Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Paradigms, bounded rationality and epistemological anarchy

The title of this blog comes from the view ascribed to Paul K Feyerabend that in science really "anything goes". It also owes a credit to David Stove who wrote a book of that title that largely attacked the suite of philosophy of science positions from Popper through Kuhn to Feyerabend that positted that scientific theories are never more than hypotheses to be "falsified".

Where Kuhn deviated from Popper was by noting that even when scientists had conducted experiments that "falsify" theories, they still cling to them. They only shift, almost as one, when finally the weight of evidence and an alternative theory are present. Kuhn also notes that the "research program" of normal science isn't about devising new "tests" of current theory but is mostly about validating theory by creating new uses. In particular the training of new scientists is in using the tools of the theory - everything is conducted within the "paradigm". In this he was effectively replaying an earlier line from Galbraith in The Affluent Society of "perceived wisdom".

Kuhn's analysis was from stuying the history of physical sciences - in particular astronomy. Feyerabend reviewed this and included other sciences (mostly in Against Method but also in Science in a Free Society). He concluded that there was nothing like the steady progression through revolutionary cycles that Kuhn observed. Instead he argued that scientists were ultimately pragmatists - they use theories because they work, not because they ascribe any particular truth value to them.

This attitude that Feyerabend claims to observe he labelled "epistemological anarchy", the "truths" of science that are "known" are neither - they are merely tools. They are no more knowledge than a hammer or an axe is knowledge.

The fact is that both Kuhn and Feyerabend claimed to be propounding positive theories, describing how science IS DONE. Many have picked their theories up as normative theories, telling us how science should be done. This has a consequence in Stove's real target, which is the idea of relativistic truth, and that theories maty be acceptable because they are the theories of a culture.

Hence indigenous legends are to be accorded the same status as theories as General Relativity.

This is an error. In fact Feyerabend was really much closer to the inductivists Stove admired. Theories are used because they work. The only difference is that he stops short of ever being prepared to allow a theory to progress beyond belief to knowledge.

In the real world we all need to buld our "web of belief" (to use Quine's phrase) and ultimately to progress within it day by day. We ultimately all rely on that belief system for making our daily inferences. That is what we mean in economic theorising when we talk about "bounded rationality" - it is not just the accepted facts, but the theories that we accept that shape our thinking.

But if EVERYONE does that ALL the time nothing new will ever occur. The world needs bombastic iconoclasts who will challenge the standard view on a regular basis. That is what I try to de here at "Anything Goes".

I trust my loyal readers continue to enjoy it. It seems to be coming at some personal cost. The world is far more enamoured with the safe and reliable, with living by the myths of perceived wisdom, of failing to find thesis and antithesis to generate synthesis.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

don't know if you monitor this guy
Pierre Devries
A useful post that connects with your views (I think)


Monday, December 14, 2009
Constructing spectrum – lessons from the history of economics
“Spectrum” is powerful construct; most people assume such a thing exists, and this assumption has regulatory consequences. But how did it come into being? The stories that some social scientists tell about the construction of “the economy” by economics provide some insight.