regard the interest which goes beyond how the world is to the matter of how the world can be manipulated more a matter of technology than of science. However, it is to be noted that what most impresses about science – what garners the most respect for science – are the results from the application of science, the results from the attempts to manipulate the world. Science has attained its relatively revered status in the contemporary cultures because of its product (what it has produced of a tangible nature), not because it has some alleged method(s). 2
So, when Perakh chortles about philosophers and philosophy of science, it is reasonable that he would have in mind the evident irrelevance which that discipline called the philosophy of science has had to the development – actually the advancement, the progress – of science.
Whereas Perakh simply castigates the philosophy of science, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, in their book, The Grand Design 3, go even further and proclaim, “philosophy is dead” [p. 5].
When Christopher Norris notes that “[s]cience has always included a large philosophical component”, he makes it quite clear just how ignorant about the nature of philosophy Hawking and Mlodinow have to be in order to think that science could survive the death of philosophy or think that there can be science without philosophical thinking. However, philosophy in science is not necessarily the same as philosophy of science.
To what extent, if any, does the philosophy of science address itself to philosophy in science – to the use of philosophical-type thinking in science?
In his introduction to The Philosophy of Science, David Papineau says that:
The philosophy of science can be usefully divided into two broad areas. The epistemology of science deals with the justification of claims to scientific knowledge. The metaphysics of science investigates philosophically puzzling features of the world described by science. [p. 2]
The most “puzzling features … described by science” are not those aspects of scientific endeavor which are now most amenable to technological application. After all, the fact of application itself indicates at least some amelioration of whatever puzzlement there might have been. Instead, what is contemporaneously most “puzzling” always pertains to how the world is – how nature operates – at levels more basic than that at which any attained understanding can be applied consistently to manipulate the world for the sake of any human interest or in accord with some consequential intent.
Today the absolutely most basic level pertaining to how nature functions is “described by science” in terms of theories about quantum physics where it arguably becomes very difficult indeed to distinguish between science and metaphysics – and between scientists and metaphysicians (including certain philosophers). When Hawking and Mlodinow report that “[a]ccording to [Richard] Feynman, a [physical] system has not just one history but every possible history” [p. 6] and that with regards to the by now well-known double-slit experiment that “rather than following a single definite path, particles take every path, and they take them simultaneously” [p. 75], is Feynman functioning as a scientist or as a metaphysician?
Hawking and Mlodinow say that “like many notions in today’s science, [Feynman’s notion] appears to violate common sense … [which] is based upon everyday experience” [p. 7]. Of course, the same could be – and in their times was – said about many of the “insightful … ideas of the ancient Greeks” [p. 22] (we could also point to Galileo and his Tower Argument as well as to many others at other times). However, those ancient Greeks are to this day regarded more as philosophers/metaphysicians than as scientists. Hawking and Mlodinow say that this is because those ancient Greeks’ “theories were not developed with the goal of experimental verification” whereas Feynman himself came up with “a mathematical expression – the Feynman sum over histories – that reflects [his] idea and reproduces all the laws of quantum physics” [p. 75].
The fact that “quantum physics agrees with observation” [p. 74] is in no way sufficient to distinguish it as science in contradistinction to certain “ideas of the ancient Greeks”, for example, the notion that “nature … can be explained through general laws and reduced to a simple set of principles” [pp. 22-23], an idea which no doubt followed from observation of regularity in nature and which is nonetheless not now regarded as adequate for being regarded as science. Furthermore, to the extent that Feynman’s mathematical formulations only serve to verify observations retrospectively, they only recapitulate, reiterate, and re-express what has already been observed and described. No matter how many times Feynman’s sum over histories formulation is applied with retrospective success, this technique remains nothing but observation. As has already been noted, science is not merely a matter of observation, and observation – even repeatedly confirmed or verified observation – is never sufficient for producing either improvement or advancement in understanding, scientific or otherwise.
When Hawking and Mlodinow say that “[t]hough it may sound like philosophy, the weak anthropic principle can be used to make scientific predictions” [p. 154], what is being noted is that there is an aspect of science which is something other than observation and description of the world. This other aspect of science – this aspect beyond descriptions pertaining to how (or, in a sense, why) occurrences in the world occur as they do – manifests as predictions concerning what will occur in the world. These predictions are based upon a regularity that has been discerned in nature, but even the ancients could – and did – make predictions based on the regularities they had observed.
Yet, what the ancients did “would not pass muster as valid science in modern times” [p. 22], because, according to Hawking and Mlodinow, science is to be regarded as based “upon the universe as it is revealed through the marvels of technologies such as those that allow us to gaze deep into the atom or back to the early universe” [p. 7].
In effect and in particular, by this reckoning what is to be regarded as “science in modern times” is determined by the use of ever newer and more precise measurement technologies (such as, for instance, those necessary in order to test quantum and relativity physics). If it is just such measurement technologies which are the basis for validity in science, then advancement in science would seem to depend on nothing more than advancements in measurement technologies. However, no matter how precise or advanced the measurement technologies, predictions verified by the measured reconfirmation of the regularity of nature amount to nothing more than metaphysics cast in a language of measurements.
Of course, this suggests that it is not so much the verified predictions which are key to the advancement of science; rather, it is the unexpected anomalies which shine light upon what needs to become known in order for there to be improved understanding.
Papineau says that “the epistemology of science deals with the justified claims to scientific knowledge … [and] asks whether scientific theories are true”, and when Hawking and Mlodinow state that “quantum physics agrees with observation … has never failed a test, and … has been tested more than any other theory in science” [p. 74], they are surely putting forth what amounts to the most justified claim for scientific truth and knowledge. However, what Hawking and Mlodinow have not indicated is that this scientific truth and knowledge has yet resulted in improved understanding. Indeed they note that “Feynman once wrote, ‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics’” [p. 74].
Hawking and Mlodinow also note that, despite the most thorough experimental verification of quantum physics, what must be acknowledged and admitted is that those extensive verifications have in no way mitigated “our inability to do the calculations that would enable us to predict [the] actions” [p. 178] of a complex being. And yet, despite this admission about the – at best – limited applicability or predictive usefulness of Feynman’s sum over histories, Hawking and Mlodinow insist that it “might sound like science fiction, but it isn’t” [p. 140].
Actually, being ultimately unverified by application, it sounds more like a metaphysical narrative that happens to heavily utilize scientific verbiage. Furthermore, and more importantly, it is a narrative which is constructed in a way that, in effect, restricts investigation – which is to say science – to the filling in of details.
What appeal there may be in this narrative derives parasitically from the respect that has been garnered by the general scientific enterprise. In itself, this narrative likely appeals primarily to those people who already have an interest in replacing older, essentially religious narratives (“In this view, the universe appeared spontaneously … Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing … It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” [pp. 136, 180]), and in this way the scientific basis of the narrative benefits from a socio-political usefulness such as those which arguably assisted Galileo and Darwin.4 Of course, it is commonly held that, by virtue of its exemplified objectivity, science is independent of the social and the political, and it is held that science is respected because its practice results in the purest and most accessible – which is to say the least subjective – type of knowledge.
However, contrary to this commonplace notion, what has actually brought science most esteem is the ability it has produced to manipulate the world. Without its application – without the technological aspect of science – science and the knowledge which both constitutes and results from its practice would be no less remote to the public in general than have been any of the other esoteric activities that have been practiced throughout history. Clearly, the technological aspect depends upon and derives from some more basic (or earlier) knowledge, and this earlier knowledge is often developed without a sense of how – or whether – it might ever be applied to produce a technological advance. Even so, it is because of the technological advancements and their dependence upon earlier investigations which had been conducted without any specific technological intent that support in the public is engendered for what has come to be generally described as basic science.
The respect for science does not derive from the knowledge which science produces; rather, the respect more directly follows from the usefulness – the expansive applicability – of the scientific endeavor. The fact that “quantum physics agrees with observation … has never failed a test, and … has been tested more than any other theory in science” may well justify quantum physics claims and establish some sort of greater certitude about what is known about the functioning of the universe at its most irreducible level of operation. Yet, so long as that knowledge has next to no practical applicability, that knowledge seems like a scientific dead end more than either an understanding or something currently deserving of especial respect.
Papineau indicates that philosophers of science are largely concerned with whether scientific claims to knowledge are justified and whether – or to what extent – that knowledge can be rightly called truth. However, the veritable dead end that is perfect knowledge (for example, the unfailing quantum physics described by Hawking and Mlodinow) should make it plainly clear that what science seeks more than anything else is not so much (justified and true) knowledge about the world or reality; instead, science is most interested in establishing awareness of just what are the limits to what is known.
These limits are often realized only when what is expected to occur fails to do so, but it is limits that are the ultimate interest of science because what best characterizes science is the traversing of those limits via the imagination, discovery, and inventiveness that enable intentional manipulation of the world.
Much ado is made about the method (or methods) supposedly necessary in order for an activity to qualify as scientific. Emphasis on relatively standardized methodology is probably most often evidenced by those whom Thomas S. Kuhn5 has designated as engaged in “normal science”. Kuhn, as is well known, was primarily interested in the possibility of deriving from the history of science a general pattern of how “revolutions” in scientific thought (or fields) “emerge”. Such revolutions produce what Kuhn designates as new “paradigms”, which themselves come to operate as new traditions. Kuhn says that:
The study of paradigms … is what prepares the student for membership in the particular scientific community with which he will later practice. Because he there joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models, his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals. Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science, i.e., for the genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition. [pp. 10-11]
Normal science consists in … extending the knowledge of those facts that the paradigm displays as particularly revealing, by increasing the extent of the match between those facts and the paradigm’s predictions, and by further articulation of the paradigm itself.
Few people who are not actually practitioners of a mature science realize how much mop-up work of this sort a paradigm leaves to be done … Mopping-up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers. … that enterprise seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm [the tradition] supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen [perceived or recognized as significant] at all. [p. 24]
What Kuhn essentially describes is the development of a sociology of convention within scientific fields. This is an entirely different issue than the matter of how new discoveries come about. Kuhn is no doubt correct that scientists do not “normally aim to invent new theories”, and it is most unfortunate that he is correct when he says that scientists “are often intolerant” of new theories or novel ways of looking at (and solving) problems. As Kuhn says, “normal-scientific research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies.”
Kuhn’s discussion in terms of “revolutions” within science is inherited from the ways in which the story of changes in scientific views and understandings is most commonly told. Kuhn notes that scientific revolutions actually prove “to be … nearly invisible” [p. 136] – except in retrospect and when communicated (particularly in pedagogic science texts) as that narrative which, in effect, justifies the latest operative perspectives as improvements on earlier understandings, manners of practice, as well as “the vocabulary and syntax of a contemporary scientific language” [p. 136] (all of which – but especially the near invisibility contemporaneous with the work that actually sparks the change – brings into question the very notion of something so stark as “revolutions” in science).
Quite clearly, emphases in terms of revolutions within science tend to impart little information about how it is that changes are brought to science. Such emphases can do little more than note something about when changes can be seen as having occurred. This inadequacy on the part of the historical narrative set in terms of revolutions provides rationale for considering science in terms of something other than prevailing models (paradigms).
Rather than revolutions, emphasis is most appropriately placed upon the conditions, the context which ends up producing any paradigm shifts (any changes to the prevailing models and practice), regardless of whether they ever seem sufficiently major to warrant description as revolutionary. So long as the emphasis remains on only the most stark paradigm shifts or revolutions, the core of the scientific enterprise remains veiled. In fact, even the largely legitimate (even if primarily sociological) distinction between the science that produces paradigm shifts and the new normal science practices that follow from these shifts ends up extending the emphasis upon those developments which are described, in hindsight, as revolutionary.
This is because the new normal science is recognized as predominantly focusing on “increasing the extent of the match between … facts and the paradigm’s predictions”, and that means that scientific revolutions or paradigm shifts are only to be identified with “the invention of new theories” [p. 66]. New theories provide predictive expectations, but these theories are, even to the extent they represent improved understandings, nothing other than observation and description of how nature has functioned.
Accordingly, to present science as a series of improved paradigm shifts is to emphasize science as predominantly a matter of improved observation and description of the world, and this is a far too meager consideration, a far too narrow view of science. This way of regarding science fails to delve into whether there are identifiable conditions subject to being fostered intentionally not only to provide for an even more improved understanding but also to make nature something to be not only observed but also manipulated.
By Kuhn’s own recognition, at the core of science is discovery, and, while a new theory (even an adjusted theory) can certainly be regarded or treated as an aspect – or a type – of discovery, it is only by the utmost arbitrariness that science would be regarded as pertaining only to those theories (and the knowledge or descriptions they provide) regarding how nature functions.
Every bit as much a matter of discovery – and, hence, science – are the endeavors undertaken in order to produce new applications of already extant scientific knowledge, theory, and experience for the purpose of manipulating nature rather than just describing it. Of course, attempts at manipulating nature are their own tests of basic theoretical knowledge. These intended manipulations incorporate, in their own way, a seeking after just what are the limits to what is theorized (or known), and awareness of these limits becomes most acute when attempts at manipulation fail. (This is likely especially the case when the attempts at manipulation are based on theories which seem particularly well established, verified, and justified.) In this way, failure helps to define problems and thereby establish the need for the new thinking which produces advancement.
Such new thinking might be thought of as effectively being new theory, but is all such new thinking actually so momentous as to qualify as a paradigm shift even if the new thinking eventually becomes widespread enough to become conventional? If not, then this recommends the appropriateness of moving beyond talk in terms of paradigms. On the other hand, if all such new thinking is to be regarded as paradigmatic shifting, then paradigm shifts are most appropriately considered in terms other than momentousness.
Attempts to manipulate nature are sometimes referred to as “applied” science, but, inasmuch as this manner of engaging theoretical and/or well-established knowledge ultimately pushes the focus to the problems that appear at the limits of what is accepted belief and understanding, applied science can hardly be said to fit neatly (using Kuhn’s terminology) into normal science. Indeed, it rather seems as if a paradigm is to normal science as applied science can be to engineering.
The first point of note here is that when the essential core of science is considered in terms of discovery rather than knowledge, it begins to become more apparent why the endeavors of philosophers of science are not only largely irrelevant to practicing scientists but also misdirected when, as per Papineau, these philosophers continue the ancient concern with whether (or to what extent) claims of knowledge (in this case scientific knowledge) are justified and true. This is to say that if philosophy is to contribute genuinely to the scientific enterprise, then that contribution will be one that focuses on the mechanisms and conditions which bring forth discovery. Haggling over the natures of justification, truth, and knowledge does not itself come close to fostering scientific discovery.
Some may object that it makes no sense to speak of discovery as if it were independent of knowledge, but, then, as ordinarily used, knowledge is an ambiguous term which, outside of philosophy, is very rarely intended as a claim to anything even approaching indubitably demonstrable truth. It is definitely the case that discovery can never occur without there first being some thinking held and treated as though that thinking described something true about reality; however, when the interest concentrates on discovery, the focus is keenly and predominantly upon uncertainty.
The next point of note follows closely upon the matter just discussed, and this next point pertains to methodology – specifically what is often called the scientific method.
Kuhn says that “[h]istory … suggests that the scientific enterprise has developed a uniquely powerful technique for producing surprises … novelties of fact and theory …” [p. 52]. He also notes that scientific paradigms become scientific traditions when there comes to be a commitment “to the same rules and standards for scientific practice” – which is to say when a convention becomes manifest. Such rules and standards can be expressed as method(s), but the purpose of these sorts of methods is more to ensure the “continuation of a particular research tradition” than to result in new discoveries. Therefore, as Kuhn says, “We must now ask how changes of this sort can come about, considering first discoveries, or novelties of fact, and then inventions, or novelties of theory.” [p. 52]
Is there a “powerful technique” unique to science, a method (or a collection of methods) specific to science for producing discoveries?
The set of features most commonly regarded as necessary for a method to be regarded as scientific can be delineated in many different ways, but, generally, the scientific method is said to consist of observation (leading to recognition of a problem for the observer’s thought-context), hypothesis (for a manner in which the problem can be explained or, better yet, solved), experimentation (to test the tentative explanation/solution), and conclusion (upon analysis of the experiment results, including whether the results support to any extent the solution proposed in, or the explanatory value of, the hypothesis). Clearly, this conclusion can itself spur refinement of the hypothesis leading to an iterative process.
What should be apparent about such a method is that, in itself, it amounts to nothing more an outline of the convention most likely to make experiment-based conclusions acceptable to others. What such a method does not provide is any method for discovery.
Kuhn has become best known for his claim about paradigm shifts in science and his claim that new theories and the ones that they replace are incommensurable. That may be because these are the sorts of claims that most immediately fit with the subject matters with which philosophers (and historiographers) of science have most often engaged. However, with regards to philosophy in science – which is to say with regards to matters that might more directly contribute to the furtherance of the scientific enterprise, it is Kuhn’s attention to what can at least initially be described as the conditions necessary or suitable for discovery which is most important, potentially useful, and beckoning for further explication and development.
By Kuhn’s reckoning:
Paradigms provide all phenomena except anomalies with a theory-determined place in the scientist’s field of vision. [p. 97]
Discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly, i.e., with the recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science. [pp. 52-53]
In science … novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation. Initially, only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under circumstances where anomaly is later to be observed. Further acquaintance, however, does result in awareness of something wrong or does relate the effect to something that has gone wrong before. That awareness of anomaly opens a period in which conceptual categories are adjusted until the initially anomalous becomes the anticipated. [p. 64]
Awareness of anomaly does not demand abandonment of the thinking or theory which gave rise to the expectation – the prediction – which turns out to be incorrect. Instead, what the anomaly at least initially indicates is a limit to the scope of applicability for the theory as explicated. Even so, what is immediately apparent is that at the crux of discovery – and, therefore, science – is not only an awareness but also the necessity that awareness be developed.
Although not explicitly accounted for in the most common outlines for what gets called the scientific method, awareness is nonetheless essential to every step in the method. For instance, neither observation alone nor description of what is observed suffices for an activity to be scientific. The cataloging of observations is not a scientific activity even if such a compilation might ever prove to be scientifically useful. Of course, by the method depiction of science, what is necessary is observation that leads to hypothesis, and the need for hypothesis only occurs when there is a suspicion (or rudimentary awareness) of a pattern that describes a relationship between observables. This is to say that scientific thinking is conducted in terms of connections and the factors which affect and effect relationship patterns.
This, in turn, means that, in order even to begin to most effectively determine the verity of any suspected relationship patterns or connections, it is necessary to test or stress the supposed relationship(s). Of course, not just any test or experiment will suffice, because the validity, worthwhileness, or usefulness of conclusion(s) to be drawn from an experiment depend upon the design and conduct of the experiment, and the experiment itself essentially reflects the extent or depth of the operative awareness. In effect, this means that an experiment is a test of an awareness about relationship patterns and the affecting (or constitutive) factors of those relationship patterns.
Experiments are intended to determine the extent of awareness. Optimally, experiments are designed so as to isolate what have been put forth as factors (variables) relevant to the characteristics of the relationship(s) at issue, and the awareness is tested by comparing experiment results with predictions made in accord with control of the suspected factors. When an experiment fails to produce the anticipated result(s), this can be suspected as being due to the incompleteness of the tested awareness, and the failure can be recognized as a need to try to improve awareness (or understanding) via further discovery.
However, anomalies (although the details of which are always unexpected) do not always clearly and obviously indicate failures in awareness or understanding.
Sometimes this is because some range of variability in test results is expected. While patterns of recurrent variability may be interpreted as indicating some incompleteness in awareness, so long as such patterns of variability are not problematic to application of the understanding, both the variability as well as the incompleteness of the awareness that this variability might suggest can be regarded as at least currently irrelevant (and, thereby, function as part of what Kuhn calls normal science). Nevertheless, suspicion that a variability indicates an incomplete awareness can serve to stimulate further investigation and experimentation even when the variability is conventionally held to be irrelevant. At the very least, variability recommends acknowledgment that there is some persistent tentativeness with regards to the completeness of the understanding and the theory or theories at issue.
Kuhn says that “the novel theory seems a direct response to crisis” [p. 75], but the terms “novel theory” and “crisis” are rhetorically excessive for a description of science which, at its most basic core, is a matter of discovery. The scientific enterprise is more aptly explained in terms of the new thinking which seems necessitated for the sake of improved awareness. This new thinking is necessitated in light of unexpected results or pattern-disrupting anomalies that present immediate and gross inadequacies, and it is also effectively necessitated upon any realization or suspicion that there is a more complete understanding to be had if only convention (for example, conventionally accepted variability) is discounted and treated as an incomplete awareness. Furthermore, new thinking is critically essential if there is to be an understanding which moves beyond that provided by any particularly well verified theory – in particular, any which (such as per the Hawking and Mlodinow depiction of quantum physics) “has never failed a test”. As has been discussed, this is an area in which applied science is especially useful, since attempts at application for the purpose of nature manipulation commonly present (as) new problems for the understanding brought forth by the theory at issue.
Kuhn is essentially correct when he says that for “normal scientific practice … retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it” [p. 76], inasmuch as changes in conventional understanding and practice will likely occur only when a consensus feels that the standard practice (often defined in terms of its accepted variability and the limitations to understanding that it represents) is, for whatever reason, no longer adequate. However, the “retooling”, the modification to standard practice, will not occur until there is already an improvement (a more complete awareness and understanding) available, and it is simply not the case that efforts at discovery (which amounts to corrections of or improvement to contemporaneous understanding – or theory) are undertaken only after there is a general sense that the operative understanding is inadequate.
The manner by which new discoveries and understandings come to be accepted or incorporated in or as conventional knowledge or practice (and, hence, within Kuhn’s normal science) is more of a sociological matter than something pertaining to discovery itself. Nonetheless, the sociological contains psychological elements that are relevant to the matter of discovery. Psychology pertains to the manner in which things are “seen” subjectively, which is a way of characterizing awareness, and, since discovery depends upon the way in which things are seen subjectively (awareness) and the way in which this seeing (awareness) is affected and developed, the condition of subjective seeing is critical to even to the possibility of discovery and, therefore, to the root of science.
Kuhn says that “paradigm changes … cause scientists to see the world … differently” [p. 111], but paradigm changes (or changes in models) within science can only occur subsequent to discovery, with discovery itself often – if not always – occurring only after a different way of seeing (or looking upon) the world has been accomplished. On a somewhat tangential note, education can be (or can be experienced as) a process of successive discoveries, new ways of seeing the world, but education most often seems more like a program intended to train minds in whatever are the predominating, conventional ways of seeing the world. This training also occurs, of course, in science. Accordingly, even if it will come as a surprise to many – if not most – people, “scientific training is not well designed to produce the man who will … discover a fresh approach” [p. 166]. This is to say that science education and scientist training are not intended to result in scientists adept at discovery despite the fact that familiarity with matters of science is certainly essential in order for there to be the sorts of discoveries that provide improvements to – and are the very core of – science.
From the properties of the pendulum, for example, Galileo derived his only full and sound arguments for the independence of weight and rate of fall, as well as for the relationship between vertical height and terminal velocity of motion down inclined planes. All these natural phenomena he saw different from the way they had been seen before.
Why did that shift of vision occur? Through Galileo’s individual genius, of course. [Kuhn, p. 119]
While the term genius provides next to no explanation for how creativity or discovery come to occur, it is intended to designate a condition or quality that cannot be explained by teaching, training, or experience alone. Teaching, training, and experience all go a very long way towards providing what we might think of in terms of the context and the content of a person’s mind and thought or awareness, in which case genius clearly pertains to the manner in which the person makes connections between matters constituent of that awareness. As regards creativity and discovery, genius commonly indicates a result produced by an out of the ordinary way of looking at and seeing things – an extraordinary awareness about relationships.
There is no method or technique – there is no collection of methods or techniques – from which genius assuredly results, and, since discovery depends upon looking at and seeing the world in a different way, there is no “powerful technique” unique to science – there is no scientific method – for producing discoveries. Science provides a context – but not the very means – for discovery.
This is not to say that there can be no techniques for developing different ways of seeing the world, even different ways of seeing that are intentionally restricted to the empirical context that science provides. However, these techniques are not matters of science, although there have appeared types of science and countless studies devoted to investigating factors that affect how the world is viewed (where “viewed” includes described and otherwise represented).
This is a matter of the utmost relevance to science with regards to the identification as well as the formulation and resolution of problems. In his book, Epistemology and Cognition6, Alvin Goldman says:
The importance of how a problem is ‘represented’, or ‘framed’, [must] not be underestimated. Researchers have therefore explored the factors that influence representations. What stimuli prompt the cognizer’s representation, and how easy or hard is it to revise initial representations? Initial representations, it has been found, often tend to structure subsequent thinking, sometimes to confine thinking to rigid ‘loops”, in which the cognizer keeps recycling the same themes. The mathematician G. Polya, noting the threat of rigidity, advised problem solvers to avoid commitment to an initial representation. Successful problem solving sometimes depends on holding hypotheses in check.
The impact of initial representations is illustrated by Posner from studies of impression formation. These studies indicate that the items first encountered on a list structure one’s mental organization of the list. When subjects are asked to determine which of the following four words is inappropriate (to the rest) – ‘skyscraper’, ‘cathedral’, ‘temple’, and ‘prayer’ – they tend to respond ‘prayer’. Since ‘skyscraper’ occurs first, the list has apparently been organized in terms of buildings, so ‘prayer’ is the odd entry. When the same list is presented in a different order – ‘prayer’, ‘cathedral’, ‘temple’, and ‘skyscraper’ – one tends to organize the items by the theme religion, and ‘skyscraper’ is the odd item. [Goldman, pp. 132-133]
Kuhn says that:
In their most usual forms … gestalt experiments illustrate only the nature of perceptual transformations. They tell us nothing about the role of paradigms or of previously assimilated experience in the process of perception. … What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous … experience has taught him to see. … Yet, though psychological experiments are suggestive, they cannot … be more than that. They do display characteristics of perception that could be central to scientific development, but they do not demonstrate that the careful and controlled observation exercised by the research scientist at all partakes of those characteristics. [Kuhn, pp. 112-113]
However, Kuhn also admits that “the route from stimulus to sensation is in part conditioned by education” [p. 193]. This conditioning is utterly consistent with the impact that “initial representations” often appear to have on the way things are seen, and this conditioning is in accord with the promulgation of normal science as an inherited tradition.
This then takes the focus to how, whether, and to what extent “the careful and controlled observation exercised by the research scientist” is ever accomplished.
Always included in what falls under what Kuhn refers to as normal science are essentially standardized forms for control related to the observation-experimentation-conclusion outline (wherein even a conclusion ends up being a sort of observation since no observation is readily separable from interpretation and since interpretation certainly seems always concomitant with observation). This is to say that science training provides a way of seeing the world. This training begins to form mental organization by, in effect, providing currently predominating theories as “the items first encountered”; in this way, the training sets the viewing perspective. Furthermore, scientist training routinely includes introduction to formulaic constructs both for experiment design as well as research presentation; thus, here, too, the training further determines mental organization.
What all of this indicates is that “the careful and controlled observation” to which Kuhn refers is ultimately made manifest only in contexts in which there is at least some developed willingness to be wary about whatever plays the role of fundamentals in the scientist’s thinking.7 After all, such fundamentals are always effectively the “initial representations” that tend to most influence the scientist’s way of seeing the world or approaching an experiment.
Much lip-service gets paid to the tentativeness with which the bulk of scientific positions are held. Most often the tentativeness is asserted in terms of a willingness to accept a differing position if and when new evidence is provided. But, evidence is essentially never anything other than some detail that fits in with the rest of a story (if it does not actually drive the story, which usually only happens after a new discovery). This means that evidence depends upon the perspective which works to determine the story, and this, in turn, means that without a change in perspective – without a change in the way in which the world is seen – evidence can be overlooked. Likewise, when evidence is presented, it is more easily dismissed and ignored if it requires a perspective change in order to be regarded as evidence. Evidence is likely no less independent of perspective than observation is of interpretation.
All of this most certainly pertains to the matter of how new discoveries can ever bring change to conventional thinking and open a door to the establishment of new conventions. But, inasmuch as discovery is the core of science, and inasmuch as discovery depends upon new ways of seeing, and since the training for scientists does not aim to result in the development of a keen awareness of the critical role that perspective plays in shaping even scientific understanding or a keen awareness of the pivotal role that perspective change plays in discovery, then, if it is at all possible to actually foster the furtherance of the scientific endeavor, it is necessary to look somewhere other than to science to find whatever it may be that is best suited to develop the mental conditions most amenable to the production of discovery.
Some may object and say that there is no need to look outside of science in order to develop the sort of awareness which increases the likelihood of being able to see in new ways. Those who so object might point to studies such as that of Posner to which Goldman refers and note that such scientific research can be used effectively to inform scientists about types of bias, including that which is potentially concomitant with any and all initial perspectives. However, such an objection amounts to nothing more than the noting that science can be affected by and incorporate new discoveries. The objection in no way grapples with the issue of discovery itself – with the inescapable fact that discovery is always a subjective occurrence that happens to take place within a context provided by science but which only becomes a matter of science as the discovery becomes absorbed into scientific practice and scientists’ thinking.
Nonetheless, discoveries such as that which led to Posner’s study can most definitely be utilized in the development of the mental conditions most amenable to the production of discovery. For instance, upon first exposure to Posner’s skyscraper-cathedral-temple-prayer sequence, a person may well find himself thinking in terms of buildings until, upon exposure to the reverse sequence, he comes to think about the sequence in terms of religion, at which point he will hopefully realize a greater awareness (an improved self-awareness) about how easily factors can affect perspective and thinking. Such an experience might lead to the adoption of a personal regimen that “avoid[s] commitment to an initial representation”, and this in turn can be made further manifest not only by the scientist “holding [his own] hypotheses in check” but also by his being more reticent in the acceptance of conclusions proffered by others.
A regimen for reticence, however, is anything except sufficient to result in discovery, even though such a regimen seems as though it is very often – if not always – a precursor condition for discovery. This sort of reticence can serve to initiate what is a frankly “philosophical analysis … the search for assumptions”. This reticence and the search for assumptions to which it can lead can “be an effective way to weaken the grip of a tradition upon the mind and to suggest the basis for a new one”, but the search for assumptions does not result in the production of discovery. Even so, “the analytical thought experimentation that bulks so large in the writings of Galileo, Einstein, Bohr, and others is perfectly calculated to expose the old paradigm to” alternative ways of seeing “with a clarity unattainable in the laboratory” [Kuhn p. 88].
When “scientists take a different attitude toward existing paradigms”, the predominant models, the most established and accepted ways of seeing the world,
the nature of their research changes accordingly. The proliferations of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals … are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research [which is to say the attempt to engender a new way of seeing in order to produce discovery and new knowledge]. [Kuhn, p. 91]
The point here is that discovery – and, therefore, science – inescapably relies, at the very least, on a way of thinking which is only properly described as philosophical. Even if that thinking is not conducted in terms of the unremitting problems of epistemology, even if that thinking does not concern itself with questions of what exists and what it means to say that something exists, it is a manner of thinking which, nonetheless, tends to follow the same pattern seen in philosophy throughout the ages. It is, frankly, that pattern which has been outlined as logic; however, just as logic does not guarantee truth, it also will not assuredly result in the genius of discovery.
Still, it is to be expected that logic is operative in all occasions of discovery – even when the discovery seems to appear out of nowhere as a “Eureka!” or as if a revelation. After all, logic speaks to an orderliness that relates to the human experience of pattern recognition.
Kuhn describes Galileo’s genius as “the exploitation … of perceptual possibilities made available by” a way of looking at the world which differed from the conventional way of seeing and understanding. Kuhn attributes Galileo’s different way of seeing – Galileo’s different approach – to the condition: “Galileo was not raised completely as an Aristotelian.” [p. 119]. The manner in which Galileo was or “was not raised” pertains to what was earlier discussed as the context and the content of a person’s mind and thought or awareness, but the new connections which manifest as genius are more directly tied to “the exploitation … of perceptual possibilities” than to the context which affects what is seen.
One perceptive historian [Herbert Butterfield], viewing a classic case of a science’s reorientation by paradigm change, recently described it as “picking up the other end of the stick,” a process that involves “handling the same data as before, but placing them in a new system of relations with one another by giving them a different framework. [Kuhn, p. 85]
Seeing in a new way – discovery – need not depend upon or await the availability of new information, but a new way of seeing is very much “the exploitation … of … possibilities”. This characteristic of discovery suggests a role for philosophical thinking beyond the skill of identifying assumptions, and that is because there is a part of philosophy which pertains specifically to the logic of possibility, most often now referred to as modal logic.
It is commonly thought that modal logic is conducted in terms of possible worlds, but there is actually no reason to resort to talk in terms of possible worlds in order to take full advantage of what modal logic has to offer. The concepts most central to modal logic are represented primarily by the terms possible, actual, and necessary.
At times it becomes important to distinguish what is possible from that which is merely conceivable or imaginable; in effect, this suggests thinking of a possibility as a condition more rooted in some context that is or has been part of actuality (or reality). However, this distinction is not all that important to the scientific enterprise, since science is, after all, ultimately most interested in the manifestation of – the making actual – what is ever conceivable.
A modal necessity is a condition which holds regardless of circumstance; a modal necessity is something which can be thought of as being the case or being true always and everywhere. A modal necessity is invariantly the case and can, therefore, be appreciated as an invariance. (A modal impossibility relates to a modal necessity; such an impossibility just happens to be a condition which never holds under any circumstance.)
A modal necessity is distinct from what is commonly referred to as the necessity of entailment. Whereas something that is modally necessary is actual, or actually the case, or true regardless of the factors (the variables) that effect and affect a context, the necessity of entailment refers to a condition which inescapably follows or results from the factors that constitute some other condition. Just because one condition necessarily (or inescapably) follows another condition does not mean that the resultant condition is modally necessary, since the prior state – even if actual or real – might itself have only been one of any number of possible conditions that conceivably could have followed from some even earlier state.
In his book, Invariances8, Robert Nozick describes the allure of modal necessity within philosophy: “[Modal necessity] is the flame, the philosopher the moth” [p. 120]. The closest thing to a modal necessity within science would be a universal law, but the fact of the matter is that very little about either the practice of science or scientific thinking depends on universals. Most science is concerned with local contexts, even though much of science pertains to attempts at discovering the extent to which recognized patterns within nature are invariant regardless of other differences between contexts.
Nozick notes that modally necessary truths “giv[e] up depth of content for breadth of application” [p. 83]. But, since every thinker – including every philosopher and every scientist – always finds himself in a context populated by particulars (the depth of content), such particulars are not to be discounted or ignored in service to the goal of a perspective with broader applicability. Patterns of invariance are detected from particulars, and invariances are most certainly initially represented as hypotheses abstracted from particulars. The fact that hypotheses and theories arise as possibilities (possible explanations or mechanisms) means that they are always properly to be regarded and treated as being susceptible to some other as yet unanticipated particulars which may end up giving reason to think that an operative hypothesis or theory needs at the very least to be refined.
However, the possibilities status tends to become dissociated from hypotheses and theories that are inherited or otherwise come to define the conventional perspective. There is, of course, some good reason for this occurrence, but this loss tends to position the conventional thinking and perspective as though it unquestionably and correctly represents reality. Reduced awareness of the the possibilities status for hypotheses and theories results in their effectively being treated as necessities. It does not matter in the least whether this necessity is of the modal variety or that of entailment, because, as Nozick says, “We shrink necessity in order to make room for veridicality” [p. 119].
There is nothing inappropriate about treating well worn hypotheses and theories as if they are either modal necessities or necessities of entailment; however, science is best served – because discovery is best served – when the status of operative hypotheses and theories as possibilities rather than necessities is also kept firmly in mind. “We shrink necessity” to make conceptual room for more possibilities, including the possibilities for new ways of connecting or associating concepts, data, or facts.
Appreciating reality more in terms of possibilities than in terms of necessities can broaden perspectives, but even that is insufficient for ensuring the genius of making new connections which is necessary to produce discovery. Even so, this way of thinking opens up the imagination much more. Emphasis placed on thinking in terms of possibilities demands the development of imagination at least insofar as the thinking in terms of possibilities incorporates concern for alternatives. Alternatives to better established hypotheses and theories will, of course, be more difficult to formulate, but it is precisely such alternatives that are required whenever hypotheses fail to account for anomalies and whenever theories – or conventional thinking – seems to have resulted in a developmental dead end (or only slightly incremental advancement). In any event, thinking in terms of alternative possibilities is essential to the thorough identification of variables.
The identification of variables is at the very heart of the study of relationships that constitutes science. It is only by means of the thinking in terms of variables that science begins to be distinguishable from mere observation. Suspicion of correlative relationships between observables will often serve as impetus for hypotheses, and preliminary investigations often seek out correlations as a start to the process of seining for relevant variables. However, it is only when an experiment design successfully isolates variables (and, in some cases, reorganizes variables) that the experiment can contribute to the sort of heightened awareness and fuller understanding that is necessary in order to be able to move on to the sort of intentional manipulation of nature by which science has come to be respected.
Identification and isolation of variables are very often exceedingly difficult undertakings, and a complete accounting for variables is not actually necessary for most scientific activity. Indeed, there is good reason to expect that there usually has been an incomplete accounting for or awareness of variables, and this warrants that there be some degree of tentativeness about conclusions. But, tentativeness need not produce investigative paralysis, nor need it preclude application as attempts at the manipulation of nature. Instead, such tentativeness can take residence in the background and remain recognized as part of the context in which further study and applications are conducted.
Unfortunately, what too often actually happens is that the very tentativeness which serves as a critical aspect of the justification to proceed despite an incomplete understanding ends up being disregarded. This failure to respect how inextricably mired science is in modal possibility can end up creating – not just problems, but – actual crises for the scientific enterprise. In fact, there is some reason to believe that such crises have begun to appear.
all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. In the field of medicine, the phenomenon seems extremely widespread, affecting not only antipsychotics but also therapies ranging from cardiac stents to Vitamin E and antidepressants.
much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies – conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain – is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong.
Both the Lehrer and the Freedman articles cite work that Dr. John Ioannidis has conducted concerning apparently common problems with much medical research (problems which, as discussed in both articles, by virtue of their very nature can well be expected to be occurring in other scientific fields). These articles suggest that a primary focus on the part of Ioannidis regards investigator bias. The Freedman piece notes that, according to Ioannidis, “Maybe sometimes it’s the questions that are biased, not the answers.” Even so, according to Ioannidis, there is also the problem of
researchers … frequently manipulating data analyses, chasing career-advancing findings rather than good science, and even using the peer-review process – in which journals ask researchers to help decide which studies to publish – to suppress opposing views.
Yet, it is precisely these sorts of bias against which the conventions and methods of science are supposed to guard. Lehrer reports that
According to Ioannidis, the main problem is that too many researchers engage in what he calls “significance chasing,” or finding ways to interpret the data so that it passes the statistical test of significance …
But, why is this a problem? After all, is it not the case that statistical significance – particularly that which has been experimentally replicated – is supposed to indicate objectivity and, thereby, at least substantially cancel out any operative bias?
Well, actually, no.
According to Tom Siegfried, in a March 27, 2010, Science News article (also discussed here), a
common error equates statistical significance to ‘significance’ in the ordinary use of the word … Statisticians perpetually caution against mistaking statistical significance for practical importance, but scientific papers commit that error often.
The main problem is not that “researchers engage in … finding [of] ways to interpret the data”; there can be no such thing as science without interpretation. The main problem is not even, as per Lehrer, “rooted in a fundamental cognitive flaw, which is that we like proving ourselves right and hate being wrong.” Lehrer quotes Ioannidis as making the same point, albeit more cynically:
“It feels good to validate a hypothesis,” Ioannidis said. “It feels even better when you’ve got a financial interest in the idea or your career depends upon it. And that’s why, even after a claim has been systematically disproven”—he cites, for instance, the early work on hormone replacement therapy, or claims involving various vitamins—“you still see some stubborn researchers citing the first few studies that show a strong effect. They really want to believe that it’s true.”
But, Ioannidis’s added cynicism does not bring the main problem into any clearer focus. Even if credence is granted to the claims that have “systematically disproven” the experimentally replicated prior claims, even if the disproving claims can be imagined as having overcome anything like the sort of bias which supposedly afflicted the original claims, it does not inescapably follow that the problem is nothing but the recalcitrance of belief.
What Ioannidis (at least as presented by both Lehrer and Freedman) seems not to have considered is that the main problem is the very nature of the systematicness which has come to be accepted as science. This is a science which – as conventionally practiced – seems to have next to no interest in anomalies, but, as has been discussed, the reaction to variability in experiment results most often should be taken, first and foremost, as indicating the incompleteness of understanding, the failure to have taken account of relevant variables.
Instead, while usually noting that there is still more research to be done, scientists seem to too often treat experiment results which appear positive and promising (owing to those results seeming to have occurred significantly more often than not) as if those results represent firm(er) or new(er) knowledge. Insufficient regard is paid to whether that knowledge represents any better understanding. A repeatedly flipped coin can land on one side rather than the other any number of times in a row and, yet, provide no extensible knowledge and in no way improve our understanding of the relevant factors. Too rarely do scientists focus on the apparent anomalies as sources for possibly additional information about relevant factors. This is a philosophical failing amongst scientists, and, certainly in some fields, it is a failing which seems as though it might have become incorporated as the sort of convention that is hardly – if at all – ever subject to examination; it is a philosophical failing which detrimentally affects the scientific enterprise.
What seems to have happened in at least some, if not much, of science is that scientific thinking has become divorced from logic, specifically the logic of possibilities, which is to say modal philosophy. Despite this divorce, science can and does still grab headlines, but, without a cultivated sense of the usefulness of the logic of possibilities, science impedes discovery by diminishing the opportunity for “the exploitation … of perceptual possibilities”, and it also ends up turning its back on what may sometimes likely be the most valuable data – that provided by what has come to be regarded as anomalous. Science without philosophical thinking is science in name only; it is a science without substance.
1 Papineau, David (ed.) (1996). The Philosophy of Science. New York: Oxford University Press.
2 See: Jaspers, Karl and Bultmann, Rudolf (2005). Myth & Christianity. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, p. 100.
3 Hawking, Stephen W. and Mlodinow, Leonard (2010). The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books.
4 See https://thekindlyones.org/2010/10/30/evolution-is-it-more-a-matter-of-politics-than-of-science/, specifically the part of the discussion having to do with Hannah Arendt.
5 Kuhn, Thomas S. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
6 Goldman, Alvin I. (1995). Epistemology and Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
7 This developed willingness to be wary depends on a thoughtfulness which is absent from mere, reflexive, or radical skepticism.
8 Nozick, Robert (2001). Invariances. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.