Douglas on progress 
A follow-up to yesterdays' post about Heather Douglas' discussion of Kuhn's inability to make sense of progress:

Her central claim is that Kuhn's trouble with progress results from a commitment to the distinction between pure and applied science. She traces the history of the distinction and shows that it was an unquestioned, implicit part of Kuhn's milieu.

She writes:
I think that this problem of characterizing the progress of science arises for Kuhn, and indeed for philosophers of science generally, primarily because Kuhn (and the current philosophical community) is focused on pure science, quite divorced from applied science. It is an interest in theory, in the theoretical development of science, and theory alone, that generates the puzzle of progress. As such, it is somewhat an artificial problem. If we relinquish the idea that science is only or primarily about theory, the problem of progress disappears.

If we include applications, then there is an obvious sense in which science progresses. Its instrumental power increases over time, as it allows for greater prediction and control. She writes, "With the pure vs. applied distinction removed, scientific progress can be defined in terms of the increased capacity to predict, manipulate, and intervene in various contexts."

Yet she recognizes a dilemma for this account of progress. Either (a) any gain in instrumental power counts as progress or (b) only increase in valuable and important power matters.

(a) The first horn of the dilemma means that even monstrous and terrible power (e.g., efficient methods for genocide) would count as progress. This would not be a "sense of scientific progress that sounds genuinely like progress, with all its positive connotations."

(b) The second horn of the dilemma, Douglas' preferred option, requires (to put it crudely) that real progress is power to predict things that matter and to do good in the world. This aligns scientific progress closely to social progress.

Given my pragmatist sympathies, I am happy to accept that prediction and control are the bounty of science. Yet I don't see how this overcomes Kuhn's problem with progress. A Kuhnian paradigm change can disrupt theoretical progress because standards and meanings change, making some old puzzles either irrelevant or incoherent. In a similar way, social change can disrupt instrumental progress because values change, making old accomplishments irrelevant or worthless.

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Kuhn on progress 
We've finished Structure in my Scientific Revolutions course, and today we're discussing Heather Douglas' forthcoming article "Pure science and the problem of progress". She argues that Kuhn is both committed to there being scientific progress and also forced to deny the possibility of progress. She maintains, furthermore, that this tension results from Kuhn considering science just as basic research. And she offers an alternative way of thinking about progress.

Kuhn even says that something counts as science only insofar as it is capable of progress. Douglas describes this point as "echoing historian George Sarton", which is an interesting connection. (We read Sarton earlier in the semester, too.)

For Kuhn, scientific change occurs at two time scales. Over the short term, normal science exhibits progress by posing and solving puzzles. Yet normal science only occurs within a paradigm. Over the long term, paradigms fall into crisis and are replaced by others. Douglas writes, "Precisely because of the radical nature of change across paradigms, because scientists have to give up on some aspects of the old paradigm in order to embrace the new, any clear rubric for measuring change across paradigms is elusive for Kuhn."

Sarton also views scientific change at two time scales, but his are the reverse of Kuhn's: Over the short term, the development of science is subject to the historical vagaries of particular scientists. They might fail to make progress and might even, for a while, write falsehoods into the annals of science. Over the long term, science is the accumulation of truth. Any once-held falsehoods are ultimately rectified.

So the Kuhn is a like a mirror-universe Sarton.

(More about Douglas' positive account tomorrow.)

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Kuhn without incommensurability 
[cross-posted at It's Only a Theory]

We are finishing the close reading of Kuhn's Structure in my Scientific Revolutions course.

On Wednesday, we talked about Kuhn's claim that different paradigms are incommensurable, and today we talked about the considerations which might convince scientists to shift from the old paradigm to a new one. Kuhn characterizes the shift as a conversion experience, but not one that is totally unmotivated by reasons. Kuhn reviews a whole range of possible reasons, including puzzle-solving power, precision, novel prediction, and simplicity.

He insists that none of these reasons are necessarily decisive, however. He writes that
paradigm debates are not really about relative problem-solving ability.... Instead, the issue is which paradigm should in the future guide research on problems many of which neither competitor can yet claim to resolve completely. A decision between alternate ways of practicing science is called for, and in the circumstances that decision must be based less on past achievement than on future promise. (p. 156)

Because a paradigm serves to guide normal science, accepting a paradigm means committing to do normal science in that way. So the choice is forward-looking, while all of the reasons are backward-looking. So, one might say, the choice of paradigm is strategic rather than simply evidential.

While discussing this passage, I realized that the conclusion does not rely on incommensurability at all. Rather, it just relies on the problem of induction: Past performance of a paradigm provides no guarantee of future results. So proceeding with one paradigm rather than the other is a kind of gamble. Reasonable people with different hunches or different tolerance for risk might disagree about which way to go.

This allows for a philosophically conservative reading of Kuhn which accepts that revolution is different than normal science, because different paradigms would guide scientific practice in substantially different ways. The conservative reading also accepts that the choice between paradigms cannot be determined by the relevant reasons, especially during the period of crisis.

The conservative reading isn't adequate as a reading of Kuhn, because it accepts those things without any appeal to incommensurability. The change between paradigms might be like a conversion experience, as Kuhn would have it, because some strategic choices are; consider choosing a career, choosing to get married, or choosing whether or not to have children. But it might instead be a self-conscious choice, like choosing between mutual funds for your retirement account.

I think that this recommends the conservative reading as a philosophical position, even if it disqualifies it as a reading of Kuhn. The description of normal science and crisis is the really insightful part of Structure, while the stuff about incommensurability is the most problematic.

It occurs to me that what I've called here the conservative reading of Kuhn, in which underdetermination comes from the problem of induction rather than incommensurability, looks a lot like Lakatos' Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. We're doing Lakatos next week in class, so I'll see if that idea holds up.

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Read and Woolley on Wray on Kuhn 
In a recent issue of BJPS, Rupert Read and Jessica Woolley review Brad Wray's book Kuhn's Evolutionary Social Epistemology.* I've been thinking about Kuhn recently, too, because I'm teaching Scientific Revolutions this term.

Read and Woolley survey Wray's argument against critics of Kuhn who would say that there is no sharp different between normal science and revolution. Wray appeals to the fact, mentioned in Structure and developed by Kuhn in more detail later, that revolutions involve a substantial change in taxonomy. The world seen after the revolution is divided along different lines than it was before. Shared standards and data can be (perhaps must be) insufficient to determine the choice between rival taxonomies. So these transitions are importantly different than normal science.

This line of reasoning relies on underdetermination at the object-level of scientific theories and taxonomies. Read and Woolley note that it applies just as well at the meta-level, to the theories and taxonomies used in science studies. Yet the difference between normal science and revolution is just part of the taxonomy of Kuhn's account of science. Contra Wray, they conclude that we are not entitled to the conclusion that there really are revolutions.

They put the point this way:
Wray defends Kuhn’s account in the way that he does, aiming to show that there 'really are' Kuhnian revolutions in science (p. 34). If overall taxonomies are underdetermined even in disciplines such as physics where there is ordinarily widespread agreement, it seems unclear what standards Wray could appeal to in order to justify the socio-historical claim that there 'really' are Kuhnian revolutions.


That much seems right to me, and it is anticipated in Structure. In Section VIII, Kuhn treats Hypothetico-Deductive philosophy of science as if it were a paradigm. It does not fit the history of science very well, so it faces anomalies. According to the the Kuhnian picture, adherents of a paradigm faced with such phenomena will make ad hoc revisions to accommodate them, but the puzzling phenomena may be tautological for a later paradigm. And (he suggests) this is just what obtains for the HD account and his proposed alternative. This does not prove that Kuhn's approach is true, however, any more than the anomaly proved that HD was false. So Kuhn himself makes the reflexive move. Just as he denies that (e.g.) a paradigm in chemistry gets to what's really real, he'd deny that his own historiographic paradigm does.

The concluding sentences of the review go wrong, however. Read and Woolley write:
'Paradigm' is not a scientific phenomenon but a term of art, a tool for enabling the historian to bring an order to the deeply challenging task of understanding defunct science without 'Whiggish' preconceptions. The idea of being a realist or an anti-realist about paradigms involves a misplaced concreteness. How, after all, could one meaningfully be a 'relativist' (or indeed a 'realist') about something that is only a term of art?

First, this seems confuse the word ('paradigm') with the things (paradigms). It's a word that's a term of art, but the question of realism arises for the things. It is coherent to ask whether there are really paradigms, just as it is coherent to ask whether there are anglerfish or pions.

Second, this seems to infer from the fact that the term is a tool crafted for a specific purpose to the conclusion that the category cannot be part of the world. This is what I call amphibolic pragmatism, and I rail against it at some length in SENK.

Third, this asks too much of underdetermination. There is no sharp boundary in uncertainty between our knowledge of commonplace stuff (which might be hidden or far away), unobservable entities (which we can't see or sense in the way that I can see or sense a burrito), or natural kinds (which are structural features of the world rather than isolated particulars). Natural kinds, which may be picked out by terms of art, have as much claim to being real as commonplace stuff does. This is what I call equity realism.

Equity realism contrasts with deep realism, the project of fundamental metaphysics. (Again, this distinction is in the book.)

If Kuhnian considerations underwrite an argument against realism, it's against deep realism. Grant that ontology should be relativized to a way of seeing the world. Even within a paradigm, we can distinguish between the substantive commitments and the parts which are self-consciously arbitrary. So we can ask whether revolutions are posited to be features of the world or merely used as wrenches to dismantle Whiggish history. We can ask whether they are real, on par with the way trees and the plague are real, even if we can't say whether they are really real in real reality.


* DOI: 10.1093/bjps/axs032 [direct link]

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The train of citations 
Some philosophers have a general picture of things which has been developed across a number of separate articles such that, every time they articulate it further, they cite all of the previous places where they've presented earlier or partial versions of it. If the view is never pulled together in a book, the self-citation just gets longer and longer with each presentation or extension of the view.

The observation is prompted by this sentence, which I wrote in a paper that I was working on today: "In earlier work, I’ve distinguished retail arguments for realism from wholesale arguments. [MC04][Mag10][Mag11][Mag12, pp. 120–3]"

It makes me think that I should write a book that serves as a retail argument manifesto, before it gets any worse.

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