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The Bounds of Reason

An Introduction to Philosophy of Science

Published onAug 24, 2021
The Bounds of Reason

1 • Introduction: What is Science?1

Between the 1960s and 1990s there was a heated debate in the United States about ‘Equal Time’, a claim put forward by fundamentalist Christians who demanded that public schools should teach creationism alongside evolution in science class. The fundamentalists’ plea was that the same amount of time should be spent on both tenets – hence ‘equal time’ – so that students would be able to choose for themselves what to believe. The debate culminated in several renowned lawsuits, up to the Supreme Court. Creationism is the doctrine that the Biblical account about the origin of the universe, the Earth, and man is literally true – and that Darwin’s theory of evolution and other sciences which are at odds with creationism like geology, paleontology, cosmology, archaeology and so on are all plain wrong. After all, the Book of Genesis tells us that everything was created by God somewhere within the last 10,000 years.

Opponents of the idea of Equal Time argued that an introduction to various competing ideas and worldviews would be fine in itself but that, unlike the theory of evolution, creationism is not a scientific theory and therefore has no place in science class. Not surprisingly, creationists did not agree and insisted that their worldview, they now called it ‘creation science’, is just as scientific as Darwin’s theory of evolution. However, in the early 1980s several court rulings decided otherwise. In 1981 a judge in Arkansas, William Overton, ruled that creationism is not science because, among other things, it is not testable. Creationism was therefore qualified as ‘pseudoscience’. That is, creationism pretends to be science but since it doesn’t conform to certain scientific criteria and methodological standards, it isn’t actually science at all. Although the ruling by judge Overton did not apply to public schools outside Arkansas, it nevertheless had a considerable impact on subsequent court rulings in the US with regard to teaching creationism in science class (Bowler, 2009). It seemed that science had prevailed, at least for the time being.

The debate about Equal Time raises several interesting questions about the nature of science and scientific knowledge. When is it appropriate to call an idea or a theory ‘scientific’ and when is it not? What exactly demarcates science from non-science and pseudoscience? Is science always a purely logical and rational enterprise or can its content and development be influenced by extra-scientific and irrational forces? What is science for that matter? These are the kinds of questions that philosophy of science, as a sub-discipline in philosophy, is raising and trying to answer.

This chapter will mainly focus on the nature of the natural sciences but much of the analysis also pertains to the social sciences. We begin with a section about the so-called ‘demarcation problem’, the question what separates science from pseudoscience. In subsequent sections we will address the socio-historical turn in the philosophy of science, the rise of relativistic and postmodern views on science, and the reaction this in turn provoked. Via the so-called ‘science wars’, the clash between diametrically opposed perspectives on science, we end this chapter with the question whether such completely different views can be reconciled or not. The recurring theme is the question: what is the nature of science?

2 • The demarcation problem

At first glance the issue seems quite simple. What separates science from non-science and pseudoscience is that science is empirically testable. Science is concerned with what can be observed and measured, and for which empirical evidence can be gathered. Scientific theories generally make predictions which can be tested in reproducible experiments. All this makes science a self-corrective enterprise since it is always open to critique and revision, for instance if new facts are discovered. In the first half of the 20th century representatives of a dominant movement in philosophy at the time called ‘logical positivism’ argued that verifiability is what separates science from pseudoscience. More precise, they held that there are two kinds of meaningful statements: analytic statements (as in mathematics and logic), and statements that can be verified by experience, i.e., of which we can tell whether they are true or false. A (non-analytical) statement which cannot be verified is considered meaningless, like the proposition “The supreme being is benign” or “The soul is immortal”. The logical positivists were strongly inspired by the empiricist tradition of David Hume, Auguste Comte, Ernst Mach and others which holds that all knowledge is empirical in nature and thus grounded on sense experience. So as true empiricists they believed that verifiability is the solution to the demarcation problem: theories which can in principle be verified are scientific, whereas theories which cannot be verified are pseudoscientific or just nonsensical. Thus the criterion of verifiability was believed to bring about one of the main goals of logical positivism: it shows that metaphysics and all other kinds of ‘obscure’ thinking are thoroughly unscientific (Ayer, 1936).

Yet on closer inspection the demarcation problem turned out to be more persistent. For instance, it soon became clear that the verification principle was too stringent because it not only labels pseudoscience as meaningless but also significant chunks of genuine science like natural laws and other universal generalizations. After all, a statement like “All ravens are black” cannot be conclusively verified because it is impossible to check all ravens in the present, past and future.

In philosophy this is known as the problem of induction. Even if all ravens which we have observed until now were black, we can never be certain that all ravens are black. We cannot rule out that maybe tomorrow, or in ten years, a non-black raven pops up (or that the sun will rise in the west, to take another example). Some logical positivists therefore suggested that the criterion of verifiability should be adjusted and transformed into a criterion of confirmability. Thus although the statement “All ravens are black” (or “The sun always rises in the east”) can never be conclusively verified, it can be confirmed. After all, every observed black raven is a confirmation of the hypothesis that all ravens are black. Yet whereas the criterion of verifiability was too stringent, the criterion of confirmability turned out to be too weak because it opens a crack through which pseudoscience can sneak back in again. Pseudoscientific statements can often be easily confirmed because pseudosciences generally do not make precise and bold predictions – and the more vague a prediction is, the easier it is confirmed. Think for instance of a horoscope that says: “Your patience will be put to the test in the coming week.” While this prediction can be confirmed, astrology is not a science.

The philosopher of science Karl Popper, a critic of logical positivism, therefore introduced the criterion of falsifiability as the solution to the demarcation problem. The flaw of pseudoscience, Popper (1959) argued, is that it cannot be falsified because it covers itself against critical scrutiny. Thus a pseudoscience like astrology can easily be confirmed because its claims and predictions are so vague, but for the same reason it cannot be refuted because astrologists do not stick their necks out. Thus only theories which are falsifiable, which can clash with possible observational data, are genuinely scientific.

Furthermore, given the problem of induction, no amount of observations can ever conclusively prove a hypothesis, whereas one single counterexample can disprove it. Put differently, we can never know whether a theory is true, but we can know whether it is false. Thus by tracing the faults and shortcomings in our theories we can gradually improve our knowledge. Popper’s suggested solution to the demarcation problem may look plausible, but on closer inspection it turns out that it has its own weaknesses. For instance, contrary to what Popper argues, alleged pseudosciences like astrology are indeed falsifiable, for instance the astrologist’s claim that zodiac signs correlate with certain character traits. These claims can be and have been proven false (Carlson, 1985). So astrology is not only falsifiable but indeed actually falsified, and according to Popper’s own criterion that means that astrology is science – refuted science, but science nonetheless.

Philosophers of science like Imre Lakatos, a former disciple of Popper, and Larry Laudan argue that all attempts to solve the demarcation problem with one simple criterion are doomed to fail. Moreover, we cannot determine at any given time, as in a snapshot, whether a particular discipline, or ‘research programme’ as Lakatos (1970) calls it, is genuinely scientific or not. It is only in the long run that we can tentatively assess a particular discipline’s merits and shortcomings. This means that the difference between science and pseudoscience is not as straightforward as we initially might have hoped. There is no clear boundary between the two domains because they may partially and temporarily overlap. Science has no eternal, unchanging essence. Some philosophers of science therefore concluded that the demarcation problem is unsolvable in principle (Laudan, 1996, chapter 11). Moreover, it seems that we cannot determine once and for all what characterizes scientific knowledge because our ideas about what science is may change over time.

3 • Science, history and rationality

An observant reader might object that although our ideas about science might change over time, one particular feature of science probably will never change, namely its rationality. Thus irrespective of its content, science is and always will be a rational enterprise because its method of inquiry is determined by logic and reason. By pursuing objective truth, science successfully manages to transcend social and historical contingencies.

Before we delve into this intricate matter, it is useful to make a distinction between what is called the ‘context of discovery’ and the ‘context of justification’. That is, scientific inquiry consists of two different aspects, the first being the generation of new ideas and hypotheses, and the second the subsequent evaluation of these new ideas and hypotheses. Most contemporary philosophers of science argue that only the latter process is rational and guided by logic and reason. We do have logical rules and rational procedures for determining whether a new idea is justified, but we have no such rules and procedures for how to conceive a new idea, because this process is largely intuitive and therefore non-rational.

But there is much more to say about the alleged rationality of science. In the 1960s and 1970s several radical philosophers of science emerged that rebelled against the traditionalist view of Popper and the logical positivists. These philosophers included Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, among others. Because these thinkers emphasized the historical context of scientific practice, they are sometimes called the ‘historicists’ (Nickles, 2019). These philosophers deviated from the traditional approach in that they question the supposed universal rationality and objectivity of science. Instead they defend a more relativistic view in which truth seems contextual, or relative to a conceptual scheme (I deliberately use the word ‘seems’ here because there are multiple interpretations of Kuhn’s and Feyerabend’s philosophies, both moderate and radical). Simply put, what people believe to be true and real always depends on a particular historical, social or cultural context. And since we do not have an objective standard with which to compare different worldviews, it is impossible to say which one is best.

Thus Kuhn (1962/1970) speaks of different ‘paradigms’ in the history of science, each of which has its own rationale. A paradigm is a scientific worldview which dominates a particular discipline for a certain amount of time (during what Kuhn calls ‘normal science’) until it is discarded for a new paradigm in a scientific revolution. Examples of such paradigm changes are Copernicus’ heliocentric astronomy which superseded the geocentric worldview of Aristotle and Ptolemy, or Einstein’s theory of relativity which displaced classical Newtonian physics. Kuhn’s controversial claim is that paradigms are ‘incommensurable’, i.e., they cannot be objectively compared because there is no neutral standard available. According to Kuhn, observation is ‘theory-dependent’ or ‘theory-laden’, which means that observation cannot serve as a neutral arbiter among competing theories because what we see depends (to some extent) on what beliefs we hold and which worldview we embrace. So we cannot appeal to neutral, objective facts because ultimately facts are always relative to a particular conceptual scheme. Kuhn (1962/1970, p. 111) therefore concluded that “when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them”. According to Kuhn, a change of paradigms is like a ‘gestalt switch’ which causes scientists to see the world in a completely different light.

Moreover, Kuhn argues that the revolutionary transition from one paradigm to the next is not a well-thought-out rational process because there is no objective way of measuring a paradigm’s success. Thus a paradigm shift is more like a religious conversion and consequently the development of science can no longer be viewed as a cumulative and rational process which brings us ever closer to the truth. Although in a Postscript to the second edition of his book, Kuhn (1962/1970, p. 206) denies the accusation of being a relativist, his views are still generally interpreted as tending towards relativism. It should be noted that this discussion has considerable societal relevance, especially in our current ‘post-truth’ era in which people talk of ‘alternative facts’ and where relativism has made its way into popular opinion.

An even more radical tendency toward relativism and irrationalism can be found in the works of Paul Feyerabend, the maverick among 20th century philosophers of science. Feyerabend (1975) calls himself a ‘methodological anarchist’ because he believes that there is no unchanging, universal scientific method which supposedly governs all instances of exemplary science. Instead, he urges us to try out lots of different methodologies under the motto ‘anything goes’. Moreover, Feyerabend believes that in order to broaden our horizon we should even actively go against established methodologies because by breaking the rules we might open up new vistas.

In addition, Feyerabend pleads for theoretical pluralism because he thinks that the complexity of the world can never be captured by a single approach or in a single perspective. Consequently, Feyerabend argues that (Western) science is only but one belief-system among many others. Alternative belief-systems and traditions like voodoo, Chinese medicine and Indian rain dance rituals, may provide us with knowledge as well and are therefore equally respectable. Feyerabend, who defended astrology, thus flatly denies that there is a clear-cut distinction between science and pseudoscience.

4 • Science in the making

The works of Kuhn, Feyerabend and other anti-traditionalist thinkers paved the way for a new approach in philosophy of science which took the study of the socio-historical dimension of science to a next level. The rise of the sociology of science and postmodern theories of knowledge in particular played an important role in this development. Sociologists of science have underlined the socially-conditioned nature of knowledge, while postmodernists have argued that the ideas of objective knowledge and absolute truth are illusory. The notion of absolute truth is rejected in favor of the idea that there are only different points of view or ‘narratives’, each of which has no more claim for truth than any other. Knowledge claims always depend on a particular frame of reference and can therefore only be validated within that context of origin. The combination of these two doctrines – the sociology of science and postmodernist theories of knowledge – resulted in a rather bleak and radical form of relativism which holds that science is a social construct, and that its content and development are determined by interests, power and ideology.

Perhaps unwittingly, Kuhn and others triggered the so-called ‘sociological turn’ in the philosophy of science. The sociological turn refers to the idea that science must be studied and understood from a sociological point of view. That is, we should not look so much at ‘ready made science’ but rather at ‘science in the making’, as the sociologist Bruno Latour (1987) calls it. Ready made science refers to the end products of scientific labor such as published articles and books. But according to Latour and others, this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Much more interesting is what hides below the surface, namely science in the making, i.e., what scientists actually do every day. After all, science is a social and collective enterprise.

So sociologists of science argue that we must shift our attention from ready made science to actual scientific practice. When we study scientists in their daily interaction, then, we soon find that facts are not discovered but ‘constructed’ during a complex process of negotiation, persuasion and trying to reach consensus. When consensus is achieved, the outside world is then told that “scientist X has discovered fact Y”, thereby keeping silent about the complex social processes that preceded the ‘discovery’. In other words, facts are not lying around out there in the world waiting to be discovered, but facts are rather made by us. They are artefacts. So it is not the facts that lead to consensus, but the consensus that leads to facts. Furthermore, in the negotiation process some individuals, classes or communities (e.g., white, western males) have more influence than others, which means that ultimately the content and development of science is sociologically determined and governed by skewed balances of power.

Sociologists of science like Barry Barnes and David Bloor, who founded the so-called ‘Strong Programme’ in the sociology of knowledge, believe that their inquiry is more fundamental than the issues raised by traditional philosophers of science of the pre-Kuhnian era. Instead of asking what demarcates science from pseudoscience, or what makes some beliefs rational and others irrational, we should rather ask why people believe that something is science rather than pseudoscience, and why people believe that something is rational rather than irrational. According to Barnes and Bloor, these questions are more profound because they point to the underlying and ultimate social causes of our beliefs and states of knowledge.

Thus someone may be inclined to call something ‘pseudoscience’ or ‘irrational’ because he or she has an interest in such stereotypical thinking, or perhaps it is someone’s social background or education that makes him or her tend to pigeonholing. Suppose a traditional philosopher of science would say that it is rational to believe in, say, astronomy and molecular biology and irrational to believe in homeopathy and parapsychology because the former are sciences and the latter pseudosciences. A sociologist of science then could riposte that all such labeling might well be arbitrary because one’s preferences and prejudices are themselves socially determined. So, in the end, our task is not to judge but to unravel and understand the social causes of our beliefs (Bloor, 1976/1991).

5 • The science wars

In the previous sections we saw that Kuhn, Feyerabend, and the sociologists of science all have emphasized the social and historical dimension of scientific knowledge. That is, what is held true and real is always relative to a particular conceptual scheme, a paradigm, or a worldview, et cetera. Extreme versions of this idea led to the postmodern and social constructivist view that there is no absolute truth, true knowledge or objective facts because truth, knowledge and facts are all contingent social constructs. This relativistic view thus assumes that the formation of our beliefs is not constrained by the properties of an objective world. However, this claim is not without controversy.

In the 1990s, the popularity of social constructivism and postmodernism caused a reaction from scientists and philosophers who opposed this kind of radical relativism. It led to a fierce argument over the nature of truth and the alleged objectivity of knowledge and science. This clash of ideas became known under the name the ‘science wars’. On the one hand there were the scientific realists and objectivists who maintained that objective knowledge and truth are real. And on the other hand there were the relativists and postmodernists who denied the existence of objective knowledge and truth.

In all fairness we can say that both camps have their weaknesses. The realists face the problem of human fallibility. We have often believed that something is true, but again and again it turned out we were mistaken. So some modesty is appropriate because eventually every theory will turn out to be false or at least incomplete. Given our fallibility then, we should accept that our knowledge is always tentative and conjectural. Or as Popper (1959, p. 278) once said: “We do not know, we can only guess.” Yet despite our fallibility Popper believes that our knowledge is getting closer to the truth, which is illustrated by the impressive success of modern science and all of its technological applications. We will return to this issue below. The radical relativists also face a problem because their claims are self-refuting since the proposition that states that “Everything is relative” entails that the proposition itself cannot be true either. The claims of the sociologist of science may face a similar problem. After all, if facts are social constructs, what does this mean for the ‘facts’ presented by sociologists of science themselves? Are those ‘facts’ in any sense true or trustworthy? It seems that the sociologists of science are caught up in some sort of paradox because their claims undermine their own thesis. Or as the philosopher Roger Trigg (1985/2001, p. 37) puts it: “If the strong programme of the sociology of knowledge is true, it is thereby shown to be false.” In 1996, the American physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to Social Text, a fashionable academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The manuscript had the seemingly profound title ‘Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity’, consisted of a complex mix of physics and philosophy, and argued that physical reality must be viewed as a social and linguistic construct. Yet immediately after the article was accepted and published, Sokal revealed that he had in fact submitted a bogus paper full of gibberish. His real intention was to show that the journal’s editors and readers didn’t have the faintest clue of what science is actually about. Sokal, situated in the camp of the realists, had pulled a fast one on the postmodern relativists. The ‘Sokal hoax’, as it was soon dubbed, was one of the low points (although others probably would say highlights) of the science wars. A few years later Sokal wrote a book with his fellow physicist Jean Bricmont, called Fashionable Nonsense, in which they supposedly wiped the floor with all postmodern and relativistic trends in university departments (Sokal & Bricmont, 1998). But this publication caused much less uproar. Eventually the science wars subsided and tempers have calmed down, but we are still witnessing radically different perspectives on science which seem difficult to reconcile. So this issue is by no means resolved.

6 • Scientific realism

Scientific realism is characterized as “[..] a positive epistemic attitude toward the content of our best theories and models, recommending belief in both observable and unobservable aspects of the world described by the sciences.” (Chakravartty, 2017). Scientific realists argue that their opponents, the postmodern relativists and social constructivists, don’t really understand much about the true nature of science. Realists readily admit that science is a social enterprise and that its development can be influenced by external, socio- historical factors. But unlike other products of the human intellect such as art and literature, science has one aspect that makes it completely different. That is, science can be tested against reality through observation and experiment.

Moreover, a realist argues that one cannot ignore the spectacular success of modern science. Think for instance of how modern medicine, and especially our knowledge about hygiene, pathogens and vaccination has saved and will save countless lives, thereby spectacularly increasing our life expectancy. Or think of the successes in molecular biology like the discovery of DNA and the sequencing and mapping of the human genome (and that of many other species). Or consider recent breakthroughs in physics and astronomy like the discovery of thousands of exoplanets, the detection of gravitational waves, and the first picture of a black hole. According to the realist, this eye-catching success is a clear indication that scientific theories and facts are not arbitrary social constructs. On the contrary, the best explanation for the success of science is the assumption that our current theories must be at least approximately true and that the entities to which they refer like genes, chromosomes, electrons, quarks and black holes do really exist. If these ‘entities’ were only figments of the socially-conditioned human mind, the success of science would be truly miraculous.

In addition, a scientific realist can argue that facts aren’t merely social constructs because the objective world can prove even our most cherished beliefs to be wrong. For a long time we were convinced that the Earth occupies a special, privileged place in the center of the universe, and that a supreme being created all species separately a few thousand years ago. These and other fostered beliefs turned out to be false. So apparently the properties of the world put constraints on our theorizing. Even if we passionately want something to be true, the world may nevertheless decide otherwise (Psillos, 1999).

A reader might object that the claim that our current theories must be approximately true is at odds with the premise of human fallibility. As we mentioned earlier, it is difficult to maintain that our current theories are true because sooner or later every theory will be adjusted or displaced by a new, and hopefully better, theory. After all, that is the lesson the history of science teaches us (Laudan, 1981). So perhaps the scientific realist should be a bit more modest and reserved in his or her claims. A more cautious realist might therefore say that our current theories may indeed not be approximately true, but that the entities to which these theories refer do actually exist, even when they are unobservable, because we can detect and manipulate them with the help of all sorts of instruments. So although our theories about, say, electrons may turn out not to be approximately true, electrons do exist because we can manipulate them, for instance in a laboratory (Hacking, 1983). In any case, weak or strong, bold or modest, what these varieties of realism have in common is that they treat scientific theories as statements about an objective world, statements which are therefore true or false, and that can be tested through observation and experiment. The result is that our knowledge about the world gradually increases, and according to the scientific realist this means that science is not an arbitrary social construct.

7 • Perspectives on science

Now let’s return to the opposition against Darwin’s theory of evolution. The debate offers an interesting case study to which our knowledge acquired in this chapter perhaps can be applied. From the 1990s and onwards, antievolutionists across the world (but mainly in the United States) have put forward a new weapon in their battle against Darwin, to wit: Intelligent Design (ID). ID no longer refers to the Book of Genesis, nor does it openly defend any particular faith. Instead proponents of ID argue that the theory of evolution is fundamentally flawed because it cannot explain the origin of ‘irreducibly’ complex design. Advocates of ID assert that all instances of complex design presuppose an intentional agent, an intelligent designer, just as a watch needs a watchmaker to come into existence. Furthermore, proponents of ID argue that, unlike creationism, ID is a genuine scientific theory and a worthy competitor to Darwin’s theory of evolution. ID can and should therefore be taught in public schools during science class without raising any suspicion about promoting religion.

Now what should we think about this new strategy? Is ID indeed science, or rather pseudoscience? The philosopher Philip Kitcher (2007) has argued that it is neither. He qualifies ID as ‘dead science’ because ID simply tries to resurrect an age-old idea – the so-called teleological argument – which Darwin already refuted more than 150 years ago. Of course, advocates of ID aren’t impressed with this qualification. In their view ID is indeed proper science. It is rather Darwinism which must be considered a pernicious philosophy. So the debate and controversy about evolution continues, at least in some peripheral academic circles. A 2017 Gallup Poll shows that, although reaching a new low, still 38% of Americans reject evolution outright and endorse the belief that God created human beings in the present form at one time within the last 10,000 years (Swift, 2021-05-10). So the battle over science class curriculum isn’t over yet. What this case demonstrates is that debates over what counts as science (in the eyes of the public) and what should be taught in schools as science remains a contentious matter. It also demonstrates, again, the societal relevance of philosophy of science. We need to think hard about what science is and how it works if we want these debates to be decided on something else than pure ‘power politics’ or ideology.

Now let’s take stock. In this chapter we have explored the nature of science and scientific knowledge. We began our inquiry with a discussion of the demarcation problem and the (unsatisfactory) solutions that Popper and the logical positivists have offered to it. We then addressed the socio-historical turn in philosophy of science initiated by Kuhn and Feyerabend among others. Eventually we ended up with two diametrically opposed views on science, one from the relativists and constructivists and the other from the realists and objectivists. These two perspectives are the opposite extremes of a broad spectrum which also contains many intermediate positions. One such intermediate position perhaps could reconcile the two views to some extent. That is, one could acknowledge the fact that science is indeed in some sense a ‘social construct’ because all science is done by us, human beings. And since we humans are fallible, we should always be beware of hubris. Yet at the same time one can maintain that an objective world puts constraints on our theorizing and that current theories are closer to the truth than previous ones. So we might steer a middle course between self-defeating forms of relativism and overconfident forms of realism, thereby avoiding the drawbacks of the two extremes (Haack, 2003).

Another conclusion is that our ideas about the nature of science, and about its scope and limits, change over time. The boundaries of science are fluid. What this means is that there is no way to determine once and for all what science is. In fact, because a general theory of science turned out not to be feasible, the different branches of science (i.e., the natural sciences, the life sciences, the social sciences, the humanities) now all have their own particular philosophy of science. So instead of a single philosophy of science we now witness various philosophies of the various sciences (Allhoff, 2010-01-04). Because we cannot determine once and for all what the designation ‘scientific’ exactly means and when it is legitimate, we should rather assess it case by case. And since there is no external vantage point or first philosophy, we have no choice but to use the findings of science itself in our never-ending quest to gauge the bounds of reason (Quine, 1969).


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