Monday, November 13, 2017

Paul Feyerabend on science and ideology

Paul Feyerabend has maintained in his 1975 "How to Defend Society Against Science" that science is yet another human-produced myth, a modern religion, or in his phrasing: "just one of the many ideologies that propel society and it should be treated as such". Feyerabend set out to defend society against ideologies, science, as he takes care to note, very much included. He distinguishes two interchanging types of ideologies: one positive in virtue of its ability to destabilize conventional dogmatic beliefs, as science was during the 17th and 18th centuries when he freed men from the constraints of religion. The other type of ideology is negative in being dogmatic and reluctant to negotiate its "truths", as religion was and as, Feyerabend argues, science has become. He revokes the claim that science has managed to achieve a "correct" method for attaining knowledge, one that boasts in its success in explanation and prediction as an indication of its validness. He claims that "theories never follow from [empirical] facts in the strict logical sense" and that analytic philosophy has fell short in providing a viable method that on empirical evidence and logic alone.  Where positivistic philosophers such as Karnap and Hempel strain to fill in the ever emerging holes in the logics of scientific method, Feyerabend prefers to just kick the bucket, or better yet, to collide it with another bucket to see which one is left holding more water. Feyerabend believes that a single theory will always be able to confirm itself while relying on its own standards. He therefore asserts that a scientific theory cannot and should not be confirmed on its own autonomous grounds by relating exclusively to empiric evidence, and that it could only gain some sort of temporary prominence by being favorably compared with other theories. This sort of conformation does not suggest to some inherent realist quality of the theory, but just that it was the best alternative, under the criterions for choosing between theories that are themselves determined in the same relativistic manner.  This line of thought follows from J.S.Mill and Feyerabend's teacher Karl Popper, and it is implemented by Feyerabend not only in relation to scientific theories but also to the broader category of ideology.

Feyerabend's science
Feyerabend's ultimate conclusion is his famous principle of "anything goes" which is crowned by him as "the only principle that does not inhibit change". Feyerabend later snickered at those who took this who took this who took the "anything goes" criterion for an actual normative prescription and felt they were missing the point, which is that there shouldn’t be any constant normative prescriptions, criterions and abiding methods in science, since adherence to these ultimately leads to dogmatism and atrophy. If any theory has the capacity of justifying itself, the only way of ever extending beyond its epistemological boarders is by confronting it with another theory confirmed but contradicting theory.
In "Explanation, Reduction and Empiricism" Feyerabend attacks two ground assumptions associated with logical empiricism, that derivation between two theories and of meaning invariance of terminology in different theories. He uses this attack to show how two theories could match the same body of evidence but at the same time be mutually incommensurable. This since universal theories always exceed known evidence while compliance of evidence with a theory is always determined within a margin of error. The first reason allows for theories to contradict each other within the realm on unknown predicates, while the seconds allows for contradiction in regards to known predicates. This leads Feyerabend to denounce the possibility (and desirability) of a formal criterion for science. Feyerabend's perception of science is similar to that of Thomas Kuhn, namely viewing science not as a collection of facts expressed in propositions, but rather as whole world-view that has a unique epistemological, ontological and methodological characteristics that are subjected to change and replacement when a new theory takes the place of an old one.  Unlike Kuhn, Feyerabend supports a constant, rather than periodic, paradigm shift and for the perpetual challenging of any ruling theory.  Unanimity of opinion, he says, may be fitting life under the church or a tyrant, but a humanistic view dictates a pluralism of opinions which in turn also assures objective knowledge.

Feyerabend's ideology
Feyerabend's use of the term "ideology" is not explicated but only implied. He holds ideology as either productive or degenerative and it is therefore deducible that ideology for Feyerabend is something that precedes these two options. In addition, ideology for Feyerabend, unlike Marxism, is not defined by being distinguished from actual reality or the material truth, and this is evident from his arguing that "if… [science) has found the  truth and now follows it, then I would say that there are better things than first finding, and then following such a monster".
Another central aspect of Feyerabend's view of what constitutes ideology is implied in his statement that " theories shape and order facts and can therefore be retained come what may… because the human mind either consciously or unconsciously carries out its ordering function". He also feels that the competition mechanism he suggests is valid not only for theories/ideologies, but also for their methods, the "ordering function". An affixed and unwilling method is what eventually leads to a dogmatic and non-progressing science. In hid book "Against Method" Feyerabend is more explicit on this point in arguing that a method or mode on inquiry is an ideological apparatus that enforces a limited perspective on reality and subsequently a limited scope for science. Science, Feyerabend demonstrates, is helpless in explaining the efficiency of traditional Chinese medicine due to the incommensurability of the different methods. Such an example serves to illustrate Feyerabend's claims against favoring one ideology over another, but it also shows how for Feyerabend ideology to a large extent is the manner and method by which one engages in practices of explanation and prediction.

Conclusion, analysis and commentary on Feyerabend's perception of science and ideology
One of Feyerabend's main arguments in "How to Defend Society Against Science" can be formulated in the form of a classic dilemma:
  1. Science does not deliver absolute truths and claiming it does is a repressive ideological act.
  2. Even if Science was to deliver truths, an uncompromising obligation to it is still running the risk of degenerating human spirit.
This implies that the validity of scientific knowledge, though heavily criticized by Feyerabend, is in fact non-relevant for the question of ideology and its dogmatic function. Feyerabend does not necessarily hold that scientific knowledge is ideological or false, but he does argue that western science itself, as a social or cultural phenomenon, is an ideology. Thus a distinction should be made in Feyerabend's doctrine between scientific knowledge (and knowledge in general) and scientific ideology (and ideology in general). The former is surly logically dubious, but then again so is everything else we believe we know and scientific knowledge can be as useful and interesting as any other kind of knowledge. Scientific ideology, on the other hand, attempts to present itself and its results as an undisputed truth while everything that is not rigorously scientific is reduced to the status of metaphysical nonsense. With scientific ideology attempting to gain absolute adherence, the question of truth as objective truth is still none-relevant for the question of science as an ideology, but truth as being presented as objective truth is nonetheless relevant and even more relevant is the question of the method that introduces itself as the exclusive way of explaining reality.               

[1] Feyerabend, "How to Defend Society Against Science", 1975