Douglas on progress

Thu 24 Oct 2013 02:48 PM

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.


from: Matthew J. Brown

Fri 25 Oct 2013 12:24 PM

P.D., I agree that social change would cause disruptions of progress, but I don't think it is the same as the problem of progress for Kuhn. I think the problem of progress for Kuhn has two components: Kuhn-loss and change of standards. We have Kuhn-loss because the new theory (or paradigm) cannot reproduce all of the accomplishments of the prior one. And the accomplishments are accomplishments anyway relative to the standards immanent in the paradigm. Even more problematic is that both of these problems are a part of the way that science itself functions. Science generates the paradigm-shifts that cause these problems.

By contrast, Douglas's view is still susceptible to change of standards, but we do not have an analogous loss of our ability to predict and control, especially since the old theories don't go away, but continue to be used. (This is probably not entirely true, actually.) Also, insofar as social change shifts the standards, that social change is not an intrinsic part of the operation of science itself.

This means it is a different problem, and one that seems far less worrisome to me.

from: P.D.

Fri 25 Oct 2013 08:12 PM

Matt: That's a fair point. The changes that might make (b) ultimately be unstable and non-cumulative are changes outside of science, which makes it different than with Kuhn.

For what it's worth, all the students in my class favored horn (a) of the dilemma.