Register
BookReview: Kuhn vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science
by Steve Fuller, Columbia University Press, November 23, 2004, 978-0231134286

Steve Fuller writes a full book. This was my introduction to Thomas Kuhn. I think he did a pretty good job, especially now that I have also read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn did write sloppily. Fuller calls him an intellectual coward. At the same time, I do think Kuhn modeled the history of science pretty well. Popper's view is to "objective", when reality is quite subjective, and there is certainly a winner's history in all of science.

Fuller's history of how Popper and Kuhn came by their different versions of the philosophy of science was also excellent.

I didn't so much like the end. It was a technical take-down of Kuhn. He models Kuhn on Heidegger. I suspect Paul Feyerabend would have ripped Fuller's argumentation to shreds.

This slim book is a good read to pique your interest in the science of philosophy. It certainly piqued mine enough to keep me reading other books by 20th century philosophers. I should warn you that although slim, it's dense. Fuller writes like a professor of philosophy with ten-dollar words and jargon. Neither Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, nor Feyerabend would appreciate his writing, I think. If you find Kuhn vs Popper impenetrable, you might go directly to the source for an easier read.

[p28] Of course, like the most enduring monarchies, the scientific establishment continues to enjoy widespread public support on most matters, including the tinge of divine inspiration that has traditionally legitimated royalty. It might therefore be claimed that science already represents 'the will of the people', and hence requires no further philosophical schemes for democratisation. Here Popper's anti-majoritarian approach to democracy-what I would call his 'civic republican' sensibility-comes to the fore. Many authoritarian regimes, especially the 20th-century fascist and communist ones, could also persuasively claim widespread popular support, at least at the outset and in relation to the available alternatives. For Popper, however, the normative problem posed by these regimes is that their performance is never put to a fair test. Kuhn suffers from the same defect: a paradigm is simply an irrefutable theory that becomes the basis for an irreversible policy.

Popper's pro-active strategy for challenging dominant scientific theories- including his critical attitude toward the histories that legitimate those theories-aims to render science as game-like as possible. The full import of this point has been rarely appreciated, mainly because it has not been taken literally, perhaps even by Popper himself. It means that rational decisions about science as a form of inquiry cannot be taken, unless two general conditions are met. First, tests cannot be biased toward the dominant theory. This is akin to ensuring that two opposing teams operate on a levelled playing field during a match, regardless of the differences in their prior track records. Second, the tests must not be burdened with concerns about the costs and benefits of their outcomes, especially in relation to the political and economic prospects of the scientists or their supporters. Allowing such considerations to influence the course of play would invite the equivalent of match-fixing.

[p35] Lakatos realised that science, mathematics included, has made progress- in a way that philosophy has not- by its selective encouragement and appropriation of criticism, or in terms that could have come from that master German dialectician, Hegel, criticism applied critically to itself. In other words, criticism is productive only under certain conditions-for example, not in a research programme's early stages. Kuhn implicitly understood this point much better than Popper. But at the same time, Lakatos could not tolerate Kuhn's conservative complacency, which went to the other extreme of permittingcriticism only once a standing paradigm had already run into so many difficulties that it had entered a state of 'crisis'.

Lakatos believed he had improved on Popper's account by showing how-at least in mathematical inquiry-the discovery of error is followed by something more than the simple removal of the falsified theory. Rather, in the process that Lakatos called 'lemma incorporation', a counter-example to a theory is retransmitted as a boundary condition for applying a successor version of the theory. Thus, error elimination is made into a genuinely collective learning experience, whereby a [p36] prima facie negative episode in the theory's history becomes a feature of its logical structure.

Moreover, from a pedagogical standpoint, this process is better seen as dialectical than strictly deductive. Dialectics lays bare patterns of reasoning that are normally mystified by mathematicians' appeals to the 'intuitiveness' of a proof's axioms and lemmas. The social, indeed rhetorical, dimension of mathematical inquiry is therefore finally exposed. Lakatos would have us focus more on how one from among several competing sets of axioms came to be selected than on how, once selected, this set manages to entail a set of conclusions.

Why does Lakatos' preoccupation with dialectics matter in the Kuhn-Popper debate? The answer is encapsulated in what analytic philosophers call the underdetermination thesis-the idea that any body of evidence can be explained by any number of mutually incompatible theories. In that case, theory choice is 'underdetermined' by the evidence. Whether the evidence base is the fossil record or the Holy Bible, it is easy to see how many conflicting interpretations can be generated, hence providing intuitive support for the thesis. Nevertheless, this is not how science has been officially portrayed, at least since Newton claimed to have 'deduced from phenomena' his laws of motion.

Via Rob 10/24/2008