Feyerabend is on Fire! (or how to make friends and influence scientists)

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liar liar pants on fyreFeyerabend is a trip but he makes a scary lot of sense! This quote of his is so completely outrageous that it gets a whole blog post all to itself…

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!

Ready…set….GO:

“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.

Yay!

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.

Teacher’s Pet
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!

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10 thoughts on “Feyerabend is on Fire! (or how to make friends and influence scientists)

  1. Well, Don, now I can’t decide which post to reblog; this one or your previous one.

    Perhaps the previous one because your link to lucid dreaming is very good along with the birth chart correlation. Makes sense to me.

    I have yet to practice your method and will admit to a fear of success. I’ve had many spontaneous lucid dreams and one conscious one. I’m too curious, however, not to get around to it eventually.

    Debra

    • Why not live dangerously and reblog them both! I can empathize with your hesitation re lucid dreaming. I do a lot of hand holding in DO_OBE that might help you get over that. And the curiosity is a great stimulant. It is one of the most amazing things you can experience is to see yourself transition from being awake to being in the dream world. Kinda freaky, yes, but you get used to it, and then it is just an amazing thing to behold.

      • Cool Don. So last night, while dreaming, I started realizing I was in a dream and wanted to go back to something that had just happened in the dream that I had dismissed. I was able to consciously return to a physical location within the dream quite easily.

        In the dream, I was on a shoreline in what I took to be the Columbia Gorge. I had been at a retreat with two groups of people who had figured out that the lodging they were staying in had a hidden connection in the building to what at first appeared separated.

        On the shoreline, there are many planes of different shapes and sizes flying overhead and landing on the beach. I see an ultra lite land not too far from me, quickly followed by another that crash lands right at the shoreline into the other plane. I walk over to see what happened and to see if the pilot of the crashed plane is okay. When I get close to the plane, it tumbles around, disappearing into the water with no sign of the pilot or the plane. (How symbolic can a dream get?)

        It is at this point that I go into a lucid state and very consciously look closely at the shoreline and can see into the depths of the water. I see that the water becomes very deep very fast and understand why the plane sunk so quickly, disappearing from view. I wake up.

        This could be a warning of the depths I am seeking to enter? Or it could just be preparation. Any thoughts?

      • Hi Ptero9! Wow! Thanks for sharing your experience. You nailed it: how symbolic can a dream get?? That was pretty archetypical as these things go!

        What I know about how to interpret these experiences is that you already know what it means. You just have to find the right words to say it to yourself and it will make immediate sense. I can only help serve as a sounding board but can’t tell you what it means. Certainly being at the shoreline is symbolic of the conscious mind meeting the unconscious mind. The airplanes may represent the fact that you have different “vehicles” by which you can explore the ocean, but all of them would only go over the surface. The crash may represent the transformation of some approach you have in you into a way to “tumble” into the depths. The fact that you do not seem to express any noticeable anxiety suggests it is less a warning and more a preparation.

        The insight you had once you became lucid shows the value of being lucid in the dream state. Your interpretation makes perfect sense at face value. It maybe suggests that you are ready to directly experience the depths, without the need of any intervening “vehicle”.

        These are just a few thoughts off the top of my head. Their only value is to help stimulate you to think about it. As I said, you will have insights and they will instantly “make sense” and that is a clue you are interpreting it correctly. Just remember these things have many facets, there can be many equally true ways to interpret it. Dreams are more like poetry than like facts.

        Again, thank you so much for sharing that experience, Ptero9!

        Best,

        Don

  2. PeterJ

    Fabulous post. If honesty and rigour would slow down scientific progress this would be a good thing. Then we have a more modest science that isn’t a pack of cards constructed out of a ragbag of untested assumptions and self-contradictory concepts. I don’t know how physicists deal with the cognitive dissonance. Well, I do, but ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away.

    • Peter, YOU have been on fire lately too! That is a very interesting spin on Feyerabend. I think it reflects the relativity of events depending on their larger context. During the origin phase, these “honesty, or lack thereof” issues can play a constructive role, which was Feyerabend’s topic. Later in the more mature phase, the same behavior can be degrading and destructive, which is how I read what you are saying. Re the cognitive dissonance, one could perhaps see it as an example of “ignorance is bliss”, you think? Thanks for the fun input, Peter! -Don

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