The Rationality Crisis

Prof. H. Folse The Rationality Crisis Department of Philosophy, 
Loyola University, New Orleans.

The empiricists had been misled by their drive to create a sharp distinction between “scientific” and “pseudo-scientific” beliefs into thinking that there was some one set of such standards of scientific rationality which were common to all the genuine sciences and which were ignored or violated in the unjustified cognitive claims of the “pseudo-sciences.” … This empiricist commonplace was often expressed by saying “you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from and ‘is’.” Philosophers who violated this stricture were branded as having committed the “naturalistic fallacy.”

As the collapse of foundationalism opened the field to new positions on the manner in which scientific beliefs attain the “authority” they do in fact enjoy in the contemporary world, philosophers defended a variety of positions that can be arrayed in a kind of “spectrum” from “right” to “left” with respect to the authority accorded some form of “scientific rationality.” This chaotic state of affairs has now come to be called “the rationality crisis.” On the extreme “left” Paul Feyerabend took up the stand of “epistemological anarchy,” proclaiming that with respect to permissible methods for gaining acceptance as “scientific belief,” “Anything goes!” … Feyerabend accepted -to the fullest- both the theory ladeness of all “facts” and the holistic view of language meaning. Thus he reasoned from “theory-ladeness” of facts to the conclusion that the “facts” most likely to refute any given theory will not be generated by that theory, but rather by its rivals. Therefore, if knowledge grows by refuting the old, the most rational way to make knowledge grow is to maximize the number of competing theories.

On this [“sociologists of science” ] reading, the lesson to be learned from the collapse of foundationalism is that what passes as scientific knowledge is the product of a process entirely governed by social forces and is quite independent of “the way the world is,” the very notion of which is considered a ludicrous remnant of discredited foundationalism. Empirical underdetermination, they concluded,. implies that any theory can be made to “fit” with any body of evidence, so empirical evidence cannot even be relevant to theory choice. From this source the debates now known as “The Science Wars” have now sprung.

For some … philosophers the best hope for a resurrection of an internalist scientific rationality was thought to lie in a defense of the older view that there is a “way the world is,” and that as scientific knowledge grows and changes, our scientific account of the world approaches ever more closely to the goal or describing that reality, a relationship to which we refer with the notion of “truth” or “approximate truth.”.. These philosophers are realists.

It seems to me that such views are still commonplace. The implication is that as science develops its conclusions become more reliably ‘actionable’. But I doubt it. My own view is that there is a ‘way the (external) world is’ and that what we can properly know is not some definite theory but rather some space of plausible theories, consistent with the evidence. If a single member of the set of plausible theories seems to be ‘true’, it can only be contingently. Thus while from growing evidence we ought to deduce a diminishing set of plausible theories, there are two problems with  the notion that our current theory will approximate to the truth.

  1. In some unexplored dimension, our theory may be very far from the truth.
  2. There will – I think – always (or at least often) be unrecognized dimensions to the plausible theories, such that the evidence should, from time to time, lead us to radically expand the space of theories that are considered plausible.

As an example, Newton’s theory of cosmology was in some sense an excellent approximation, but – as Einstein and Eddington showed – was in some senses completely and importantly wrong.

In the social sciences there also seems to be the endless possibility for people to create new factors and hence dimensions. For example, novel financial instruments and high-frequency algorithmic trading have led to whole new possibilities for financial crashes that one could hardly expect naïve (or ‘pseudo’) ‘scientific’ methods to have addressed.

Dave Marsay

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