Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Miércoles con Feyerabend

All Ideologies must be seen in perspective, said Feyerabend.

"""""I want to defend society and its inhabitants from all ideologies, science included. All ideologies must be seen in perspective. One must not take them too seriously. One must read them like fairy-tales which have lots of interesting things to say but which also contain wicked lies, or like ethical prescriptions which may be useful rules of thumb but which are deadly when followed to the letter.

Now, is this not a strange and ridiculous attitude? Science, surely, was always in the forefront of the fight against authoritarianism and superstition. It is to science that we owe our increased intellectual freedom vis-a-vis religious beliefs; it is to science that we owe the liberation of mankind from ancient and rigid forms of thought. Today these forms of thought are nothing but bad dreams - and this we learned from science. Science and enlightenment are one and the same thing - even the most radical critics of society believe this. Kropotkin wants to overthrow all traditional institutions and forms of belief, with the exception of science. Ibsen criticises the most intimate ramifications of nineteenth-century bourgeois ideology, but he leaves science untouched. Levi-Strauss has made us realise that Western Thought is not the lonely peak of human achievement it was once believed to be, but he excludes science from his relativization of ideologies. Marx and Engels were convinced that science would aid the workers in their quest for mental and social liberation. Are all these people deceived? Are they all mistaken about the role of science? Are they all the victims of a chimaera?

To these questions my answer is a firm Yes and No.

Now, let me explain my answer.

My explanation consists of two parts, one more general, one more specific.

The general explanation is simple. Any ideology that breaks the hold a comprehensive system of thought has on the minds of men contributes to the liberation of man. Any ideology that makes man question inherited beliefs is an aid to enlightenment. A truth that reigns without checks and balances is a tyrant who must be overthrown, and any falsehood that can aid us in the over throw of this tyrant is to be welcomed. It follows that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science indeed was an instrument of liberation and enlightenment. It does not follow that science is bound to remain such an instrument. There is nothing inherent in science or in any other ideology that makes it essentially liberating. Ideologies can deteriorate and become stupid religions. Look at Marxism. And that the science of today is very different from the science of 1650 is evident at the most superficial glance."""""

A Richard Dawkins would probably do a spit-take with his Earl Grey to hear science called an "ideology." And even Contingencies grants Feyerabend's "social constructivism" does at times present problems to a westerner's sense of Truth, whether empirical-scientific or logical. However the Dawkins or Carl Sagan sort of techie nerds--the types who take Star Trek to be some dee-eeply symbolic work of art, man (like this little Nixonian-on-crack)-- generally misread Feyerabend, especially his classic "Against Method"--assuming they bother to read anyone apart from like their fave Heinlein or Asimov space-dreck.

Feyerabend does not, as do some postmodernists, deny scientific realism per se. Though he's not fond of Kuhn, he does understand, as did Kuhn, the provisional nature of scientific knowledge (whether in terms of theories, or nomenclature itself. 00001001 works for 9). He's not saying knowledge is impossible, or claiming "there's nothing outside the text". Bridges work. Planes fly; CPUs spin. Feyerabend does however question the ideology of science, especially in regards to how the scientific establishment functions, whether in terms of economics, politics or education. Scientific knowledge--whether that of bio-chemistry, or experimental physics, or CPUs, even the "science"of undergraduate micro and macro-economics-- has become an institution, closely aligned with industry, and dare we say capitalism. Patents are big business, whether in terms of pharmaceuticals or software or CPUs.

Feyerabend jacks the Institution, really. And it was a Jack worthy of Marx and Engels (though not quite as hysterical, or dangerous). Understanding Science as a sort of handmaiden to industry and business may not be that radical, but Feyerabend wants to show us that the Big Guns of science are really not gurus. We should not mistake the local software engineer for the high point of human civilization (then, neither is the french professor). There's a lot one could say on this (and more shall be said), but I think a key element of Feyerabend's critique relates to how scientists control and take advantage of institutions and universities, and how their code of efficaciousness (to use Quine's favorite criteria) has percolated throughout all human activity.

Consider an experimental chemist. What she does in a lab is not that difficult. Yes, memorizing the formulas and equations required work and study--perhaps a great deal of work (though like most of her colleagues she's probably from an upper-class home, which allowed her the time, comfort and money to become an egghead, more or less). Yet the end result--a new medicine, or fertilizer, or weapon--is what counts. She, like her colleagues, dedicates herself to results. Anything which does not work, doesn't matter. Obviously that's important, even crucial in some fields (like medicine). But that results-oriented, experimental knowledge does not represent the sum total of human knowledge, though it is mistaken as such.


J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. L. Speranza said...

Very interesting, and I liked your extended quote from Feyerabend. Thanks for helping me understand what he is up to!

J said...

--Grazi, though re-reading it, eh--it seems a trifle heavy-handed, or something. Also, the later Feyerabend (ie, of the lecture) was not quite as...utopian as the F. of Against Method--perhaps it should be the many moods of Feyerabend.

Roger Bishop Jones said...

Interesting piece.
I have a large degree of sympathy with Feyerabend.

Institutions corrupt, they provide careers for individuals who end up shaping their belief systems as needed for success in the institutional context. Academic freedom, in general not just in science, is a myth, academics are constrained by academic institutions.


J said...

Thanks for comment RBJ.

Alas, I too am generally in agreement with PF's views re the academy, education and the business of science--perhaps even more cynical. The leftist racket's hardly superior to the right.

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