My views on science and relativism

by Neil Rickert

When I posted a review of “Science and Relativism” last week, I indicated that I would follow up with my own views on that topic.  So here it is.

When Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” came out, I thought it painted a somewhat better picture of science than what has been traditionally presented.  I didn’t agree with everything that Kuhn said, but I did like that he was challenging the traditional picture.

When, many years later, I read Feyerabend’s “Against Method”, I thought it a pretty good read.  I took Feyerabend to be poking fun at traditional philosophy of science, and I saw that as a good thing.  When he suggested that voodoo might work as well as science, I was not sure whether he was serious — and I’m still not sure.  In any case, I did not see him as a threat to science.

Where philosophy goes wrong

In my opinion, much of what people see as criticisms of science are really a reaction to the idea (from epistemology) that knowledge is justified true belief.  As best I can tell, most scientists and most mathematicians see knowledge as distinct from belief.

Because of how it characterizes knowledge, philosophy of science tends to see scientific theories as belief systems.  And to me, that’s a very poor way of thinking about them.

If a scientific theory is a belief system, then a change of theory entails the loss of some beliefs and the gain of other beliefs.  Looked at that way, it is like take two steps forward and two steps backward.  And that seems to be why it seems hard to tell whether science is making progress.

Likewise, if science is belief systems, then we can see why the social constructionist sees scientists as constructing belief systems.

How I see science

To me, science is mostly driven by the curiosity of the scientists.  So the scientists seeks ever more information about the natural world to satisfy that curiosity.

Kuhn, in chapter III of “Structure” writes:

Perhaps it is not apparent that a paradigm is prerequisite to the discovery of laws like these.  We often hear that they are found by examining measurements undertaken for their own sake and without theoretical commitment.  But history offers no support for so excessively Baconian a method.

I see that as a huge mistake by Kuhn.  He apparently thinks of measurement as something that you do with a ruler.  By contrast, I see measurement as starting before the ruler is invented.  So, to satisfy is curiosity, the scientist has to invent ways of getting useful information.  And the theories are often accounts of how to go about getting useful information.

Looked at in terms of information, scientific change seems to make more sense.  The switch from Newtonian mechanics to special relativity, when described in terms of belief systems, looks like to loss of some beliefs and their replacement by other beliefs.  But, looked at in terms of information, this change is more a matter of tweaking how we get information.  In particular, special relativity gives better results at the high speeds of motion in a particle accelerator.

If what we are doing is tweaking how we get information, so as to improve the quality of that information, then surely that should count as progress.

For scientists, the question of relativism doesn’t really arise.  The scientist isn’t thinking about whether his theory is true.  Rather, the scientist is thinking about how well it works to guide him in acquiring high quality information about the world.


I guess I’ll just summarize my view.

Of course there are disagreements over truth.  We all run into those.  But, usually, we take them in stride without need for great concern.  It seems to me that the supposed problem of relativism is mostly artifact of the unfortunate way that philosophers define knowledge.

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