Philosophy of Science - Relativism
Can scientonomy as a descriptive empirical science of science be applied to solve the problem of scientific progress?
The problem of scientific progress is the question of whether science can be truly said to make progress. Can one theory be taken as better than another? If so, how is this determined? Answers formulated by philosophers of science range from the use of predictive power as an arbiter of the ability of a theory, to the conception of science as simply a tool, to claims that a solution is impossible as truth is relative. Scientonomy is a descriptive empirical science. It maintains that theories change over time by a fixed mechanism of scientific change. By itself, it can make no normative claims about whether or not these changes constitute progress 12. The question at issue is whether the descriptive laws unearthed by scientonomists can help normative philosophers of science answer the question of whether or not science progresses, and if so how and in what sense.
The question of scientific progress is fundamentally intertwined with the historical acceptance of the fallibility of science. Aristotle and many after him argued that science constituted of self-evident and infallible knowledge, so the question of whether science moved towards truth or not was moot in this context.3 However, this argument faced serious challenges as the problem of induction and sensation rose to prominence, especially in the 20th century.
The problem of induction, associated strongly with the work of David Hume, is the question of whether inductively reasoned phenomena can be considered knowledge. No matter how many observations are made, there is no way to conclusively say that all similar objects will have similar properties, or that all observed phenomena will continue to obey the same laws.4 If one measures Newton’s laws of gravity true today with one apple, there is no guarantee it extends to all others, or even again to the same apple. The problem of perception or sensation poses another issue: is there any way to independently verify human senses?5 It is known that senses are potentially untrustworthy due to the potential for hallucinations, mistakes and misperceptions. How is it then determined whether perception can be trusted at any given time? These two issues pose a potential problem for proponents of scientific progress, as it renders all theories equally fallible. If senses are not necessarily trustworthy and no empirical theory incontestable, then how are scientific theories to be compared? What becomes of the idea of scientific progress?
Logical positivists, like Rudolph Carnap, proposed calculating a probability for theories to ascertain which theories were better. While no theory could ever be 100% true, they could be relatively closer or farther from the truth than eachother based on how much evidence existed for either theory.5 Karl Popper would argue for the relative restrictions a theory places on the real world (or empirical content) as an indicator of which theories were better.6 The more situations a theory could forbid while being consistent with observed phenomenon, thus increasing the “risk” a theory undertakes, the better a theory was. Thomas Kuhn proposed that five traits of science (accuracy, simplicity, fruitfulness, scope, and consistency) were the arbiters of what made one theory better than another.7 However, Carnap, Popper, and Kuhn all fail to explain why their respective standards are better when science is thought to be fallible. Since observations are fallible, probabilities based on observation must be so too. If theories are to be compared based on empirical content, how can two wholly disparate theories be compared in their unique predictions? What happens when different values come into conflict? Kuhn himself recognized the latter issue and struggled to logically reconcile the idea of scientific progress with any one theory. While Kuhn does propose a possible framework for judging theories, the implications of his incommensurability thesis that argued theories separated by “scientific revolutions” (periods of large change in scientific practice) were incommensurable and therefore incomparable, had some consider him a relativist.5
|18 January 2018
|It was acknowledged as an open question by the Scientonomy Seminar 2018.
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This question is a subquestion of Application of Scientonomy to Philosophy of Science.
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- Barseghyan, Hakob. (2015) The Laws of Scientific Change. Springer.
- Barseghyan and Shaw (2019)
- Laudan, Larry. (1983) The Demise of the Demarcation Problem. In Cohen and Laudan (Eds.) (1983), 111-127.
- Hume, David. (2008) Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Early Modern Texts. Retrieved from http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/authors/hume.
- Godfrey-Smith, Peter. (2003) Theory and Reality. University of Chicago Press.
- Popper, Karl. (1959) The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Hutchinson & Co.
- Kuhn, Thomas. (1973) Objectivity, Value Judgement, and Theory Choice. In Kuhn (1977a), 320-339.