Wednesday, 1 March 2006

The Great Philosophaster of Science

In the opinion of the late philosophaster of science Paul Feyerabend, “our entire universe . . . is an artifact constructed by generations of scientist-artisans from a partly yielding, partly resisting material of unknown properties” [1].
At first sight, and judging by these words alone, we might take Professor Feyerabend’s claim to be absurd, if we take it to mean that the universe itself was created by scientists. At second sight, however, we might take his claim to be radical, if we take it to mean that the scientific description of our universe is an arbitrary construct built by scientists in ignorance of the nature of the universe. At third sight, and in a charitable mood, we might take his claim to be merely banal, if we take it to mean that a scientific description of our universe is built by scientists. Which is it to be?
I must admit that I am not inclined to do charitable work for pseudo-philosophers who delight in making attention-seeking declarations that I suspect are designed to appear absurd at first sight; moreover I cannot see in the context in which these words appear, nor in the context of Professor Feyerabend’s career as a whole, why his claim should be interpreted as anything other than absurd or radical. As it happens, it appears that Professor Feyerabend wanted us to take it at second sight, after having tried to shock us at the first; for he also told us that “nature as described by our scientists is a work of art that is constantly being enlarged and rebuilt by them” [2] and, as such, “modern science uses artifacts, not nature-as-it-is” [3].
Duly, he maintained that “normal science is a fairy tale” and that “equal time should be given to competing avenues of knowledge such as astrology, acupuncture, and witchcraft” [4]. Nowhere does he record whether he believed that advances in witchcraft would one day provide cheap alternatives in air-travel, though doubtlessly the leaving-open of such a question by a man of Feyerabend’s standing has led not a few environmentalists to stockpile birch-twigs in anticipation.
Realism assumes [quoth our philosophaster] . . . that a particular phenomenon – the modern scientific universe and the evidence for it – can be cut from the development that led up to it and can be presented as the true and history-independent nature of Being. The assumption is very implausible, to say the least. For are we really to believe that people who were not guided by a scientific world view but who still managed to survive and to live moderately happy and fulfilling lives were the victim of an illusion? [5]
With the incredulity of his last question, Professor Feyerabend steers us towards a modus tollens that seems to be as follows:
If the scientific world view pertains to an understanding of reality, then those not guided by it are victims of an illusion.
Those not guided by it are not victims of an illusion.
Therefore, the scientific world view does not pertain to an understanding of reality.
Now, in its logical frame, this argument is valid, but upon its premises it is unsound; for in respect of the minor premise, it is surely true that at least some of those not guided by the scientific world view are indeed victims of an illusion of some kind; and in respect of the major premise, a false inference is made therein to stand as fact, namely, that those not guided by the scientific world view could not be guided by something else that, though perhaps less exacting, would nevertheless be productive of understanding.
When, for instance, a Kalahari bushman, unguided by the scientific worldview, hunts an animal, does he not make inferences based on the empirical data of tracks and signs, a skill productive of understanding and thus in this respect free from illusion? He shares in this respect the same realist assumptions and inferences as those who subscribe to the scientific worldview, even if he has illusory beliefs appended thereto. Indeed, in the case that he has mistaken the evidence and tracked the wrong animal, one is unlikely to find a more committed realist than the Kalahari bushman when he is chased by a lion, except perhaps for the lion itself. It is the professor of philosophy who has the motive and the luxury of pseudo-doubt, at least when he is writing a bold thesis at a safe distance from lions.
That science is a more exacting and systemized way of looking at the world than commonsense realism does not diminish the effectiveness of commonsense realism. Humanity has lived without science for most of its existence, and of course many humans have come to untimely ends because they have been under illusions, illusions that might have been dispelled by science, but humanity as a whole has survived into the scientific age because it has made the same realist assumptions that form the basis of the scientific world view.
But Professor Feyerabend, against all sense, feigned to believe that “[t]here is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: Anything goes” [6]. Thus, Professor Feyerabend’s recommendation for those who would seek enlightenment in this pretended world of anything-goes is one of stark flippancy:
In order to progress, we must step back from the evidence, reduce the degree of empirical adequacy (the empirical content) of our theories, abandon what we have already achieved, and start afresh. [7]
As far as I am aware, Professor Feyerabend had no children, which is just as well, for I should think fatherly advice in this vein would be unwise.—“Son, in order to fetch my medication from the pharmacist across the road, you must neglect the evidence of your senses, reduce the degree of your attention, abandon all experience of traffic, and step out”. That said, I suppose Professor Feyerabend could have hoped in such a case that there was a trained witch at hand to airlift his son to a nearby stone circle.

[1] P. Feyerabend, “Nature as a Work of Art”, Common Knowledge, 1:3. (1992), p.3.
[2] Ibid., emphasis added.
[3] Ibid., p.6.
[4] P. Feyerabend, quoted in W.J. Broad, (Feature) Science 206, (1979) p.534.
[5] P. Feyerabend, “Ethics as a Measure of Scientific Truth”, in From the Twilight of Probability: Ethics and Politics, ed., W.R. Shea & A. Spadafora, (Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 1992), p.109.
[6] P. Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. (London: New Left Books, 1975), p.28.
[7] Ibid., p.113.


Blithering Bunny said...

Feyerabend is often guilty of what Nicholas Shackel calls the "motte-and-bailey", where your claim has an exciting-but-false interpretation, which grabs the attention of the undergrads, and a true-but-trivial interpretation, which you retreat to when attacked by more discerning minds.

(Nicholas Shackel, 'The Vacuity of Postmodern Methodology', Metaphilosophy 36 (3), April 2005, pp. 295-320.)

Anonymous said...

“[t]here is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: Anything goes”

Cole Porter said it all before, and much better, too:

"In olden days a glimpse of stocking/ Was looked on as something shocking/ Now, heaven knows/ Anything goes."

Deogolwulf said...

Mr Campbell,
This simple trick is one that drives me up the wall more than any other. I am interested to hear that someone has come up with a name for it. I thought of calling the true-but-trivial interpretation "bolt-hole banality".

Mr Duff,
In recognition of this new spirit of "anything goes" in the philosophy of science, David Stove came to call it "The Jazz Age in the Philosophy of Science".

WildMonk said...

Wonderful post! I dissected some of Feyerabend's madness in an extended essay on Rousseau and modern leftist thought over on I did not do so, however, with nearly your clarity and insight.

If you have the energy (and perhaps the charity), I would love to hear your impressions of that piece as I imagine that you would have plenty to say on the topic. If interested, you can reach me at

Best regards,

Mark Brittingham