Against Method

Oct 20, 2023

I conclude that the life we lead is ambiguous. It contains not only one future, but many, and it contains them neither ready-made nor as possibilities that can be turned into any direction.

Finally, Imre Lakatos loved to embarrass serious opponents with jokes and irony and so I, too, occasionally wrote in a rather ironical vein. An example is the end of Chapter 1: 'anything goes' is not a principle I hold - I do not think that 'principles' can be used and fruitfully discussed outside the concrete research situation they are supposed to affect - but the terrified exclamation of a rationalist who takes a closer look at history.

This book proposes a thesis and draws consequences from it. The thesis is: the events, procedures and results that constitute the sciences have no common structure; there are no elements that occur in every scientific investigation but are missing elsewhere. Concrete developments (such as the overthrow of steady state cosmologies and the discovery of the structure of DNA) have distinct features and we can often explain why and how these features led to success. But not every discovery can be accounted for in the same manner, and procedures that paid off in the past may create havoc when imposed on the future. Successful research does not obey general standards; it relies now on one trick, now on another; the moves that advance it and the standards that define what counts as an advance are not always known to the movers. Far-reaching changes of outlook, such as the so-called 'Copernican Revolution' or the 'Darwinian Revolution', affect different areas of research in different ways and receive different impulses from them. A theory of science that devises standards and structural elements for all scientific activities and authorizes them by reference to 'Reason' or 'Rationality' may impress outsiders - but it is much too crude an instrument for the people on the spot, that is, for scientists facing some concrete research problem.

Another consequence is that the success of 'science cannot be used as an argument for treating as yet unsolved problems in a standardized way. That could be done only if there are procedures that can be detached from particular research situations and whose presence guarantees success.

It also follows that 'non-scientific' procedures cannot de pushed aside by argument. To say: the procedure you used is non-scientific, therefore we cannot trust your results and cannot give you money for research assumes that 'science is successful and that it is successful because it uses uniform procedures. The first part of the assertion (science is always successful) is not true, if by 'science we mean things done by scientists - there are lots of failures also. The second part - that successes are due to uniform procedures - is not true because there are no such procedures. Scientists are like architects who build buildings of different sizes and different shapes and who can be judged only after the event, i.e. only after they have finished their structure. It may stand up, it may fall down nobody knows.

It is true that Western science now reigns supreme all over the globe; however, the reason was not insight in its 'inherent rationality' but power play (the colonizing nations imposed their ways of living) and the need for weapons: Western science so far has created the most efficient instruments of death. The remark that without Western science many 'Third World nations' would be starving is correct but one should add that the troubles were created, not alleviated, by earlier forms of 'development'.

More specifically, one can show the following: given any rule, however 'fundamental' or 'rational', there are always circumstances when it is advisable not only to ignore the rule, but to adopt its opposite. For example, there are circumstances when it is advisable to introduce, elaborate, and defend ad hoc hypotheses, or hypotheses which contradict well-established and generally accepted experimental results, or hypotheses whose content is smaller than the content of the existing and empirically adequate alternative, or self-inconsistent hypotheses, and so on.

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