Anarchy

For nearly one hundred years, philosophers had been trying to find out just what made science so special, what was it about its method that meant it gave us the best knowledge available, above all other types of study.

And for nearly one hundred years, they had failed.

 

For many philosophers, even today, this is because they have yet to come up with a theory that describes science in all its logic and nuance, to find the hidden rationality about how science investigates the world.

But what if scientists and philosophers are just kidding themselves to think that there is a universal, timeless, and prestigious scientific method?

This was the view of the Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend, a self-proclaimed ‘epistemological anarchist.’

If we really wanted to know how scientists behave, Feyerabend believed, then we should look to how science worked at its best: the Copernican Revolution and the role played by Galileo.

In the earlier, Aristotelian physics, how quickly objects moved depended upon how heavy they were. A cannon dropped off the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, say, should hit the ground faster than a feather. Galileo has a place in our science textbooks because he actually performed the experiment, and found that this was wrong.

But despite what many people think and what some science textbooks would tell you, Feyerabend pointed out, Galileo never actually performed the experiment. He didn’t need to.

Instead he came up with the following thought experiment. If we connected a feather to a cannonball, how fast would it go?

On the one hand, their combined weights should make it heaver than the cannonball alone, so it should go faster.

On the other hand, the lightness of the feather should counteract the heaviness of the cannonball, so it should go slower.

Galileo had uncovered a paradox, which also gave the correct answer: the cannonball and feather must, all else being equal, fall at the same speed. Today we’d say that gravity affects them both equally.

 

Feyerabend’s point is that it doesn’t really matter what methods we use in science, just as long as we use them to create the best arguments possible to convince others that we have found the truth. Just like Galileo did with his thought experiment.

If science is just our best way to make arguments about the natural world, then it makes sense to think that even our best science – its methods, theories, equipment, types of evidence, reasoning – will eventually be superseded by something better.

If there is any such thing as a universal scientific method, then for Feyerabend it is simply ‘anything goes.’

Feyerabend’s insights have helped create a revolutionary new way to study science – constructivism – where scientific truth is no longer taken for granted, but has to be argued.

His criticisms of science made sense in the 1960s and 1970s, when civil rights, women’s liberation, gay rights, as well as the American and Soviet governments during the Cold War, raised doubts about why only scientists had access to Nature, and why only a small part of the population could become scientists.

From these concerns has arisen new way in which science has participated with society: interest in the public understanding of science, and even for public participation of science, of research ethics committees and informed consent, of the different ways how people can see the world around them.

 

But if our best science is just good arguments, then how can we ever convince someone who has a completely different world-view to us?

If science is just good argument, then is it possible to do good science without observing the real world at all?