Wednesday, 15 December 1999

Paul Feyerabend: Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975)

Edition: Verso, 1993
Review number: 408

Possibly Feyerabend's best known book, Against Method is basically an attack on the idea that science has a single, monolithic 'method', one which has stood the test of time and produced the 'advances' (the advance of science is a subsidiary target) leading to the science we know today. Instead of the close connection between ideas of rationality and scientific method on which many thinkers would base their understanding of science on, Feyerabend points out contradictory and irrational ideas, to his mind not just part of science but at its very core. They are particularly important, he believes, in the challenging of fundamental assumptions which leads to 'revolutions'.

A major part of the book is taken up with brilliant analysis of the example he uses to underpin most of his argument, the writings of Galileo in which he sought to establish the Copernican system as against the accepted Ptolemaic one, and in particular to prove that the earth moves despite immediate appearances.

Feyerabend exposes the logical poverty and propagandist nature of Galileo's argument most convincingly. However, there are reasons which make it a bad example to use as a paradigm of scientific practice. Firstly, it comes from an early period of modern science in which mathematics was not established as the language of argument. Galileo's writing has a literary nature more akin to what would today be considered philosophy rather than physics (the major work quoted by Feyerabend, the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, is modelled after the Socratic dialogues of Plato). To carry conviction, modern scientific reasoning is expected to be couched in mathematical terms, even if new mathematical ideas have to be introduced to express it. (Strong arguments can be introduced against this, though it is not Feyerabend's theme here; not least of these would be the important question as to why mathematics seems to so successfully model the universe.)

Secondly, few (if any) practising scientists today would cite Galileo as a paradigm for scientific reasoning. A hero, yes, but an example, no. To use him as the principal prop on which to base an attack on the scientific method does not make the attack significantly more convincing, particularly as Feyerabend occasionally tends to follow Galileo into propaganda. He does use examples other than this one, but they are not particularly convincing and often trivial (several optical illusions among them).

Feyerabend does have important things to say, but he has a tendency to make rather too much of them. The way in which scientists work is of course not monolithic, nor has it remained changeless over the last four centuries. Of course the assumptions underlying scientific thought need to be made clearer and are not unchallengeable. Of course scientists do not think as clearly in the heat of the moment as they may do later when formalising what they want to say for public consumption.

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