Feyerabend and Science as ‘Myth’

Sage digs up an interesting view on science from Paul Feyerabend.

I recently came across an article from 1963 entitled ‘How to be a Good Empiricist – A Plea for Tolerance in Matters Epistemological’ by Paul Feyerabend, the well-known philosopher of science. In this paper, Feyerabend was writing a criticism of the thinking of the Logical Positivists, in particular Thomas Nagel.


Paul Feyerabend (Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend [attribution] via Wikimedia Commons)

However, in the lengthy extract below, he was arguing strongly for tolerance in scientific work – on the not unreasonable sounding basis that allowing a multiplicity of alternate ideas is the best way to test and evaluate current scientific theories – rather than to dogmatically accept the prevailing ones. This is, basically, a similar argument to that John Stuart Mill uses in ‘On Liberty’ in defence of freedom of speech and belief. It’s clear that Feyerabend was heavily influenced by Thomas Khun here, in describing what he believes scientists actually do, which Feyerabend compares to what they should do. It’s a pretty polemical section, and isn’t particularly ‘philosophical’, at least when read out of context as here, but what it says sounded so familiar to me, I thought I’d draw attention to it.

I have transcribed most of section 6 of the paper. In doing so, I’ve removed certain words and phrases that identify which particular aspect of physical science Feyerabend was using as his example. I’ve replaced these, where still required for sense, with non-discipline specific words, and these are shown in square brackets.

Does any branch of present-day science fit Feyerabend’s description?

The Self-Deception Involved in All Uniformity[i]

“It is worthwhile to examine this apparently empirical defence of a dogmatic point of view in somewhat greater detail. Assume that [scientists] have adopted, either consciously or unconsciously, the idea of [some hypothesis relevant to their area of study] and that they therefore elaborate the orthodox point of view and refuse to consider alternatives. In the beginning such a procedure may be quite harmless. After all, a man can do only so many things at a time and it is better when he pursues a theory in which he is interested rather than a theory he finds boring. Now assume that the pursuit of the theory he chose has led to successes and that the theory has explained in a satisfactory manner circumstances that had been unintelligible for quite some time. This gives empirical support to an idea which to start with seem to possess only this advantage: it was interesting and intriguing. The concentration upon the theory will now be reinforced, the attitude towards alternatives will become less tolerant. Now if it is true, as has been argued in the last section, that many facts become available only with the help of such alternatives, then the refusal to consider them will result in the elimination of potentially refuting facts. More especially, it will eliminate facts whose discovery would show the complete and irreparable inadequacy of the theory. Such facts having been made inaccessible, the theory will appear to be free from blemish… This will further reinforce the belief in the uniqueness of the current theory and the complete futility of any account of the proceeds in a different manner. Being now very firmly convinced that there is only one good [theory or hypothesis], the [scientists] will try to explain even adverse facts in its terms, and they will not mind when such explanations are sometimes a little clumsy. By now the success of the theory has become public news. Popular science books (and this includes a good many books on the philosophy of science) will spread the basic postulates of the theory; applications will be made in distant fields. More than ever the theory will appear to possess tremendous empirical support. The chances for the consideration of alternatives are now very slight indeed. The final success of the fundamental assumptions of the [theory and its main postulate] will seem to be assured.

At the same time, it is evident, on the basis of the considerations in the last section, that this appearance of success cannot in the least be regarded as a sign of truth and correspondence with nature. Quite the contrary, the suspicion arises that the absence of major difficulties is a result of the decrease of empirical content brought about by the elimination of alternatives, and of facts that can be discovered with the help of these alternatives only. In other words, the suspicion arises that this alleged success is due to the fact that in the process of application to new domains the theory has been turned into a metaphysical system. Such a system will of course be very ‘successful’ not, however, because it agrees so well with the facts, but because no facts have been specified that would constitute a test and because some facts have even been removed. It’s ‘success’ is entirely man-made. It was decided to stick to some ideas and the result was, quite naturally, the survival of these ideas. If now the initial decision is forgotten, or made only implicitly, then the survival will seem to constitute independent support, it will reinforce the decision, or turn it into an explicit one, and in this way close the circle. This is how empirical ‘evidence’ may be created by a procedure which quotes as its justification the very same evidence it has produced in the first place.

At this point an ‘empirical’ theory of the kind described… become almost indistinguishable from a myth. In order to realise this, we need only consider that on account of its all-pervasive character a myth such as the myth of witchcraft and that demonic possession will possess a high degree of confirmation on the basis of observation. Such a myth has been taught for a long time; its content is enforced by fear, prejudice, and ignorance as well as by a jealous and cruel priesthood. It penetrates the most common idiom, infects all modes of thinking and many decisions which mean a great deal in human life. It provides models for the explanation of any conceivable event, conceivable, that is, those who have accepted it. This being the case, its key terms will be fixed in an unambiguous manner and the idea (which may have led to such a procedure in the first place) that they are copies of unchanging entities and that change of meaning, if it should happen, is due to human mistake – this idea will now be very plausible. Such plausibility reinforces all the manoeuvres which are used for the preservation of the myth (elimination of opponents included). The conceptual apparatus of the theory and the emotions connected with its application having penetrated all means of communication, all actions, and indeed the whole life of the community, such methods as transcendental deduction, analysis of usage, phenomenological analysis which are means for further solidifying the myth will be extremely successful (which shows, by the way, that all these methods which have been the trademark of various philosophical schools old and new, have one thing in common: They tend to preserve the status quo of the intellectual life). Observational results too, will speak in favour of the theory as they are formulated in its terms. It will seem that at last the truth has been arrived at. At the same time, it is evident that all contact with the world has been lost and that the stability achieved, the semblance of absolute truth, is nothing but the result of an absolute conformism. How can we possibly test, or improve upon, the truth of a theory if it is built in such a manner that any conceivable event can be described, and explained, in terms of its principles? The only way of investigating such all-embracing principles is to compare them with a different set of equally all-embracing principles – but this way has been excluded from the very beginning. The myth is therefore of no objective relevance, it continues to exist solely as the result of the efforts of the community of believers and of their leaders, be these now priests or Nobel Prize winners. Its success is entirely man-made. This I think, is the most decisive argument against any method that encourages uniformity, be it now empirical or not. Any such method is in the last resort a method of deception. It enforces an unenlightened conformism, and speaks of truth; it leads to a deterioration of intellectual capabilities, of the power of the imagination, and speaks of deep insight; it destroys the most precious gift of the young, their tremendous power of imagination, and speaks of education.

To sum up: Unanimity of opinion may be fitting for a church, for the crime victims of some (ancient, or modern) myth, or for the weak and willing followers of some tyrant; variety of opinion is a feature necessary for objective knowledge; and a method that encourages a variety is also the only method that is compatible with a humanitarian outlook. To the extent to which the consistency condition (and, as will emerge, the condition of meaning invariance) delimits variety, it contains a theological element (which lies, of course, in the worship of ‘facts’ so characteristic for nearly all empiricism).”

It does sound a bit like…

The Anthropogenic Climate Change (or AGW) hypothesis ticks all the boxes, doesn’t it? Refusal to consider alternatives? Tick. Requirement for conformism amongst its practitioners? Tick. Untestable? Tick. Explaining even adverse results in terms that appear to support the theory? Tick. Application into other fields of study? Tick. ‘Mythical’ content that “is enforced by fear, prejudice, and ignorance as well as by a jealous and cruel priesthood”? Tick.

You could make your own list of comparisons!

But it actually is…Quantum Complementarity

Feyerabend was writing about quantum mechanics and specifically about quantum complementarity: that is the idea that objects can have properties that cannot all be measured at the same time. For example, it is possible to consider an electron as acting as a wave, or as a particle, but not both at once. I’ve no intention of discussing quantum mechanics in any further depth here. The point is, if we are to take Feyerabend’s criticism as applying to the present ‘received opinion’ on AGW, we must accept its application to quantum mechanics as Feyerabend actually meant, and like as not to other scientific disciplines too. We shouldn’t then cherry pick and say, for instance, that we ‘believe’ in quantum mechanics and therefore reject Feyerabend on that while happily accepting the critique when applied to AGW which we don’t ‘believe’ in. Or vice versa.

So what?

The AGW hypothesis, correct or not, is a whole bigger problem than quantum mechanics. While a better understanding of quantum mechanics will undoubtedly lead to great technological improvements over the coming years, quantum complementarity is hardly a major talking point on the Clapham Omnibus or down the Dog & Duck. It may take up a lot of scientific research money, but I’d be amazed if its anything like the cash available for AGW research.

It certainly doesn’t get the sort of money doled out to subsidise ‘green energy’ or fund R&D in that area. In terms of public policy, and people’s standards of living, the AGW hypothesis is much more serious in its implications than quantum mechanics. As such, AGW scientists should perhaps be held to a higher standard than most scientists.

I’ve no doubt, that a ‘plea for tolerance’ of AGW sceptics both in and out of the discipline, as a means to rapidly improve understanding of the climate in the context of increasing levels of CO2, is much more urgent and necessary than academic freedom to dissent is in quantum mechanics.


[i] Feyerabend, Paul K. Section 6 of “How to be a Good Empiricist – A Plea for Tolerance in Matters Epistemological (1963).” In Philosophy of Science: the central issues, by Martin & Cover, JA Curd, 922-949. London: WW Norton & Company Ltd. (Italics are Feyerabend’s emphases. While I have checked the transcription, minor errors may have occurred. My spell-checker has changed the spelling into UK English.