Does it still make sense to read 20th-century classics in philosophy of science, such as the writings of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend? In this article, I argue that their ideas and disagreements still thread through and inform modern debates about science, such as the importance of values as criteria for scientific research, which fuels ongoing discussion around the roles of women and minorities in science communities today.
The crucial role of science and technology in modern society makes it important to ask ourselves: what is science, and how does it work? Aside from the obvious practical usefulness of looking at science in context, these questions also help us to think about the extent to which science is a social phenomenon driven by human interests, rather than a disinterested application of method. Understanding both of these approaches to science is increasingly important in a world where many people during the Covid-19 outbreak wilfully refuse well-attested scientific advice in favour of dubious alternative theories and ideals of personal freedom. Meanwhile, many others have developed such a strong trust in a rationalist, objective understanding of the universe that a key political catchphrase of the Covid-19 outbreak has become “we will be led by the science”, playing on the immense social prestige science enjoys as an apparently disinterested pursuit of truth, and assuming people will be too naive to have ever thought about its philosophical and political context. In this article, I will trace the tension between looking at science as a pure intellectual and empirical method and as a social phenomenon through 20th-century philosophy until the present day. These two understandings of science may seem to fall into two ready-made categories of knowledge: subjective and objective. However, this brief journey through 20th-century philosophy of science will deconstruct these terms, showing us how even the ideal of objectivity is intimately connected to our values and social concerns.
The early 20th century saw the development of a number of new schools of philosophical thought such as logical positivism, a movement which positioned itself as an ally of the disinterested scientific method. Its central thesis was the ‘verification principle’, maintaining that only linguistic statements that are empirically verifiable have any meaning in terms of conveying facts. As you can imagine, this stringent principle which cut metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics and theology out of the philosophical picture was met with broad criticism, as well as praise. Interestingly though, critical reactions also arrived from within the growing subfield of philosophy of science, most notably through the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper. He replaced the verification principle with the ‘falsification principle’. Popper argued that genuine, on-the-ground science progresses not through verifications of theories, but through conjectures and refutations: in other words, for a theory to be scientific, it must be able to be tested and proven false.
Since Popper, a lot has happened in philosophy of science. However, the ideas and disagreements between seminal figures such as Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend continue to play out in modern-day debates. To see how this has happened, we can start with well-known ideas in philosophy of science, such as Popper’s falsification principle, and Kuhn’s reaction against this through his concepts of incommensurability and ‘paradigm shift’. Kuhn’s response to his critics and reformulation of scientific criteria as values, rather than facts, is a highly influential line of thought that continues to be developed by modern philosophers of science such as Helen Longino.
Incommensurability and its critics
Context in this field of study is everything: you can’t understand the continuing relevance of the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s work on values as criteria for scientific research without understanding his controversial earlier ideas, and what they were reacting against. Kuhn suggested that the regular work of scientists occurs within a ‘paradigm’ or explanatory framework, where the critical ‘falsification’ testing method that Popper imagined does not usually happen. Instead, scientists work within their unchallenged paradigm: in other words, all their critical analytical work takes place within a scientific model that is not itself criticised, and which directs their thought and research. They ‘mop up’ anomalies within this paradigm until, when these can no longer be contained, a revolution occurs—the ‘paradigm shift’. A classic example is the shift from geocentrism—an Earth-centred universe—to heliocentrism, where the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun. Critical to the concept of the ‘paradigm shift’ was Kuhn’s concept of incommensurability: in other words, alongside a change in paradigm, there is a change in standards, meanings and even phenomena in science, such that the new paradigm cannot be measured by the same standards as its predecessor.
Imre Lakatos, a Hungarian philosopher of science, was not impressed. His critique of incommensurability is rooted in his search for rational standards to distinguish science from pseudoscience, just as Popper had wished to achieve. For Lakatos, Kuhn’s idea of “scientific revolution is irrational, a matter for mob psychology” (1). Lakatos did, however, agree with Kuhn’s criticism of Popper: scientific theories need to be tenacious, and not simply fall at the first falsifying hurdle. This meant that he saw science as being primarily guided by large, overarching scientific research programmes, rather than single verifying or falsifying events. His new methodology proposed a “powerful problem-solving machinery” which can be either progressive—able to predict dramatic, stunning novel facts, such as Halley’s comet using Newton’s ‘research programme’—or degenerate, unable to make novel predictions (among which he even included Marxism, which he detested). Lakatos was attempting to combine and synthesise important lessons from both Popper and Kuhn. In summary, his theory of scientific progression through research programmes is an attempt to account for the necessary tenacity of scientific research in a sea of anomalies. It is also an attempt by Lakatos to secure an objective basis for scientific progress, which he felt was sorely missing in Kuhn’s theory of incommensurable paradigm shifts. The incommensurability between research programmes—in other words, the impossibility to judge them by the same standards—made Kuhn’s theory too ‘subjective’ for Lakatos’ tastes.
Kuhn’s rebuttal: the dissolution of subjective and objective
According to Kuhn however, Lakatos, as well as many others, had misinterpreted his ideas. Writing fifteen years on from his controversial work on paradigm shifts, his rebuttal first established five key characteristics of a good scientific theory: accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity and fruitfulness. Together with other minor characteristics of a similar nature, Kuhn suggested these formed a shared basis for choosing particular theories over others. You may find this list of characteristics very reasonable. Indeed, they can be seen in any list of rules dictating good practice in scientific research, and Kuhn stressed its uncontroversial nature. What, then, was Kuhn adding with this list of criteria, aside from distancing himself from accusations of ‘mob psychology’? His big diversion from Popper, Lakatos and many others was, in his own words: “The criteria of choice with which I began function not as rules, which determine choice, but as values, which influence it” (2).
By changing the meaning of these scientific criteria from rule to value, Kuhn also addressed another potential criticism of his theory, which is that different scientific criteria may select for different competing theories. For example, consistency might be argued to favour geocentrism, whereas simplicity might favour heliocentrism. Any number of scientific criteria might not be enough to fully explain why scientists select one theory over another. Kuhn turns this problem on his head, and in a clear response to the criticisms of his work, he summarises:
“What from one viewpoint may seem the looseness and imperfection of choice criteria conceived as rules may, when the same criteria are seen as values, appear as an indispensable means of spreading the risk which the introduction or support of novelty always entails.” (2)
Kuhn was attempting not to reconcile his argument with that of Lakatos, but rather change the very nature of their disagreement. Instead of arguing between a subjective, conversion-like paradigm shift, and a more objective research program of scientific progress, Kuhn argued that every criterion scientists use to practically apply objectivity in the lab—the simplicity of a certain explanation of data over another, for example—is itself influenced by a set of scientific values, rather than rigidly determined by a rule. Thus, values developed in human society define the very meaning of objectivity. Needless to say, any thinker like Lakatos who proposes that “one of the central conditions of scientific reasoning is that theories must be supported by facts” (3) cannot be satisfied by this switch from fact to value.
Science communities as producers of knowledge
Kuhn’s ideas have not only been criticised, but also expanded upon and discussed in later philosophy of science. For example, Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend, in his work Farewell to Reason, builds considerably on Kuhn’s hints that scientific and artistic progress have much in common. He agrees with Kuhn on the incommensurability of different scientific paradigms, and takes it even further, developing a notion of scientific qualitative progress that is inherently limited only to the very specific sorts of questions that yield to the scientific method (4). With Feyerabend, and through Kuhn, we have strayed very far from the logical positivists and even Popper.
More recently, Helen Longino has taken Kuhn’s idea of the importance of values in science into the fields of social and feminist studies. In her theory of Contextual Empiricism, she follows Kuhn in claiming that our values are an essential starting-point and component of objectivity and rationality in science (5). Starting from uncontroversial empirical bases—much as Kuhn began from uncontroversial criteria for selecting scientific theories—she describes science communities as the “producers of knowledge”. You can imagine Kuhn nodding and agreeing when Longino says that ‘neutral’ scientific theories do not exist, and values define what makes theories relevant and reliable. What Longino adds is that particular social groups will tend towards particular kinds of science. Therefore, what we mean by “objectivity” means far more a democratic responsiveness to criticism from all points of view, rather than the bridging of a gap between evidence and full justification of a theory. This is because science, unlike mathematics, is always dealing with hypotheses open to dissent, and therefore, the pursuit of scientific knowledge is always a social enterprise, with dynamics of inclusion and exclusion within particular communities. This leads Longino towards the idea of ‘equality of intellectual authority’, stating that the historically absent role of women and minorities in science, far from being a regrettable aside, is fundamental to our very understanding of what science is. An example is her work on female- and male-centred accounts of the theory of evolution, which reveal how gendered assumptions can inform the development of a scientific theory, prioritising the activities of males in this case.
Longino’s philosophy of science, situated within the context of the debate on the importance of values in science, could not have existed without Kuhn’s contributions to the field. Thus, it continues to be crucial to read Kuhn as well as other thinkers of his time whose own ideas continue to simmer within this ongoing debate. In this article, we have gone from philosophical approaches that interrogate the nature of science as an idealised, disinterested truth-obtaining method, towards ones that interrogate science as a community of intellectuals driven by social values. There is no doubt that both of these approaches are required in order to fully understand what science is today. For example, crucial questions such as how we can justify a scientific explanation, or what the nature of time is following Einstein’s work, continue to be asked in philosophy of science. Nonetheless, considering scientific criteria as values, rather than the rules of the scientific game, remains a fundamental shift in attitude concerning how we might think about science and reality itself.
Alexander F. Brown
- Lakatos, I., “The Methodology of Research Programmes”, 1970.
- Kuhn, T., “Objectivity, Value Judgement and Theory Choice”, 1973.
- Lakatos, I., “Introduction: Science and pseudoscience”, 1978.
- Feyerabend, P., “Progress in Philosophy, the Sciences and the Arts”, 1987.
- Longino, H. “Feminism and philosophy of science,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 1990.