See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil
Last time I spoke briefly about Feyerabend’s suggestion in his book Against Method, that the study of science precede along the lines of an anthropological investigation. He wraps up this discussion with the following quote (pg. 197).
Are you ready? Do you have your seat belt fastened tightly? Believe me, you’re gonna need it!
“There is no way of predicting what an anthropological inquiry (of science) will bring to light. In the preceding chapters, which are rough sketches of an anthropological study of particular episodes, it has emerged that science is full of lacunae and contradictions, that ignorance, pigheadedness, reliance on prejudice, lying, far from impeding the forward march of knowledge may actually aid it and that the traditional virtues of precision, consistency, ‘honesty’, respect for facts, maximum knowledge under given circumstances, if practiced with determination, may bring it to a standstill. It has also emerged that logical principles not only play a much smaller role in the (argumentative and non-argumentative) moves that advance science, but that the attempt to enforce them would seriously impede science. (One cannot say that von Neumann has advanced the quantum theory. But he certainly made the discussion of its basis more longwinded and cumbersome.)”
I don’t know if a single paragraph has ever been written that has the potential to offend more educated people of diverse intellectual backgrounds than this! Wow!
Of course, this paragraph is being presented out of its natural context. One must read Against Method to understand the thinking behind it. Having made this obvious qualification, nonetheless, Feyerabend is not being tricky; he is not using words in some off-the-wall sense. Everything he says, he says pretty much at face value.
Let’s absorb this slowly, sentence by sentence. I’ll skip the boring parts and focus on the good stuff.
Holy Holes, Batman!
“…it has emerged that science is full of lacunae and contradictions…”
“Lacunae” of course is just a fancy way to say “holes”: science is full of holes and contradictions. He of course cites several of these in Against Method, mainly in connection to Galileo’s work, which I won’t repeat here.
Let me just do a few contradictions for the fun of it.
Atom means “indivisible”. The elementary particles, protons and neutrons, are made of quarks. Nothing goes faster than the speed of light, except the whole universe. Entropy always increases, except in living systems. The probability of rolling a two on a six-sided die is 1/6th, given an infinite number of dice rolls.
You get the idea.
As to lacunae, one word: consciousness.
Ignorance is Strength
“…ignorance, pigheadedness, reliance on prejudice, lying, far from impeding the forward march of knowledge may actually aid it…”
Feyerabend does a great job in Against Method illustrating this point. Whether Galileo was intentionally deceptive or just confused is irrelevant. What is certain is Galileo was flying by the seat of his pants in trying to advocate a new world view that went against so much of the conventional wisdom of his time.
As Feyerabend emphasizes, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Galileo’s obstinate pigheadedness, his crappy telescopes, and to rocks falling from towers in a straight line down (Sorry, you have to read the book to get the allusions, unless you already know the story).
We see something similar in the recent past in people like Richard Feynman: (to paraphrase) ‘who cares what it means (i.e. the math behind quantum mechanics), just shut up and calculate’ (yes, yes, I know Feynman didn’t say this originally, but it has become attached to his name). I don’t think it’s too off base to consider such an attitude “pigheaded”.
If people had waited to figure out what quantum mechanics really means, we’d all still be typing on IBM typewriters and talking on AT&T landlines. And there sure wouldn’t be an internet…
Another really great example: Andreas Vesalius, one of the most famous physicians in history, plundered cemeteries for corpses to dissect. Stealing dead bodies from cemeteries is illegal now, and it was illegal back then too.
Sometimes you have to just say “To Hell with it” and push ahead with the hand you’ve been dealt.
Orthodoxy Means Not Thinking
“…the traditional virtues of precision, consistency, ‘honesty’, respect for facts, maximum knowledge under given circumstances, if practiced with determination, may bring it (science) to a standstill”
If we knew everything from the start, there would be nothing to do.
Darwin had no idea what a gene was, yet he went ahead and posited evolution anyway.
Today, we do not understand in specific detail the link between brain blood flow and neuron action, let alone how brains (supposedly) make consciousness, yet we use PET and MRI scanners to study human behavior like there was no tomorrow.
Or my all-time favorite example: all those know-it-all genius physicians who, in the mid-1800s laughed and mocked Semmelweis into obscurity when Semmelweis suggested that doctors wash their hands between seeing patients. You ever seen a modern surgeon in the scrub room before a surgery?
All I can say is never trust anyone who seems too self-assured.
I Am Lying
“logical principles not only play a much smaller role in the (argumentative and non-argumentative) moves that advance science, but that the attempt to enforce them would seriously impede science”
Feyerabend didn’t miss a chance to get in his jabs and digs against Karl Popper. It’s kind of like a cat fight. Here he is alluding to the impotence of philosophers of science to solve the demarcation problem. Since I already put the dunce cap on the Falsifiers, I won’t do it again here.
And we get a special line just for quantum physics:
“One cannot say that von Neumann has advanced the quantum theory. But he certainly made the discussion of its basis more longwinded and cumbersome.”
This would be funny if it wasn’t true. This is a pretty specialized dig here and a fine example of intellectual sardonicism.
Frankly, I’m afraid to elaborate on this statement because I don’t particularly want to offend any of my colleagues who take this stuff rather seriously.
What Have We Learned?
Ok, I must admit…I’ve had too much fun with this blog post! I’ll be better behaved next time…maybe!