UPDATE: In the comments, Paul notes that my truncated quote somewhat misstates both him and Feyerabend. I should have been more careful as I know Feyerabend probably would not have insisted on methodological anarchy. My bad. Read Paul’s full post for more context.
I first turn to Paul Newall’s keen observation that Feyerband’s historical approach to understanding the progress of science itself violates his insistence on methodological anarchy:
The result was to place the epistemic systematists in the absurd position of advocating a methodology for science that would have killed the very progress allegedly brought about because early scientists followed the methodology.
Although this reductio succeeds, I want to suggest that Feyerabend’s historiography, and perhaps the historical approach in general, is somewhat paradoxical. The aim of his historiography is to free us from methodological or epistemological strictures but we find ourselves using the lessons of history to show that there are no lessons to be learned from history. This is too simplistic, though: what Feyerabend argued was not that there is and can be no methodology worth adopting but rather that all methods have their limits. Nevertheless, the paradoxical aspect comes from considering the use Feyerabend makes of history. Faced with a methodological rule, we can look to the history of science – and to apparently paradigmatic cases of good practice in particular – and show that an application of the rule would have been disastrous. However, it seems that this relies implicitly on a fixed interpretation of the events under consideration; after all, if it were possible for a rationalist or anyone else to recast the episode in a more favourable light for the rule at issue, we might be able to show that in fact its application would have worked then as now.
I now turn to a rather ancient Massimo Pigliucci post on why Occam’s Razor isn’t as useful as it’s sometimes made out to be:
The obvious question to ask about Ockham’s razor is: why? On what basis are we justified to think that, as a matter of general practice, the simplest hypothesis is the most likely one to be true? Setting aside the surprisingly difficult task of operationally defining “simpler” in the context of scientific hypotheses (it can be done, but only in certain domains, and it ain’t straightforward), there doesn’t seem to be any particular logical or metaphysical reason to believe that the universe is a simple as it could be.Indeed, we know it’s not. The history of science is replete with examples of simpler (“more elegant,” if you are aesthetically inclined) hypotheses that had to yield to more clumsy and complicated ones. The Keplerian idea of elliptical planetary orbits is demonstrably more complicated than the Copernican one of circular orbits (because it takes more parameters to define an ellipse than a circle), and yet, planets do in fact run around the gravitational center of the solar system in ellipses, not circles.Lee Smolin (in his delightful The Trouble with Physics) gives us a good history of 20th century physics, replete with a veritable cemetery of hypotheses that people thought “must” have been right because they were so simple and beautiful, and yet turned out to be wrong because the data stubbornly contradicted them.
The responses on The Dish makes me think they didn’t click through and read the full post.
One of the many remarkable features of Popper’s thought is the scope of his intellectual influence. In the modern technological and highly-specialised world scientists are rarely aware of the work of philosophers; it is virtually unprecedented to find them queuing up, as they have done in Popper’s case, to testify to the enormously practical beneficial impact which that philosophical work has had upon their own. But notwithstanding the fact that he wrote on even the most technical matters with consummate clarity, the scope of Popper’s work is such that it is commonplace by now to find that commentators tend to deal with the epistemological, scientific and social elements of his thought as if they were quite disparate and unconnected, and thus the fundamental unity of his philosophical vision and method has to a large degree been dissipated. Here we will try to trace the threads which interconnect the various elements of his philosophy, and which give it its fundamental unity.
James Kalb has recently interviewed mathematician and architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros. As someone who has always been irritated when people mistakenly think it the job of “science” to invent more and shinier consumer crap, I particularly appreciate the following remarks of Professor Salingaros:
Our educated world remains ignorant about the distinction between science and technology, unfortunately. Science helps us understand the universe and ourselves. Technology applies scientific results to master processes that we can manipulate so as to better our lives. It is also applied to kill people directly, destroy nature, and threaten our own survival. Or to save us from our stupidity. Tools can be used for either good or evil.
The actual history of science and technology is a lot fuzzier than the stark picture painted here. There’s often a fair amount of overlap between the two, and it’s often not straightforward to see where one begins and the other ends.
To give just a few examples, much of basic materials science dependended on preceding technological developments in mettalurgy. My own (former!) field of space physics developed primarily because engineers working on improved telephone communication needed better data on the Earth’s atmosphere. The interplay between science and technology in thermodynamics is legendary. In this case, some of the most fundamental scientific laws owe their discovery as much to the steam engine as they do to some abstract quest for understanding. To this day, college sophomores learn the science of thermodynamics by studying the technology of steam engines. Technology itself (in the form of better instrumentation) is often created to help us “understand the universe and ourselves” while science qua science is sometimes the tool responsible for the bad stuff.
None of this negates the idea that there are differences between what we call science and what we call technology. Or that there are questions we can and should ask about technology as distinct from science. There surely are such questions, and on some level we can distinguish between the two. But as I’ve noted before, presenting diverse, varied concepts as simple monoliths often obscures more than it illuminates.