The Law of the Infinite Cornucopia

Posted by on January 20th, 2010

The Philosopher Leszek Kolakowski who rejected his former Marxism and embraced a humanistic rationalism proposed this law of the infinite cornucopia.

Which suggests that for any given doctrine one wants to believe, there is never a shortage of arguments by which one can support it.

An example given is theology and the bible. For any doctrine a biblical theologian wants to believe there is never any shortage of biblical evidence to support it.

The centre of Kolakowski’s conceptual universe was the individual – a rational and freely acting subject, aware that there is a spiritual side of life, yet eschewing absolute certainty of either an empirical or transcendental sort: “I do not believe that human culture can ever reach a perfect synthesis of its diversified and incompatible components”, he said. “Its very richness is supported by this very incompatibility of its ingredients. And it is the conflict of values, rather than their harmony, that keeps our culture alive.” (extract from the Daily Telegraph Obituary of Kolakowski in 2009)

What role then the philosopher?
It was not the philosopher’s role to deliver the truth, but to “build the spirit of truth” by questioning what appears to be obvious, always suspecting that there might be “another side” to any question. The true philosopher should approach any issue with scepticism and humility: “A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading”, he said.

This week I will be mostly reading…

Posted by on July 1st, 2009

Three Dialogues on Knowledge, by Paul Feyerabend.

Yes its that time of year again where I read my favourite philosophical iconoclast. However I’m not going to give a comprehensive review of the book (mostly as I’m only 1/3 of the way through it). Amazon reproduces the blurb from the back of the book and that succinctly describes its scope and its method.

As the title suggests it is concerned with knowledge, specifically in the fields of epistemology, ethics and metaphysics. Consequently lots of topics get attention paid to them including religion, science, astrology, culture etc.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is its style. It is – quite unlike most of Feyerabends work, easy to read. It is written in imitation of the Socratic Dialogue. I get the feeling that Feyerabend (who as well as being a Professor of Philosophy was a graduate of both Physics and Theatre) wrote these dialogues not for inward digestion but for public performance – consequently it is much more accessible to the reader than other works of his. He also is conscpicously absent, each of the characters represent aspects of him or even anti-characterisations and I get the impression that because he is absent as a figure (even mocked in one of the dialogues) he doesnt feel the need for grand standing controversial gesture statements – even if the content brings up controversial ideas i.e. the anarchic nature of science.

Anyway I may occasionally post excerpts from the book.

I start with this one on education – which also touches on ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, tradition, culture, existentialism, anarchism etc. I found it a very powerful passage.

A: So you really are against education.

B: On the contrary! I regard education – the right kind of education – as a most necessary aid to life. I think the poor creatures who were sent into the world just because a man or a woman were bored with each other, felt lonely and hoped that producing a nice little pet might improve matters, or because mama forgot to insert her intra-uterine device, or because mama and papa were Catholics and did not dare to have pleasure without procreation – I think these poor creatures need some protection. They got life without having asked for it – and yet from the very first day of their existence they are pushed around, forbidden to do this, ordered to do that, any conceivable pressure is exerted upon them including the inhumane pressure deriving from the need for love and sympathy. So they grow up. They become ‘responsible’. And now the pressures are refined. Instead of the whip we have the argument, instead of parental threats the pressures issuing from some midget whom his fellow midgets regard as a ‘great man’. Instead of eating his supper he is supposed to search for truth. But why should the children of tomorrow have to imitate the leading idiots of today? Why should those upon whom we have imposed existence not view this existence in their own terms? Don’t they have a right to please themselves even if this scares the beejesus out of their teachers, fathers, mothers as well as of the local police force? Why should they not decide against Reason and Truth…

A: You must be dreaming…

B: And this is my good right. This is everybody’s good right and it must not be taken from us by an education that maims instead of helping us to develop our own being to the fullest.

– Second Dialogue (1976)

On Nihilism

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 25th, 2009

I abandoned reading Harper’s “The Seventh Solitude” because it was doing my head in by its use of nihilism which was very different from my understanding of the term. There are two main definitions of nihilism, as far as I can tell.

The first is the rejection of objective moral truth. The simplest justification of this view is the is-ought problem, which argues that “ought” statements cannot be based on “is” statements. This inevitably implies that any objective meaning of life is meaningless or undefinable. By this definition Nietzsche can be said to be a nihilist.

One must stretch out one’s hands and attempt to grasp this amazing subtlety, that the value of life cannot be estimated. Twilight, FN

Kierkegaard objected to this view and implied “the eternal” was the only escape from nihilism.

If there is no eternal consciousness in a human being, if at the bottom of everything is only a wild ferment, a power that, twisting in dark passions, produces everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lies hidden between everything, what would life be then but despair? Fear and Trembling, SK

This view also highlights the common belief that nihilism is accompanied by anomie, ultra-pessimism or “immoral” behavior. I stumbled across a strange online manifesto for nihilism which uses this form of nihilism as a positive force – and I thought is website was unorthodox…

The second definition of nihilism, as used by Nietzsche, is “depreciation of life” or “will to non-existence”. Nietzsche labels any idea that implies that non-existence is preferable to existence as nihilistic. The aim in his philosophy is to make life possible without resorting to nihilistic concepts. The act of valuing metaphysical realities as higher than apparent realities was his chief objection to religion, as this necessarily devalues the apparent/realist reality.

Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self; the heavenly by the love of God. St Augustine

Nietzsche’s view of moral relativism is interesting as it treats the various moral systems as wholly within a realist world. I think of this as a type of moral/physical monistic realism. Metaphysics is not invited to the party.

There are more idols than realities in the world […]

To invent fables about a world “other” than this one has no meaning at all […] Twilight, FN

This ironically makes Nietzsche a nihilist by one definition and an anti-nihilist by the other! I am still trying to think of catchy terminology to clarify types of “nihilism” but without success. With the use of alternative terminology, the former definition is simply moral relativism and the later is anti-metaphysical realism.

Anti Citizen One

PS I just finished reading Fear and Trembling and Tipping Point. I need to read some fiction next! Bring on the Murakami!

PPS In comedy form, nihilism is taken to an extreme in the film “The Big Lebowski”: “We believe in nothing, Lebowski! Nothing!”. This simple claim shares elements of both forms of nihilism.

Wittgenstein, the Solopsist and Moore

Posted by on April 29th, 2008

Various things occured to me recently regarding Wittgenstein and his latter day attitudes to Solopsism.

Firstly Wittgenstein had little time or respect for the history of philosophy and is said (most probably accurately) that he never even took the time to read Descartes, upon whose foundations most subsequent philosophies developed.

Secondly he wrote in some of his final works that the Solopsist was talking nonsense, on the simple basis that if one is to doubt everything then surely one must include the language, phraseology and logic of doubt itself within the schema of uncertainty. And this he said is self-refuting, the project cannot get off the ground. Remember this assertion is based on his lifelong principle that one cannot have a purely private language, and that meaning is found in use.

Thirdly he famously refused to deny to Russell that there was not a rhinoceros in the room, thus seemingly rejecting all common sense.

Fourthly he also refuted H.E.Moore’s common sense “here is a hand” discourse, accusing him of misusing terms like “I know”.

Wittgenstein says very little about the Solopsist directly, mainly because as already mentioned he had little time for established philosophy. But two things were made apparent, he rejected Descartes solopsist on account of the inexpressability of doubt, but he also it is said (and perhaps seems obvious when we consider the rhinoceros) had a great deal of sympathy for the solopsistic way of thinking. He once commented in private letters that life was very much like a dream only occasionally interrupted by reality, and the difficulty was in discerning which was which.

Wittgenstein criticizes Descartes Solopsist not for his suspicions and doubts of themselves, but for his vocalisation of this doubt. To doubt, one might say is human, but to vocalise, institutionalise, express and perhaps even objectivise that doubt is he believes to play a specific language game whose construction and internal logic is based upon a subjective and relative consensus and an experience-based internal logic that leads to the creation of a particular language game.

In other words to publically state that one doubts or cannot be certain of the real is to fall into the trap of using idioms and expressions that are defined by and which themselves are creators and constructors of the real.

By the same measure he rejects Moore’s common sense approach, “here is a hand” etc. To say that one “knows” that this is hand and that it is a part of me is to play an equally subjective and consensus based language game.

This subject deserves a much deeper analysis than I am going to provide right now, but the main point is that Wittgensteins sympathy for the solopsist, refusal to deny the presence of rhinoceros in the room (contrary to common sense) and yet rejection of Cartesion scepticism and Moorian common sense are all indicative of his radical subjectivism. If meaning is found in use (the central maxim of his later work) then our entire idiomatic perspective about the created world is therefore subjective and the real is a construct of our language games and not a fixed thing per se.

In conclusion i’d like to make two opposing points. Firstly in criticism one may be inclined to suggest that Wittgenstein is tending towards logocentrism, as he specifically criticizes the expression of objective doubt or knowledge in language and yet whilst accepting the validity of this uncertainty provides no alternative or meaningful outlet other than that provided by language. Secondly and somewhat more in support and perhaps as an answer to the first point, Wittgensteins sympathy for the solopsist and criticism of his ever daring to express his doubt, is an expression of his belief that like the solopsist trapped in uncertainty, we too are trapped by the languages that we use, trapped in subjectivity. Finally the more one considers these latter points in Wittgenstein the more apparent it becomes that his early Tractarian philosophy was a key developmental part of his later work. The more I consider his sympathy for the solopsist and his logocentric solopsism the more I recall his phrase in the Tractatus “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. (5.6)”

More ramblings on bioethics and the state

Posted by on February 2nd, 2008

I’m guessing the previous post to be in part a response to my thoughts on the current bioethics debates. And alas I feel myself being drawn into a debate that normally I would prefer to keep at the office or within the academic environment. Anyway I will try to respond to some of your points.

You describe the Pope’s writings as betraying “Arbitrary Reasoning” – well besides the obvious arbitrariness of the accusation you are entitled to your opinion. Certainly if one were to read his works in isolation or out of order then his reasoning probably could seem arbitrary. On the other hand if you read his works from the 60’s onwards (a gargantuan task) you would probably get a feeling for the reasoned consistency of his arguments (though by no means should this deter you from your disagreements).

You criticise his view for being speciesist and this topic has been written on at some length, so I will move over that one. Other than to say that he could be regarded as necessarily speciesist – consistent with the anthropic thrust of Christian philosophy – as opposed to being arbitrarily so.

You dislike the appeal to tradition and again there is little more I can say on this matter other than it is a self-justifying position for the office he holds as the successor to Peter. Appeals to tradition are tautologically a traditional way of building arguments in philosophy. It can become a logical fallacy if the tradition that is being appealed to is given unquestionable authority. But a simple overview of pontifical literature shows that unbending adherence to tradition is not the modus operandi, for example in the days of St Thomas Aquinas “life” was assumed to begin some days after conception and at variable times for boys and girls. Now, informed by medical science this view has been rejected and a life begins at conception theory has been adopted. Before I explain this a little further, just one cautionary note your opposition to the appeal to tradition (without qualification) has a similarity to the fallacy of the appeal to novelty.

It seems that you also oppose the assumption to a universal right to life. Now we have discussed the idea of natural rights before and satisfactorily concluded that the notion is ridiculous. But is this what he is arguing for? In the snippet of text you quoted he talks about unconditional respect this is appeal to cultivating a respectful attitude not an appeal to natural rights.

Biomedical ethics has engaged in an important debate concerning “life” and its “beginnings”. Personally I adhere to a theory that is called “longitudinal form.”

From conception through conceptus, blastocyst, embryo, fetus all the way to birth there are no singular definable and isolatable boundaries of transition. One could take pictures of the developmental stages and label them as seperate stages of being – but this is an artificial seperation for these stages in action or process are inseperable and belong to a single continuity of cell division and growth. One could talk about the first beat of the heart, the first signs of mental life, the development of the nervous system or even birth as “the beginning of life” but these are parts of an organic continuum.

This longitudinal view of life is generally adopted post-natal by all of us. Although we differentiate between tot, child, teen, young adult, middle-age and the elderly there are no objective or singularly definable moments that one can point to and declare with any certainty that there was a particular moment of transition.

Similarly so then by extension even birth is a process rather than a straightforward before/after event. The child in the womb in the days preceding birth is virtually indistinguishable from the child immediately post-birth – generally we talk about viability at this stage. But as medical care for premature babies improves yet more boundaries in viability are smashed and it is not uncommon to hear of 26 week old survivors. But being “born” and taking one’s first breath of air by ones self (or being capable of doing so) is not the deciding factor (usually) in discerning whether the child is “alive”, “vital” or “viable”. It is important, but not singularly so.

We can understand various moments of embryonic development by taking them in isolation and comparing them with other stages – but these stages are not independent of each other and only become totally meaningful when considered as part of an organic process. Thus it is possible to talk about life or the process of growing-life beginning at conception without having recourse to notions of the soul or the direct action of a divinity.

Now than having rejected ‘natural rights’ we still acknowledge artifical or assumed rights. The difference in view is that natural rights are somehow inherent whereas the other type of right is in the gift of human discourse. This latter is a fairly democratic way of operating. By consensus most of us wish to avoid being murdered thus a social taboo has arisen around the act of murder. Similarly the vast majority of us engage in a primitive form of social contract by choosing not to murder each other – quite often on the selfish context that if I dont kill you hopefully you will extend the same courtesy to me!

But what qualifications does one require in order to be eligible for certain rights? Obviously I cannot extend the right to life to a dead body, nor the right to vote in free elections to an embryo. Clearly there are circumstances where we consider one or other of our species invalid to certain rights.

What then about the right to life? Well generally we extend the gift of this right to all living people, exceptions are made in some societies for capital crimes where the right to life is supposed to have been negated by criminal action. Similarly some cultures have begun to diminish the primary status this right usually enjoys by defining it as in competition with the right to die, or more pertinantly the right to choose the means and time of ones death. But even in this case the right hasn’t been completely abrogated, rather a realism has descended upon certain ethical views, a realism that rights are in the gift of society and are not endowed by a supernatural power or inherent in our natures. And of course even the right to die is qualified on the grounds of voluntary decision making, such a right is gifted to those who are autonomous and capable of making an informed and consensual decision. Unique cases exist such as permanent coma’s and brain death (or persistant vegitative states) but thats a seperate issue.

So what about the unborn child, are they qualified to recieve the gift of rights? This is the crux of the debate. There are those who use the language and imagery of parasitical life to negate the qualification of the unborn child to recieve rights so long as they are dependent upon the host (mother). But what about the child who has just been born? Although breathing and living independently, they are still vulnerable and incapable of sustaining their own fragile lives, in other words they depend on the kindness of others. Consequently infanticide has become an extraodinary social taboo, particularly if the motivation for murder is selfish and not the result of some unfortunate psychological illness. What difference in moral ‘status’ then is there between the child who has just been born and who is dependent on their mother/carer, and the child in the womb who is viable? And as longitudinal form asks, what difference then in moral status is there between a full-term but as yet unborn child and one that is yet to have become fully developed?

The argument then proceeds that rather like the artificial nature of viewing the stages of developmental growth independent of the whole process from conception (to death), so too certain divisions in moral status and eligibility to the right of life are artificial too.

If we understand that the right to life is a gift, and we choose to remove that right from the unborn child, then if we are to be consistent and not ageist or hypocrital then we must concede that the same right to life may be removed from any one uf us at any time if society (in whose gift the right belongs) defines us as somehow ineligble.

And if society can define the unborn child, the elderly or disabled as being ineligble candidates for the right to life, then what is to prevent society from deciding arbitrarily that our eligibility to that right can be questioned on the grounds of race, gender, sexuality, religion, profession, political opinion etc.

And this is not just the apocalyptic ravings of a hypothetical slippery slope argument – one need only look to recent history to observe governments assuming the power to gift rights and to take them away. We all know (hopefully) of the Holocaust, but let us remember also the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge who decided that amongst others those who wore spectacles were enemies of the state and ineligible to posess the same rights as anyone else simply because eye spectacles were considered a sign of education.

You also ask about the “natural time” of death when nowadays that time may be elongated or shortened by medical intervention. This is an important question, but surely the concept is analytical and self-defining, the natural time of death is that which occurs without direct medical intervention. Although you dont say as much your begging of the question seems to imply that because medical science can elongate our lives we ought to make use of their services. Why should this be so? It is known in medicine and medical ethics as “vitalism” the attitude that one must avoid death at all costs. The individual is not compelled to take advantage of the medical services available to them, indeed it is one of the fundamental tenets of medicine that they should seek to help those who come to them for assistance.

One could also define the “natural time” of death as being that which occurs without “extraordinary” medical intervention (and this is indeed the position of the Catholic Church). The question one should ask then is what is “extraordinary” and what reasons does an individual have to want to sustain their life artifically beyond its self-sufficient viability?

You’re second major objection is concerning the “annoyance” of religious groups imposing their view on society with regards ethics (for example abortion). I hate to say it but this just seems to confirm your abhorrence to all things religious and highlights the fragile relationship many people have to the idea of ‘free-speech’.

If there was a situation where roving bands of Catholic militiamen were arresting pregnant women and imprisoning them until they went full-term in order to prevent an abortion, then I may accept that they were imposing their views on society. But this isn’t happening and nobody is suggesting that it should. Those instances (more prevalent in America) where acts of violence are perpetrated against those who facilitate abortion are not acting in religious interests, no matter how badly they protest that they are or how much those who hate religion may try to smear them. It is a sad reality that there are those who allow their personal prejudice to cloud their judgement and who voicably use religious belief as a justification for wholly non-religious means. These people are hypocrites and should be judged as such. In much the same way that we would judge and condemn all forms of hypocrisy in all walks of life.

Now you may argue that anti-abortion lobby groups who would desire a change in the law whether it be greater restrictions or complete illegalization are, albeit through non-violent means, trying to impose their morality upon society as a whole. While this is true to an extent if you genuinely are arguing that this “annoyance” is wrong, anti-social or somehow contrary to your libertarian ethic, then you are painfully naive and certainly not a libertarian in any sense of the word.

How else was abortion legalized in the first place, without the lobbying of a pro-abortion interest group, to legalise the practise on the grounds of free-choice and medical safety? Was this not the imposition of one viewpoint onto the rest of society? Is this not what all human laws are? Is this not what democratic governance is about?

You ask “Isn’t it enough for them to live virtuously (by their own standard) and well away from politics?”

I assume by this you are suggesting that a religious point of view has no place being involved in political debate. If so I can think of no greater assault on the libertarian ideals of free-speech and freedom of conscience that John Stuart-Mill wrote about in chapter 2 of his work On Liberty on the liberty of thought and discussion.

Surely your request that the “annoying” religiously minded people who oppose abortion for example (although I know plenty of atheist pro-lifers also which further highlights the tyranny of your proposition) could be inversely applied to yourself and the ‘non-believers’? Isn’t it enough for you to live virtously by your own standard and stay well away from politics?

If we maintain a system of democratic governance that permits the participation of the people within the organon of power – a system that has the authority to rule over everybody – what ‘right’ have you to deny the freedom to voice an opposing view on any given matter of legislation?

Lets forget abortion, religious belief and non-belief for a moment and apply your maxims to another issue altogether. I oppose the hunting of foxes with hounds, I consider it abominably cruel and unfair and an activity more about sport than pest control. I detest those who support hunting and who consider it to be making a sport out of a “necessary” pest-control activity. But they are entitled to their different point of view and they are entitled – no matter how “annoying” they are and no matter how unlikely it is that I will ever change my mind on the issue – to voice their opinions and to seek a change in legislation.

And so to the final point, in a participatory democracy, that it is alleged we belong to, we can never have any justification in attempting to silence the views of others no matter how objectionable they may seem, when the desired outcome of our participatory democracy is to enact laws that govern us all.

If the law applies to us all – then the oppurtunity to oppose that law must apply to us all. Therefore in the case of abortion, if one group opposes it, on the grounds that it is a violation of the unborn childs right to life (a right that they consider to be either inherent or in the gift of society) then this view may be validly expressed as equally as those who believe that the right to choice overrides the rights claims of an unborn child.

To oppose a law (any law) and to hope that someday it may be changed whilst admitting equally that it may not – depending on the vicissitudes of prevailing opinion is the fundamental axiom upon which liberty is built. To demand that anyone cease from voicing their opposition or from trying to enact change is nothing less than tyranny.

Some concluding thoughts on Feyerabend

Posted by on January 18th, 2008

One of Feyerabend’s themes is that there is no common structure to the sciences; individuals may assert that there is, but an analysis of the history of science shows how impressively ad hoc the development of science has been. This is not exploited as a criticism of science, per se, but rather identified as a strength: it argues against placing restrictions and limits on the spirit of open inquiry that underlies science:

His relativistic “meta-methodology” was summarized thus:

“(A) the way in which scientific problems are attacked and solved depends on the circumstances in which they arise, the (formal, experimental, ideological) means available at the time and the wishes of those dealing with them. There are no lasting boundary conditions of scientific research.

(B) the way in which problems of society and the interactions of cultures are attacked and solved also depends on the circumstances in which they arise, the means available at the time and the wishes of those dealing with them. There are no lasting boundary conditions of human action.

Thus he criticises the view:

“(C) that science and humanity must conform to conditions that can be determined independently of personal wishes and cultural circumstances.”

And also the assumption:

“(D) that it is possible to solve problems from afar, without participating in the activities of the people concerned.

Finally, Feyerabend pointedly distinguishes between abstract traditions and historical traditions:

“Historical traditions cannot be understood from afar. Their assumptions, their possibilities, the (often unconscious) wishes of their bearers can be found only by immersion, i.e. one must live the life one wants to change. Neither (C) nor (D) apply to historical traditions… my main objections against intellectual solutions of social problems is that they start from a narrow cultural background, ascribe universal validity to it and use power to impose it on others. Is it surprising that I want to have nothing to do with such ratiofascistic dreams? Helping people does not mean kicking them around until they end up in someone else’s paradise, helping people means trying to introduce change as a friend, as a person, that is, who can identify with their wisdom as well as with their follies and who is sufficiently mature to let the latter prevail: an abstract discussion of the lives of people I do not know and with whose situation I am not familiar is not only a waste of time, it is also inhumane and impertinent.


I say that Auschwitz is an extreme manifestation of an attitude that still thrives in our midst. It shows itself in the treatment of minorities in industrial democracies; in education… which most of the time consists in turning wonderful young people into colourless and self-righteous copies of their teachers… it shows itself in the killing of nature and of ‘primitive’ cultures with never a thought spent on those thus deprived of meaning for their lives; in the colossal conceit of our intellectuals, their belief that they know precisely what humanity needs and their relentless efforts to recreate people in their own, sorry image… in the lack of feeling of many so-called searchers for truth who systematically torture animals, study their discomfort and receive prizes for their cruelty.

As far as I am concerned there exists no difference whatsoever between the henchmen of Auschwitz and these ‘benefactors of mankind’ – life is misused for special purposes in both cases. The problem is the growing disregard from spiritual values and their replacement by a crude but ‘scientific’ materialism, occasionally even called humanism: man (i.e. humans as trained by their experts) can solve all problems – they do not need any trust in and any assistance from other agencies. How can I take a person seriously who bemoans distant crimes but praises the criminals in his own neighbourhood? And how cna I decide a case from afar after seeing that reality is richer than even the most wonderful imagination.”

From the concluding chapter of Farewell to Reason.

Feyerabend: a students perspective

Posted by on January 18th, 2008

Feyerabend was once labelled the ‘greatest enemy of science’ a title that in his later life he took pride in (he was an iconoclast by nature), but which midway through his career threw him into an enormous depression. The roots of his depression and the crass insults he had to suffer for daring to challenge the orthodox view of science were based substantially upon the misunderstanding of his work. One of the ‘problems’ with his writings is the speed with which he moves from clear point to reductio- thus without a careful reading his supporters and detractors often (myself included) end up reading the reductio as though it were his point of view. Consequently since his death with the major retrospective his work is enjoying – one philosopher going so far as to say that minus the iconoclasms he has been wholly rehabilitated – there has been a scramble to make sense of all of his work in its complexity. Subsequently a great deal of focus has been attached to the interpretations of his best students (themselves now noteworthy academics). What follows are some thoughts of Gonzalo Munevar – a one time student of Feyerabends – and now a Proffessor in his own right.

What are Feyerabends greatest contributions?

Contrary to being an enemy of science Feyerabend showed how complex and humane science is and ought to be. Of his many contributions, perhaps the most important is that there is no method or rule that can capture science completely. The most excellent idea about the nature of science has to allow exceptions. When we look at the history of science, we discover not only that the great scientists violated the methods proposed by the empiricists, but that they had to violate them, otherwise they would not have secured the great successes through which we know them today.

– Until Feyerabend and Kuhn it was supposed that scientific rationality adhered to certain methodological rules. That science was a shining beacon of rationality. Those rules were inductive. The philosophical problem was that even though we “knew” that such scientific method produced knowledge, we could not prove it. Karl Popper argued that the problem came from thinking erroneously that induction was the method of science. We just needed to realize that science was based instead on the method of trial and error. But Feyerabend’s analysis of the history of science demonstrated that adherence to all proposed methods, from Francis Bacon’s to Popper’s, would impede the progress of science. To progress, then, science needs to act against method from time to time.

The reason is very simple. All varieties of empiricism assume that experience determines the worth of our scientific ideas. This assumption is presumably justified because through experience scientists learn directly what is written on the book of nature. For example, if all observers see a stone fall vertically, the vertical motion of the stone is an immediate or direct truth given by observation – an immediate truth with which our most profound hypotheses about the world must agree. If a hypothesis implies that the stone does not fall vertically, our observations, our experience will then refute it. Unfortunately for empiricism, as Feyerabend reminds us, the Copernican hypothesis claims that the earth rotates on its axis to give us the day-night cycle, and this claim is refuted by the vertical fall of the stone.

– Munevar goes on to explain why this isnt a problem in the end for Galileo. We rejoin it after the explanation.

These considerations do not imply that scientific hypotheses or theories always defeat the verdict of experience, but they do imply that such victories by theory are possible. This result implies in turn that all empiricist methodological rules must have exceptions. The reason is that such rules assign a higher priority to experience (over theory).

Feyerabend rescued Galileo from the preposterous role of being the first and greatest hero of empiricism. By doing so, he allowed us to understand science very differently

What were Feyerabends errors?

He erred in his proposal that all traditions or ideologies should have equal standing. But eventually he realized that, as Marguerite von Brentano had argued, the Nazis and the Quakers would then have equal access to pursue their goals, even though one of the Nazis’ main goals was to exterminate other cultures.

He also acknowledged, though reluctantly, my criticism to the effect that a society has the obligation to teach its young the skills and the views they need to survive, and that in a world that depends on science that is what students will have to learn, not astrology or voodoo. He thus came to see that there were drastic limitations to his notion of the separation of science and society.

What influence did John Stuart Mill have?

John Stuart Mills essay On Liberty was a great influence to Feyerabend, Munevar explains how so, and why it is essential we see Feyerabend as part of this libertarian tradition (the better to understand his conclusions).

Feyerabend points out that we are often unable to even discover important evidence against our favorite theories unless we consider seriously alternative theories that can propose and make sense of counter-evidence… No matter how certain we may be of a theory, a scientist who fails to accept it and develops instead a different theory is doing science a favor. For as Feyerabend says, “We need a dream-world in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit (and which may actually just be another dream-world).”

Feyerabend also acts against the important tradition of Plato and Descartes, whose obsession it was to discover the correct path to unique truth. Mill was the first important philosopher who rebelled against the goal itself. In his essay On Liberty, Mill argued that it does not favor society to force its members to accept the official point of view – no matter how certain it seems to be. By allowing the development of different points of view society profits, for if the official point of view is false, we gain the opportunity to replace with another that might be at least partially true. And if the official point of view turns out to be true anyway, comparing it with alternative points of view allow us to understand it better. Feyerabend’s accomplishment in this area comes from extending Mill’s philosophy to science.

Feyerabend’s ironic sense of humor led him to proclaim anarchy in the philosophy of science and to suggest that “anything goes.” But he never offered anarchy as a sort of anti-method method. Anarchy is the description that a traditional rationalist would give to the way science should be done according to Feyerabend, and particularly the description that rationalist would give of pluralism. It is that rationalist who finds it obvious that rationality consists in behaving in accordance with the rules of the method of empiricism. And it is that rationalist who recoils in horror at the “anything goes” attitude in science a la Feyerabend.

Interview extracted in paraphrases from here.

A Feyerabend outline.

Posted by on January 17th, 2008

What follows is a short outline of the main thrust of Feyerabends analytical account of the origins of science, his rejection of Karl Poppers thesis and his espousal of epistemological anarchism. This is extracted as a whole from Straw Dogs by John Gray and is one of the better, simpler accounts of Feyerabends thought.

Science’s Irrational Origins

As portrayed by its fundamentalists, science is the supreme expression of reason. They tell us that if it rules our lives today, it is only after a long struggle in which it was ceaselessly opposed by the Church, the state and every kind of irrational belief. Having arisen in the struggle against superstition, science – they say – has become the embodiment of rational inquiry.

This fairy tale conceals a more interesting history. The origins of science are not in rational inquiry but in faith, magic and trickery. Modern science triumphed over its adversaries not through its superior rationality but because its late-medieval and early-modern founders were more skilful than them in the use of rhetoric and the arts of politics.

Galileo did not win in his campaign for Copernican astronomy because he conformed to any precept of ‘scientific method’. As Feyerabend argued, he prevailed because of his persuasive skill – and because he wrote in Italian. By writing in Italian rather than Latin, Galileo was able to identify resistance to Copernican astronomy with the bankrupt scholasticism of his time, and so gain support from people opposed to older traditions of learning:

Copernicus now stands for progress in other areas as well, he is a symbol for the ideals of a new class that looks back to the classical times of Plato and Cicero and forward to a free and pluralistic society.

Galileo won out not because he had the best arguments but because he was able to represent the new astronomy as part of a coming trend in society. His success illustrates a crucial truth. To limit the practise of science by rules of method would slow the growth of knowledge, or even halt it:

The difference between science and methodology which is such an obvious fact of history… indicates a weakness in the latter, and perhaps of the ‘laws of reason’ as well… Without ‘chaos’, no knowledge. Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress. Ideas which today form the very basis of science exist because there were such things as prejudice, conceit, passion; because these things opposed reason; and because they were permitted to have their way.

According to the most influential twentieth-century philosopher of science, Karl Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. When they were first advanced, each of them was at odds with some available evidence; only later did evidence become available that gave them crucial support. Applying Popper’s account of scientific method would have killed these theories at birth.

The greatest scientists have never been bound by what are now regarded as the rules of scientific method. Nor did the philosophies of the founders of modern science – magical and metaphysical, mystical and occult – have much in common with what is today taken to be the scientific worldview. Galileo saw himself as a defender of theology, not as an enemy of the Church. Newton’s theories became the basis for a mechanistic philosophy, but in his own mind his theories were inseperable from a religious conception of the world as a divinely created order. Newton explained apparently anomolous occurrences as traces left by God. Tycho Brahe viewed them as miracles. Johannes Kepler described anomalies in astronomy as reactions of ‘the telluric soul’. As Feyerabend observes, beliefs that are today regarded as belonging to religion, myth or magic were central in the worldviews of the people who originated modern science.

As pictured by philosophers, science is a supremely rational activity. Yet the history of science shows scientists flouting the rules of scientific method. Not only the origins but the progress of science comes from acting against reason.

J.Gray, Straw Dogs -thoughts on humans and other animals, p21-23.


Posted by on November 27th, 2007

This brief outline of Foucault’s theory of discourse is intended to bridge other ideas that I have posted on; such as language games (Wittgenstein and Feyerabend), and recently libertarian socialism. Rather than detail the connections between the three, i’ll leave it to the reader to deduce (or to comment and enquire on). Besides I think the connection is fairly obvious.

The theory of discourse is a postmodern ethical argument concerning discourse and power. Here the term discourse means an historically evolved set of interlocking and mutually supporting statements. It is the ‘language games’ of particular intellectual disciplines, which could also be described as ‘discursive practice’. They usually accept some dominant theory/philosophy to guide them, i.e. science and rationalism. But importantly these discursive practices also include contentious political activity. In other words the discourses define and describe their antagonists, evident in concepts such as ‘irrational’, ‘criminal’, ‘insane’, ‘terrorist’. At the same time the discourse, as well as labelling those who are the archetypal anathema to its orthodoxy, also expresses the political authority of its protagonists.

Prisoner: As God is my judge, my Lord, I am not guilty.

Judge: He is not. I am. You are. Six months.

The language games that each disipline adopts enacts the authority of those empowered to use it within a particular group. Thus when I see a surgeon, his authority is enhanced by his use and application of medical knowledge and terminology. He is empowered to operate on me by my compliance, which accepts his authority in surgical discourse. The opposite would be the case if when I see the surgeon his diagnosis and prognosis was performed in accordance with the interpetation of astrological data. He may be very knowledgeable about my horoscope, but he lacks the sort of authority I would expect from a surgeon, and thus no way would I consider empowering him to anaeasthetize me and open me up! The same is true across the disciplines, thus scientists and theologians often engage in conflict because neither accepts the authority of the other to speak about the others discipline.

But discourse theory is concerned with more than just providing a critique of appropriately acquired and applied knowledge. It is concerned with the political use of authority and empowerment to subordinate, exclude and marginalize those who are defined as being outside, antagonistic, antithetical to the discipline.

We are familiar with the term ‘knowledge is power’ in Foucaults theory this can be rephrased ‘discourse is power’. Law, Penology, Medicine* are powerful discources that in some cases are rathe robviously designed to exclude and control people, such as those diagnosed as criminally insane or ill. – * Such an investigation is relevant also to Institutional Religion, Political Systems, Education, Philosophy etc.

The general juridical form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle was unsupported by these fine, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalistarian and asymmetrical that we call the ‘disciplines’ such as exams, hospitals, prisons, the regulation of workshops, schools, the army. –Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison

Consequently for postmodernists there is an imperative to identify with the victim and to analyse power from the bottom up. Foucault attempts to show that the will to exercise power beats humanitarian egalitarianism every time, and this implies the guilt even of the Enlightenment reliance upon universal principle and reason. With echoes of Feyerabend, Reason and Rationality are identified as being incipiently totalitarian, because the appeal to an always correct Reason is itself a system of control and will always exclude what it makes marginal, defining it as non-rational, irrational and the like.

Rationalism and its supporters define what constitutes Reason, but furthermore are its sole arbitors, thereby excluding and marginalising its critics, its opponents and whosoever else it decides. The tag ‘irrational’ implies a lack of authority, non-validity of argument, deprived and perhaps even depraved. Those thus labelled are therefore either to be pitied, ridiculed (commeansurable identification of religious believers with those who believe in Fairies at the bottom of the garden, for instance), ignored, excluded from meaningful dialogue (see the arguments had between El Sordo and AC1 on whether non-rational arguments including notions of sentiment and feeling can be valid or included), marginalised from the economy of discourse (which university would fund an atheist theologian, or a pseudoscientist in physics?).

The normalizing discourses, that various disciplines define and enact, go beyond merely intellectual segregation, but also in numerous situations impinge upon the liberty of individuals and even groups. Thus the medicaly ‘reasonable’ psychiatrist is empowered and endowed with the authority to define the ‘unreasonable’, pass judgement upon them and to lock them in an asylum. Such prejudicial discourses can be found everywhere, sexists, racists, imperialists all use similar techniques. They make their normalizing discourse prevail, they create their own deviants and exclude them accordingly. (The Patriarchal influence of most early religious philosophy significantly contributed to the oppression of women and their role in society over thousands of years.)

The most important point that postmodernists make about the role of discourse is that it is not confined to the obvious formal contexts, such as the law courts. It inescapeably permeates the whole of society from top to bottom, from judges pronouncements, to scientific journals, to TV advertisements, to pop songs, to newspapers. The more dominant a discourse is within society, the more natural it seems and ironically the more it justifies itself by appeals to nature. Everybody, the postmodernists claim, absorp these subordinating norms, because they are often an intimate part of our language, of which we adhere to unwittingly as though they were facts rather than psychologically and politically motivated features of our talk about it.

The task for postmodernists (and indeed everyone) is to provide an ethical solution to the chauvenistic influence of discourse. This is a failing of Foucault, he identifies a problem, promotes ‘struggle’ and rebellion as solutions, but does not detail beyond what Lyotard suggest: small-scale local reforms*. In other words small groups of the excluded (i.e. Homosexuals) could unite and fight against exclusion, but how do we eradicate exclusion from society wholesale (and is it even possible).

* The Zapatista rebellion in South Mexico, and the Abahlali baseMjondolo of South Africa are excellent example of small-scale postmodern rebellion and may well induce egalitarian change in their societies, but what relevance does it have for us? Note with the Abahlali part of their discourse excludes the political intervention of wellmeaning outsiders.

Another task for postmodernists is to evaluate the role of individual agency and responsibility within discourse. Is it enough to attirbute blame to the discourse of power that flows through individuals, or does the individual themself hold some accountability. (This has some relevance to our recent Institutional Religion discussion).

The critique of discourses of power has one final important role to play in modern philosophy. The role and identity of the self. Certain theories have developed that propose that concepts of the ‘self’ are inseperable from the various discourses of power that flow through us. Thus for a very simple example a male (generally) is inherently a patriarchal sexist, he has to play the role that is defined as being male. Unfortunately there is too much material to explore this further, thus postmodern theories on self and identity must be reserved for a different post. I will conclude with a quote and the plot for a postmodern novel.

A human being is “not a unity, but a process, [is] perpetually in construction, perpetually contradictory, perpetually open to change.” Catherine Belse, Critical Practice

In John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse the narrator Ambrose, describes the difficulty of writing a story called ‘Lost in the Funhouse’ about a character called Ambrose who is Lost in the funhouse. He is visiting his family which includes visiting a funhouse. But he is described by an author who is perpectually aware of the fact that he is telling a story and that he is using literary conventions to do so. Ambrose systematically loses his autonomy and is identifiable as the function of the authors story, the creature of the person who is writing him.

The ultimate conclusion, and possible topic for another post, is that human identity, the ‘self’ is a fiction.

Feyerabend and Science vs. Anti-Realism

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 26th, 2007

I was initially annoyed at Feyerabend but then I do agree with him in some limited areas. The length of this post is perhaps due to my personal interest in science. My thought experiment was to highlight the main area of disagreement and also to discover your views.

My value statement of science – we ought to value accurate predictions of the physical world over inaccurate predictions – is explicitly denied by Wittgenstein, Feyerabend and post-modernism, as I understand them. “My German engineer [Wittgenstein], I think, is a fool. He thinks nothing empirical is knowable – I asked him to admit that there was not a rhinoceros in the room, but he wouldn’t.” (Betrand Russell). I provisionally accept there is not a rhinoceros in the room. Of course, I might discover that rhinoceros can shape shift but so far I have not observed that. In fact, the feeling that there is not a rhinoceros in the room is more real to me than any tricks of language or vague philosophical notions (“here is a hand“, etc). Nietzsche said to deny the physical/actual world, you would also be throwing out any basis for truth or knowledge. ‘[T]he “true world” has been constructed out of contradiction to the actual world: … insofar as it is merely a moral-optical illusion’. (Twilight of the Idols)

I tend to think that, although the physical world seems to exist, we can’t find a basis to attach values to non-physical belief systems. But this is hardly original – it’s just existentialism. I regard your interpretation of LW and F as more post-modern than my point of view. At least we can say “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” (Einstein)

“I think the main area of thought is the principle of induction, which is widely supported in empiricism, and which Feyerabend attempts to dismiss.”

I am not sure induction is used in an unquestioning manner in science. If I said “All observed crows are black there fore all crows are black” in philosophy, it would be a potentially incorrect generalization. If in science, I say “All observed crows are black and I will formulate a theory of the blackness of crows”, that is not a generalization because at any moment we might discover a green crow.

We may say “the scientific law of X can never be broken”, which implies we have used inductive reasoning but it is really a lazy simplification of saying “the theory of X has never been disproved and I don’t expect you can too”. Basically, the provisional nature of scientific theories avoids the generalization of inductive reasoning.

“I’d further develop this by saying that a method that makes no predictions of situational outcomes is of less calue than any method (accurate or inaccurate) that does.”

Very deliberately, I made no mention of metaphysics in my thought experiment (or rather I separate it and then made no comment on it – like early Wittgenstein). I am actually surprised you do accept what is essentially the falsification principle at all! What I was trying to say was the value of predictive theories should only be compared to other predictive theories. I am trying to avoid putting a value on non-predictive theories (which you, F and LW would instantly reject).

This is my current view: empiricism has a very restricted (i.e. physical) scope but it is more valuable within that scope than other views. (Remember when I was at a loss over thinking of a disproof of naturalism? lol)

“Feyerabend proposes that to follow one method to the exclusion of others is
a) not very progressive thinking, and
b) contrary to the ‘experience’ of science history …”

I avoided directly talking about methods in my thought experiment but you could say to produce hypotheses, you need one or more methods. I disagree that within science (or more precisely empiricism), has ever changed it’s view on my “ought statement”. It has always valued a more accurate predictive theory over the less accurate. I would agree with Feyerabend that many methods should be employed to produce theories, but the value assessment is constant in my humble opinion.

“Feyerabend is concerned with the smug attitude of some science.”
Feyerabend is correct if he is referring to some popular perceptions of science or particular scientists but the core principle of science does not necessarily imply smugness. Unless all scientists are smug. Are you accusing me of being smug? 🙂

‘An attitude that could be characterised as saying “we are the only ones that know the answers, and we will share them with you, if you accept our ways.”‘
That is the way science is sometimes perceived but this is of course NOT what science should be about. In fact, science should be the opposite! I can’t find the exact Nietzsche quote, but he talked about the need to reject past theories as insufficient (what he called a “holy nay”) as requirement to write new theories. If science is really dogma, it would be impossible to progress science because we could not question anything.

So, if Feyerabend is criticizing the institutional nature of science we all might be in agreement. Criticising the core value (of accurate predictions are better) of science is laughable – but the anti-realist viewpoint does specifically deny this! (boo hiss to post-modernism when there is an overlap)

“Has a rational method, that functions to guarantee the objectivity of its results.”
Of course, science is more a method for eliminating error rather than guaranteeing correctness.

“And that it, exclusively, produces useful results.”
Exclusively in the physical domain, I believe it does. To disagree with that is anti-realist (which is a valid point of view I guess).

“Feyerabend says that we can see clearly enough that Newtonian mechanics, though ridden with anomalies, took a very long time to get rid of them.” (And allegedly shows science prefers inaccurate theories.)
This is straw man argument in my opinion. All scientific theories to date have what I call “scope”. The scope of a theory is usually stated in the theory itself. For example, Newtonian mechanics does not explain nuclear fusion. It is obvious that no scientific theory has been able to explain everything. (Although this is a goal of some scientists, but that is another story.)

A thought experiment on how scope works:
Scientist A: I have a theory X which explains A, B and C.
Scientist B: Actually, I have some new data which shows that theory X does not explain C in particular circumstances Z.
Scientist A: Um, ok I have to restrict the scope of my theory. It explains A, B and C when C is not in Z.
*a few days later*
Scientist A: I have revised my theory again. It is now called X’ and it explains A, B and C in both “Z” and “not Z”.
Scientist C: Nice. But X’ is more complicated in X. In fact if you assume “not Z”, theory X’ reduces into X. Since I only an interest in “not Z” conditions, I am going to stay using X on the understanding it only applies to “not Z”.
Scientist A: Ok.
Science teacher: Ok with me too. Also since it is easier students to understand X before learning X”, I will teach X first.
An example: X is Newtonian gravity.
A is the fall of objects on Earth
B is nothing in this example
C is the orbit of the planets
Z is orbits close to the Sun (to be exact the perihelion precession of Mercury)
X’ is Einstein’s general relativity.
Conclusion: The persistence of Newtonian mechanics is good enough for most applications and easier to understand than relativity. It is not unscientific to use a theory as long as it is within the scope that it agrees with the physical world.

[the rationalist reconstruction of science argues] “[t]he state should teach science uncritically because it is the one true way.”
I have tried to outline how the direct alternative to science is anti-realism. I imagine most science teachers could not do a lesson on anti-realism without being sarcastic! (But I don’t mean to imply that is what you recommend.) My preference would be to teach what science should be about (keeping an open mind and an empirical basis) and what it should not be about (pseudo-science or dogmatic thinking).

Interesting discussion though. I have some thoughts on tacit acceptance and rejection of science, and the implication of overlap in world views with empiricism, about which I am currently brooding.

Anti Citizen One