Monday, May 28, 2012

Science and Progress

Dragonflies on the river

(The quotes are from the excellent article in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Scientific Progress.” Anyone interested in the discussion would do well to consult this, in its entirety. I also recommend, for a general text on the main issues of the philosophy of science, Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. The classic essays are contained therein.)

Science progresses (perhaps); the humanities do not. But this is no criticism of the humanities, and no easy thing to see regarding the sciences (hence "perhaps").

“Science is often distinguished from other domains of human culture by its progressive nature: in contrast to art, religion, philosophy, morality, and politics, there exist clear standards or normative criteria for identifying improvements and advances in science. For example, the historian of science George Sarton argued that “the acquisition and systematization of positive knowledge are the only human activities which are truly cumulative and progressive,” and “progress has no definite and unquestionable meaning in other fields than the field of science” (Sarton 1936).”

But even the idea of science “progressing” has been challenged. “The traditional cumulative view of scientific knowledge was effectively challenged by many philosophers of science in the 1960s and the 1970s, and thereby the notion of progress was also questioned in the field of science. Debates on the normative concept of progress are at the same time concerned with axiological questions about the aims and goals of science.”

“Progress” is an axiological, not a scientific, concept. “Progress” is a humanities-concept, not something discovered by the brute study of matter. ““Progress” is an axiological or a normative concept, which should be distinguished from such neutral descriptive terms as “change” and “development” (Niiniluoto 1995a). In general, to say that a step from stage A to stage B constitutes progress means that B is an improvement over A in some respect, i.e., B is better than A relative to some standards or criteria.”

The Kuhn-Popper-Toulmin idea is thatscience does not grow simply by accumulating new established truths upon old ones. Except perhaps during periods of Kuhnian normal science, theory change is not cumulative or continuous: the earlier results of science will be rejected, replaced, and reinterpreted by new theories and conceptual frameworks.” At this point the idea of “progress” in science gets sticky, with Kuhn and Popper themselves disagreeing on the meaning of scientific “progress.” Here naïve, unstudied, simplistic village-ideas of scientific progress will not do.

What if scientific theory A is false, and takes us in the wrong direction? What if our goal is to drive from Detroit to New York City, but we head towards Los Angeles? In that case, in that temporal moment, we cannot be said to be making progress towards our goal. So it seems that some, maybe many scientific theories do not “progress” us. “If science is goal-directed, then we must acknowledge that movement in the wrong direction does not constitute progress (Niiniluoto 1984).” In the history of science many examples of this can be cited.

I don’t think “progress” is the best, and indeed not the only, concept to be used regarding “science.” “Progress is a goal-relative concept. But even when we consider science as a knowledge-seeking cognitive enterprise, there is no reason to assume that the goal of science is one-dimensional. In contrast, as Isaac Levi's classic Gambling With Truth (1967) argued, the cognitive aim of scientific inquiry has to be defined as a weighted combination of several different, and even conflicting, epistemic utilities… [A]lternative theories of scientific progress can be understood as specifications of such epistemic utilities. For example, they might include truth and information (Levi 1967; see also Popper 1959, 1963) or explanatory and predictive power (Hempel 1965). Kuhn's (1977) list of the values of science includes accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness.” (The Logic text I use at MCCC, Vaughn’s The Power of Critical Thinking, has a nice section on these criteria of adequate explanation. All need not apply.)

I think that:

·        Overall, perhaps, it could be said that science makes “progress.”

·        “Progress” must be defined. It cannot be defined by using science qua science.
·        Religion, philosophy, and the humanities are not “progressive” realms of knowledge. To critique them as not “making progress” while science “makes progress” is to misunderstand their nature and, I think, overestimate one’s own coming-to-terms with scientific “progress” (its nature, definition, its non-scientific status, and so on…).