Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Feyerabend's autobiography, a review

I finished reading Killing Time recently, with an eye toward learning about Feyerabend's approach to the philosophy of science.  A simple search on the Internet will provide a basic introduction, but it is always better to get information from as close to the original source as possible, so I am including a few quotes from the book below.  Feyerabend places the scientific tradition on an equal plane with other traditions, including religious traditions.  I think this is for several reasons:  science is not objective, nor are its products always beneficial.  If the scientific tradition is deposed as the ruling way of knowing, what we are left with is “epistemological anarchy”.  Popularly conceived, anarchy means chaos, but here it is better understood as pluralism – no single tradition has a monopoly on knowledge, or truth.  On the other hand, he would never say that scientific theories are not to be taken seriously.  So what is there to gain from all this?  In Feyerabend's words, “a little more freedom, a little more happiness, a little more light.”  It will take a reading of his other books to gain more insight into how he reached his conclusions.  For now, I appreciate being unbound by any ideology, free from guilt and free to understand my experience on terms of my own choosing.

A few weeks before he died, Feyerabend was told in the course of an interview "You have not created a positive philosophical system" to which he replied "You find positive things not in theories but in human relations.  If somebody is happily married, has good children, this is a positive thing in life.  It can't be put into concepts."  Feyerabend thought that happiness, love, friendship, and the full development of human beings was the highest possible value. 

Richard Dawkins will be visiting this summer to give a speech, and I would like to ask him his opinion of Feyerabend.  I am sure he should find him agreeable, as Dawkins opens his book The God Delusion with a short story illustrating why it is unethical to indoctrinate impressionable youth in a particular religion without allowing them to make that decision for themselves.  Feyerabend makes the same point, taking it one step further to include science among the list of ideologies susceptible to the same kind of religious fervor. 

If atheism is the belief that there is no god, non-absolutism is the belief that there are no absolutes of any kind, which includes a belief that "a unified theory of the physical world simply does not exist" (Feyerabend, Farewell to Reason, 1987), "all methodologies have their limits" (Against Method, 1975).  But who among us would dare to take non-absolutism to such extremes and confront the greatest aspiration of science, a TOE (theory of everything)?  Until very recently, I probably wouldn't have, non-absolutism was to me an abstract concept, but Feyerabend shows it to be a historical reality.  The positive message is that if science is an ideology like any other, then this does not diminish its evident importance, rather it raises the importance of the others. 

The following quotes are from Killing Time: 

p. 75
“Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all based on books, and nature, accordingly, was treated as a book written in a special and rather difficult language.”

p. 97
“I think that many young people – say, between fifteen and seveenteen or, today, between seven and ten – have similarly unstable perceptions and views.  They see the world in a special way, and yet the slightest pressure can make them see it differently.  A good teacher respects this instability.  Unfortunately, most educators use it “to teach the truth,” as they call the process of imparting their own puny ideas.”

p. 142
“The world, including the world of science, is a complex and scattered entity that cannot be captured by theories and simple rules... Nor is there one way of knowing, science; there are many such ways, and before they were ruined by Western civilization they were effective in the sense that they kept people alive and made their existence comprehensible... Scientific institutions are not “objective”; neither they nor their products confront people like a rock, or a star.  They often merge with other traditions, are affected by them, affect them in turn.  Decisive scientific movements were inspired by philosophical and religious (or theological) sentiments.  The material benefits of science are not at all obvious.  There are great benefits, true.  But there are also great disadvantages.  And the role of the abstract entity “science” in the production of the benefits is anything but clear.”

p. 164
“The treasures unearthed by science seem to have an additional advantage: being related to each other in lawful ways they can be manipulated or predicted by using the laws.  But that makes them important only if the resulting scenario is pleasant to live in.  The objection that the scenario is “real,” and that we must adapt to it no matter what, has no weight, for it is not the only one: there are many ways of thinking and living.”  [emphasis mine]

[For a convincing contra position read this.  Whatever could be said of him, Feyerabend stood primarily for the free exercise of intellect, unconstrained by dogma.  This is why his message resonated with me; I feel like my thoughts are constraining me in crippling ways and that during the brief moments I feel liberated from them I am focused and very efficient in my choices and actions.  I always want to be liberated from my concerns, worries, biases, etc. and live in the moment.  Who doesn't?  As I wrote in my last entry: "Everything is unique and special, each experience and person is fundamentally different from the next.  I approach everything anew each time."  Yes, I do concede that they can all be related to each other, but everything is unique.  The fundamental uniqueness of personal experience (the term 'subjective consciousness' seems too sterile) lies at the core of humanity and all life.  Here is how I can liberate myself from concerns (or even compulsive over analysis):  I don't want to replace one thought with another thought, I want to remember that all thoughts have their limits.  So why persist in pursuing them?  It is a version of "this too shall pass", but I have modeled it on a quote from pg.32 of Feyerabend's Against Method.  I just replaced the words "rules" and "methodologies" with "thoughts". There is no limit to the number of grand ideas one can have, but all grand ideas have their limits.


aratina cage said...

Feyerabend places the scientific tradition on an equal plane with other traditions, including religious traditions. I think this is for several reasons: science is not objective, nor are its products always beneficial.

At first I was going to disagree but now I'd rather clarify. Science, as a tool and process of human inquiry and as a collection of vetted knowledge, can never be separated from the collective human mind. It will always be colored by human cultures as a human endeavor. However, that does not mean there is not an objective reality.

It is with respect to objective reality (as opposed to our individual subjective realities) that science obliterates religion and other human traditions in its capacity to generate reasonable knowledge about the natural world for us humans to digest.

Religions, if they do happen to give us any knowledge about reality (which is highly doubtful to me), arrive at that knowledge arbitrarily (sometimes that happens in science, too) and have no way of quantifying the significance of their knowledge other than through human authorities (including authors, prophets, and priests). Even simple trial and error is worlds better than religion for the purpose of learning about reality.

And while science itself may not be objective, in the sense of it existing on its own outside of human culture, the things it describes and explains are. So, in no way would I accept science and religion as equals. Religion is clearly inferior unless one is wishing to establish a theocracy.

Keir said...

Feyerabend did not question the existence of an objective reality, just the means by which science apprehends it. Is science an ideology like any other? No, not exactly like any other, we could find many significant differences between the methods of science and religion, but the explanatory power of both has built in limits. He also asked the question: where does one draw the line distinguishing science from non-science? Feyerabend argued that in practice, that line doesn't exist. Which is a good thing, because it allowed us to improve our understanding of the world despite using "non-scientific" means. Does that make him an accomodationist for religion? I think he's more interested in stating facts, than advocating a position.

aratina cage said...

we could find many significant differences between the methods of science and religion, but the explanatory power of both has built in limits.

The explanatory power of religion? I'm sorry, I just don't see any. Religions cannot explain anything, and everything they tried to explain in the past (like why it rained on one's day of birth) has been proven wrong.

He also asked the question: where does one draw the line distinguishing science from non-science? Feyerabend argued that in practice, that line doesn't exist.

Perhaps Feyerabend took too narrow a view of that line with respect to time and precedent.

I read how Feyerabend held dropping stones from towers as supportive of geocentricism over heliocentricism despite observations through telescopes supporting heliocentricism, therefore the Roman Catholic Church was practicing science, but that misses the larger picture of how even a theocracy will practice science. It doesn't make Roman Catholicism scientific.

Science also has a way of evolving over time. You get lots of fruitless branches that die off. I would even go so far as to say that ancient religions are dead branches near the base of the Tree of Science.

Making things up whole cloth, which is fundamental to religious traditions, is itself a fine art that can complement or shape frontier science, but such methods are not science.

it allowed us to improve our understanding of the world despite using "non-scientific" means.

But, religions do not improve our understanding of reality (unless one is an adherent of said religions), do they? Yes, they will improve our understanding of various human cultures, but one need not be an adherent of the religion under scrutiny to gain such a cultural understanding, either.

Science, to me, is very much post hoc. Anything goes for ideas or discoveries but only time will tell if those ideas and discoveries are born on a living branch of science or on one about to wither and die.

Keir said...

Feyerabend claimed that non-scientific ways of knowing "kept people alive and made their existence comprehensible." If I can comprehend my existence, does that imply that I can explain it? Maybe. If I can explain my existence, does that imply my explanations are true? Of course not.

Some people are more decisive than others. The problem with being decisive is that I have to make the right decisions or else ensure that any decisions I make have the right exit clauses attached to them so that I can escape when they lead me to the wrong conclusions.

Oddly enough, the same reasons I was impelled to leave religion are the same reasons why I cannot unequivocally deny that it may have positive utility for some people. It is the principle of non-absolutism or non-exclusivity, stated positively it is the principle of plurality, and the Jain term is anekantavada. Is Jainism a religion? It is a religion for some, but it also contains a system of philosophy. Some physicists have found parallels between Eastern ideas and their discipline of study. To provide one example, Neils Bohr had the taijitu (yin yang symbol) inscribed on his coat of arms. There are parallels if not direct lines of influence between scientific and non-scientific, even religious, ways of knowing.

I agree with you that religions and science are part of the same tree of knowledge, with religious traditions near the base, and no longer actively contributing or playing the same role they once did. These are interesting days we live in!

aratina cage said...

There are parallels if not direct lines of influence between scientific and non-scientific, even religious, ways of knowing.

Here is how I would understand that relation: We all operate using the same kind of biological machinery and similar knowledge (culture). There aren't really different ways of knowing at the operational level of the brain, it only appears that way because people give more weight to different sources of information.

I would tentatively create three groupings: artists, realists, and sheeples. Some people, at different times for each, stress intuition and imagination while others stress coherence and reconciliation between reality and personal experience and still others stress dogma and obedience to authority.