Posts Tagged Philosophy of Science
In a post on Richard Feynman and philosophy of science, I suggested that engineers would benefit from a class in philosophy of science. A student recently asked if I meant to say that a course in philosophy would make engineers better at engineering – or better philosophers. Better engineers, I said.
Here’s an example from my recent work as an engineer that drives the point home.
I was reviewing an FMEA (Failure Mode Effects Analysis) prepared by a high-priced consultancy and encountered many cases where a critical failure mode had been deemed highly improbable on the basis that the FMEA was for a mature system with no known failures.
How many hours of operation has this system actually seen, I asked. The response indicated about 10 thousand hours total.
I said on that basis we could assume a failure rate of about one per 10,001 hours. The direct cost of the failure was about $1.5 million. Thus the “expected value” (or “mathematical expectation” – the probabilistic cost of the loss) of this failure mode in a 160 hour mission is $24,000 or about $300,000 per year (excluding any secondary effects such as damaged reputation). With that number in mind, I asked the client if they wanted to consider further mitigation by adding monitoring circuitry.
I was challenged on the failure rate I used. It was, after all, a mature, ten year old system with no recorded failures of this type.
Here’s where the analytic philosophy course those consultants never took would have been useful.
You simply cannot justify calling a failure mode extremely rare based on evidence that it is at least somewhat rare. All unique events – like the massive rotor failure that took out all three hydraulic systems of a DC-10 in Sioux City – were very rare before they happened.
The authors of the FMEA I was reviewing were using unjustifiable inductive reasoning. Philosopher David Hume debugged this thoroughly in his 1738 A Treatise of Human Nature.
Hume concluded that there simply is no rational or deductive basis for induction, the belief that the future will be like the past.
Hume understood that, despite the lack of justification for induction, betting against the sun rising tomorrow was not a good strategy either. But this is a matter of pragmatism, not of rationality. A bet against the sunrise would mean getting behind counter-induction; and there’s no rational justification for that either.
In the case of the failure mode not yet observed, however, there is ample justification for counter-induction. All mechanical parts and all human operations necessarily have nonzero failure or error rates. In the world of failure modeling, the knowledge “known pretty good” does not support the proposition “probably extremely good”, no matter how natural the step between them feels.
Hume’s problem of induction, despite the efforts of Immanuel Kant and the McKinsey consulting firm, has not been solved.
A fabulously entertaining – in my view – expression of the problem of induction was given by philosopher Carl Hempel in 1965.
Hempel observed that we tend to take each new observation of a black crow as incrementally supporting the inductive conclusion that all crows are black. Deductive logic tells us that if a conditional statement is true, its contrapositive is also true, since the statement and its contrapositive are logically equivalent. Thus if all crows are black then all non-black things are non-crow.
It then follows that if each observation of black crows is evidence that all crows are black (compare: each observation of no failure is evidence that no failure will occur), then each observation of a non-black non-crow is also evidence that all crows are black.
Following this line, my red shirt is confirming evidence for the proposition that all crows are black. It’s a hard argument to oppose, but it simply does not “feel” right to most people.
Many try to salvage the situation by suggesting that observing that my shirt is red is in fact evidence that all crows are black, but provides only unimaginably small support to that proposition.
But pushing the thing just a bit further destroys even this attempt at rescuing induction from the clutches of analysis.
If my red shirt gives a tiny bit of evidence that all crows are black, it then also gives equal support to the proposition that all crows are white. After all, my red shirt is a non-white non-crow.
“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”
This post is more thoughts on the minds of interesting folk who can think from a variety of perspectives, inspired by Bruce Vojak’s Epistemology of Innovation articles. This is loosely related to systems thinking, design thinking, or – more from my perspective – the consequence of learning a few seemingly unrelated disciplines that end up being related in some surprising and useful way.
Richard Feynman ranks high on my hero list. When I was a teenager I heard a segment of an interview with him where he talked about being a young boy with a ball in a wagon. He noticed that when he abruptly pulled the wagon forward, the ball moved to the back of the wagon, and when he stopped the wagon, the ball moved forward. He asked his dad why it did that. His dad, who was a uniform salesman, put a slightly finer point on the matter. He explained that the ball didn’t really move backward; it moved forward, just not as fast as the wagon was moving. Feynman’s dad told young Richard that no one knows why a ball behaves like that. But we call it inertia. I found both points wonderfully illuminating. On the ball’s motion, there’s more than one way of looking at things. Mel Feynman’s explanation of the ball’s motion had gentle but beautiful precision, calling up thoughts about relativity in the simplest sense – motion relative to the wagon versus relative to the ground. And his statement, “we call it inertia,” got me thinking quite a lot about the difference between knowledge about a thing and the name of a thing. It also recalls Newton vs. the Cartesians in my recent post. The name of a thing holds no knowledge at all.
Feynman was almost everything a hero should be – nothing like the stereotypical nerd scientist. He cussed, pulled gags, picked locks, played drums, and hung out in bars. His thoughts on philosophy of science come to mind because of some of the philosophy-of-science issues I touched on in previous posts on Newton and Galileo. Unlike Newton, Feynman was famously hostile to philosophy of science. The ornithology quote above is attributed to him, though no one seems to have a source for it. If not his, it could be. He regularly attacked philosophy of science in equally harsh tones. “Philosophers are always on the outside making stupid remarks,“ he is quoted as saying in his biography by James Gleick.
My initial thoughts were that I can admire Feynman’s amazing work and curious mind while thinking he was terribly misinformed and hypocritical about philosophy. I’ll offer a slightly different opinion at the end of this. Feynman actually engaged in philosophy quite often. You’d think he’d at least try do a good job of it. Instead he seems pretty reckless. I’ll give some examples.
Feynman, along with the rest of science, was assaulted by the wave of postmodernism that swept university circles in the ’60s. On its front line were Vietnam protesters who thought science was a tool of evil corporations, feminists who thought science was a male power play, and Foucault-inspired “intellectuals” who denied that science had any special epistemic status. Feynman dismissed all this as a lot of baloney. Most of it was, of course. But some postmodern criticism of science was a reaction – though a gross overreaction – to a genuine issue that Kuhn elucidated – one that had been around since Socrates debated the sophists. Here’s my best Readers Digest version.
All empirical science relies on affirming the consequent, something seen as a flaw in deductive reasoning. Science is inductive, and there is no deductive justification for induction (nor is there any inductive justification for induction – a topic way too deep for a blog post). Justification actually rests on a leap of inductive faith and consensus among peers. But it certainly seems reasonable for scientists to make claims of causation using what philosophers call inference to the best explanation. It certainly seems that way to me. However, defending that reasoning – that absolute foundation for science – is a matter of philosophy, not one of science.
This issue edges us toward a much more practical one, something Feynman dealt with often. What’s the difference between science and pseudoscience (the demarcation question)? Feynman had a lot of room for Darwin but no room at all for the likes of Freud or Marx. All claimed to be scientists. All had theories. Further, all had theories that explained observations. Freud and Marx’s theories actually had more predictive success than did those of Darwin. So how can we (or Feynman) call Darwin a scientist but Freud and Marx pseudoscientists without resorting to the epistemologically unsatisfying argument made famous by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I can’t define pornography but I know it when I see it”? Neither Feynman nor anyone else can solve the demarcation issue in any convincing way, merely by using science. Science doesn’t work for that task.
It took Karl Popper, a philosopher, to come up with the counterintuitive notion that neither predictive success nor confirming observations can qualify something as science. In Popper’s view, falsifiability is the sole criterion for demarcation. For reasons that take a good philosopher to lay out, Popper can be shown to give this criterion a bit too much weight, but it has real merit. When Einstein predicted that the light from distant stars actually bends around the sun, he made a bold and solidly falsifiable claim. He staked his whole relativity claim on it. If, in an experiment during the next solar eclipse, light from stars behind the sun didn’t curve around it, he’d admit defeat. Current knowledge of physics could not support Einstein’s prediction. But they did they experiment (the Eddington expedition) and Einstein was right. In Popper’s view, this didn’t prove that Einstein’s gravitation theory was true, but it failed to prove it wrong. And because the theory was so bold and counterintuitive, it got special status. We’ll assume it true until it is proved wrong.
Marx and Freud failed this test. While they made a lot of correct predictions, they also made a lot of wrong ones. Predictions are cheap. That is, Marx and Freud could explain too many results (e.g., aggressive personality, shy personality or comedian) with the same cause (e.g., abusive mother). Worse, they were quick to tweak their theories in the face of counterevidence, resulting in their theories being immune to possible falsification. Thus Popper demoted them to pseudoscience. Feynman cites the falsification criterion often. He never names Popper.
The demarcation question has great practical importance. Should creationism be taught in public schools? Should Karmic reading be covered by your medical insurance? Should the American Parapsychological Association be admitted to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (it was in 1969)? Should cold fusion research be funded? Feynman cared deeply about such things. Science can’t decide these issues. That takes philosophy of science, something Feynman thought was useless. He was so wrong.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, there’s the matter of what activity Feynman was actually engaged in. Is quantum electrodynamics a science or is it philosophy? Why should we believe in gluons and quarks more than angels? Many of the particles and concepts of Feynman’s science are neither observable nor falsifiable. Feynman opines that there will never be any practical use for knowledge of quarks, so he can’t appeal to utility as a basis for the scientific status of quarks. So shouldn’t quantum electrodynamics (at least with level of observability it had when Feynman gave this opinion) be classified as metaphysics, i.e., philosophy, rather than science? By Feynman’s demarcation criteria, his work should be called philosophy. I think his work actually is science, but the basis for that subtle distinction is in philosophy of science, not science itself.
While degrading philosophy, Feynman practices quite a bit of it, perhaps unconsciously, often badly. Not Dawkins-bad, but still pretty bad. His 1966 speech to the National Science Teacher’s Association entitled “What Is Science?” is a case in point. He hints at the issue of whether science is explanatory or merely descriptive, but wanders rather aimlessly. I was ready to offer that he was a great scientist and a bad accidental philosopher when I stumbled on a talk where Feynman shows a different side, his 1956 address to the Engineering and Science college at the California Institute of Technology, entitled, “The Relation of Science and Religion.”
He opens with an appeal to the multidisciplinarian:
“In this age of specialization men who thoroughly know one field are often incompetent to discuss another. The great problems of the relations between one and another aspect of human activity have for this reason been discussed less and less in public. When we look at the past great debates on these subjects we feel jealous of those times, for we should have liked the excitement of such argument.”
Feynman explores the topic through epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. He talks about degrees of belief and claims of certainty, and the difference between Christian ethics and Christian dogma. He handles all this delicately and compassionately, with charity and grace. He might have delivered this address with more force and efficiency, had he cited Nietzsche, Hume, and Tillich, whom he seems to unknowingly parallel at times. But this talk was a whole different Feynman. It seems that when formally called on to do philosophy, Feynman could indeed do a respectable job of it.
I think Richard Feynman, great man that he was, could have benefited from Philosophy of Science 101; and I think all scientists and engineers could. In my engineering schooling, I took five courses in calculus, one in linear algebra, one non-Euclidean geometry, and two in differential equations. Substituting a philosophy class for one of those Dif EQ courses would make better engineers. A philosophy class of the quantum electrodynamics variety might suffice.
“It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means without man – as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described. It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of trying to understand.” – Richard Feynman, The Relation of Science and Religion
I recently ran across an outstanding blog and series of articles by Bruce A. Vojak, Associate Dean for Administration and an Adjunct Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois. Vojak deals with the epistemology of innovation. Epistemology is mostly an academic term, not yet usurped by Silicon Valley spin doctors, which basically means the study of knowledge and its justification – in other words, what we know, how we know it, and how we know we know it. So it follows that Vojak’s intent is to challenge readers to reflect on the practice of innovation and on how practitioners come to know what to do today in order to innovate successfully.
Incidentally, Vojak uses the popular term, “breakthrough innovation” – as we all do. I’ve been somewhat skeptical that this term can really carry much epistemic weight. It is popular among innovation advocates, but I’m not sure it has any theoretical – thus predictive – value. Even Judy Estrin, a Silicon Valley visionary for whom I have great respect, differentiates breakthrough from other innovation only in terms of historical marketplace success. Thus it seems to me that breakthrough can only be applied to an innovation in retrospect. In this sense it may be rare that prospective innovators can know whether they are pursuing continuous innovation or the breakthrough variety. Why set your sights low? In any case, Vojak is much more knowledgeable on the topic than I, and I’ll enjoy seeing where he goes with the breakthrough distinction that he develops somewhat in his So, what’s the big idea?. Vojak offers that breakthrough innovators are systems thinkers.
The articles by Vojak that I’m most thrilled with, contrasting the minds of contemporary innovators, are entitled “Patriarchs of Contemporary Innovation.” He’s released two of these this month: Newton & Goethe and Socrates & Hegel. I love these for many reasons including good subjects, concisely covered, flowing logically in a non-academic tone; but especially because they assign a very broad scope to innovation, contrasting the tunnel vision of the tech press.
In Newton & Goethe, Vojak looks at what can be learned from contrasting the two contemporary (with each other) thinkers. The objective Newton used a mathematical description of color, saw color as external to humans, reduced color into components (his famous prism experiment), and was a detached and dispassionate observer of it – the classic empiricist. For the subjective Goethe, color is something that humans do (it’s in our perception). Goethe was attached to color’s beauty; color is an experiential matter. In this sense, Newton is an analyst and Goethe is a design-thinker. Vojak then proposes that one role of an innovator is be able to hold both perspectives and to know when each is appropriate. Contrast this mature perspective with the magic-creative-powers BS peddled by Silicon Valley’s hockers of Design Thinking.
Because of my interest in history of science/philosophy of science, one aspect of Newton & Goethe got me thinking along a bit of tangent, but I think a rather interesting one. Vojak contrasts the romanticism and metaphysics of Goethe with the naturalism and empiricism of Newton, the “mastery of them that know.” But even Newton’s empiricism went only so far. Despite his having revealed what he called “true causes” and “universal truths,” his responses to his peers on what gravity actually was suggest that he never sought justification (in the epistemological sense) for his theories. “Gravity is the finger of God,” said Newton.
Newton was not a scientist, and we should avoid calling him that for reasons beyond the fact that the term did not exist in his day. He was a natural philosopher. When his rival continental natural philosophers – the disciples of Descartes – demanded explanation for force at a distance (how gravity pulls with no rope), Newton replied something along the lines of that gravity means what the equation says. For Newton there was no need to correlate experience with something behind the experience. This attitude seems natural today, with our post-Einstein, post-quantum-mechanics perspective, but certainly was rightly seen by the emerging naturalists of Newton’s day as a theological-holdout basis for denying any interest in understanding reality.
In my view, history shortchanges us a bit by not bothering to mention that only 20% of Newton’s writings were in math and physics, the rest being theology and various forms of spooky knowledge. As presented in modern textbooks, Newton doesn’t seem like the type who would spend years seeking divine secrets revealed in the proportions of biblical structures, yet he did. Newton helped himself to Design Thinking at times.
None of this opposes any of Vojak’s contrast of Newton and Goethe; I just find it fascinating that even in Newton’s day, there was quite a bit of thinking on the opposite side of Newton from Goethe.
A classic is a book that everyone has an no one reads. Or everyone wants to have read but doesn’t want to read. Or so said Mark Twain. Or so people say he said.
Two friends (count ’em, two!) read my last post on Thomas Kuhn and called me to discuss it. This is unprecedented. I didn’t really expect many people to read my random thoughts on esoterica from a half century ago. Like, geek out already. Actually, my Kuhn coverage has now been viewed 910 times. And I know that at least two of those “views” actually read it. I expect advertisers to be lining up at my door soon. Compare this to I Can Has Cheezburger. That site was getting 1.5 million hits a day in 2007.
One friend said that he had downloaded the Kindle sample of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and wasn’t able to get through more than a few pages. I should have warned my large reader base that nobody actually reads Kuhn. At least not much of it at once. Instead you mine Kuhn in the same way you mine other religious texts for statements that can be recontextualized (postmodernists love that word) to support your agenda. Seriously, it is much more fun to read about Kuhn than to read Kuhn. And Kuhn can’t hold a candle to Kuhnians – especially those Kuhnians who are rhetorically shrill. You know, the ones compelled to voice the urgency for society to choose between textual demodernism and subcultural dematerialism through a dialectic praxis paradigm that mandates art as a totality. I’m kidding.
The other friend (I think I actually have more than two friends, but two of them called to discuss Kuhn) challenged me on my accusing Kuhn of being a constructionist. I’m aware that many Kuhn fans insist that he was nothing of the sort. I’ll accept that Kuhn shares little with many constructionists, but will stick to my guns on the claim that the term accurately describes Kuhn as he presents himself in Structure. I think this despite the fact that Kuhn denied that his remarks on world-change were aligned with constructionism. At the same time Kuhn did, however, acknowledge a parallel between his views and with Kantian idealism. (walks like a duck…). Consider a couple of quotes from Structure:
“knowledge is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all”
“the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds… Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction”
(As an example of the wide range of use and misuse of Kuhn, this quote from Structure appears in The Politics of Gender in African American Churches by Demetrius K. Williams.)
“The man who premises a paradigm when arguing in its defence can nonetheless provide a clear exhibit of what scientific practice will be like for those who adopt the new view of nature. That exhibit can be immensely persuasive, often compellingly so. Yet, whatever its force, the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. It cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling for those who refuse to step into the circle. The premises and values shared by the two parties to a debate over paradigms are not sufficiently extensive for that. As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice – there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community. To discover how scientific revolutions are effected, we shall therefore have to examine not only the impact of nature and of logic, but also the techniques of persuasive argumentation effective within the quite special groups that constitute the community of scientists.” – Chapter 9 of Structures, emphasis added.
[The] most fundamental aspect of the incommensurability of competing paradigms… is that “the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. – as cited in: Scott L. Pratt (2009) Logic: Inquiry, Argument, and Order.
Yes, Kuhn’s constructionism is different from that of the postmodernist moral relativists. Kuhn is complex. He rejects epistemic presumptuousness and epistemic modesty at the same time – and does so rationally. He’s part philosophical realist and part logical positivist. He is not a strong constructionist, but but he’s a constructionist of some sort. Or so thinks this amateur multidisciplinarian.
How many Kuhnian constructionists does it take to change a light bulb?
You’re still thinking in terms of incremental change, but we need a paradigm shift.
For the last year or so I’ve done a lot of reading about and by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s Structures of Scientific Revolution had its 50th anniversary last year. Though you may not recognize his name, you hear his doctrine – or more likely someone’s interpretation of it – every day. Wittgenstein is widely held to be the 20th century’s most influential thinker. I think not. Wittgenstein may be somewhere in the background, but Kuhn is everywhere. He is cited, quoted and misquoted daily in nearly every discipline. Kuhn pops up in a sermon from former Baptist minister Robert M. Price entitled What Is Truth? He is cited by political and legal theorists, authors of software methodology, and innovation cheer leaders. He’s in Corley’s Biblical Hermeneutics. Stephen Covey repackaged his terminology and built an empire on it. New Age mystics and feminist epistemologists love him. Robin Mansell, professor of New Media at the London School of Economics and Political Science says she read Structures “as a call to arms for a sociological account of science and innovation.” Environmental activists love Kuhn as much as do management strategists and psychologists. Or, at least, they love what they think is Kuhn. Kuhn was misinterpreted so badly that, at one point, he angrily shouted at a conference, “I am not a Kuhnian,” attempting to distance himself from the nonsense that claimed him as its high priest.
In a post last year I called Kuhn an accidental guru. But my more thorough reading of and about Kuhn has really blurred the line between Kuhn and Kuhnians for me. Kuhn claimed, in later writings, that Structures was meant as a descriptive, not prescriptive of science, and prescriptive (or normative) only for other historians of science. I.e., it describes science as he sees it, defends the practice of science as being rational if not optimal, and defines standards for how science should be written about. So Kuhn seems then to frame himself as more historian of science and less philosopher of science. On the other hand, in Kuhn’s view (and that of his defenders) the “Kuhnians” (followers Kuhn never expected or wanted to have) drew all sorts of political, sociological and postmodern philosophical content from Structures that it simply did not contain.
Not so fast, Dr. Kuhn. I’ve come to believe that Kuhn was either backpedaling when he attempted to distance himself from the Kuhnians or was simply incoherent in his Structures doctrine. Kuhn can’t use the principles of the postmodern philosophers – which predated him by at least a decade – the perspective of social constructionists, concepts from Gestalt-psychology, and politically charged vocabulary – and then disown the Kuhnians. Maybe he can disown the new-age fuzzies and charlatan management consultants, but not a lot of the others.
So let’s take a look at the minimal Kuhn and then some of the main flavors of Kuhnians. Among Kuhn essentials, I see:
- There is normal science and then revolutionary science, which causes a paradigm shift to the next normal science.
- Revolutions, originating in crisis, are required for paradigm shifts.
- Inter-paradigmatic communication is impossible (Kuhn’s “incommensurability”).
- Theories fully pervade observation; observation language that is free of theoretical influence is impossible (Kuhn vs. Popper)
- Paradigms dictate – not reflect – the world. Reality is constructed, not observed.
- The ultimate desideratum of truth is solidarity.
The first three claims are what Kuhn and his defenders see as his core material. But he explicitly and repeatedly states points 4 and 5 in unambiguous terms – and point 5 in terms nearly identical to the postmodern constructivists who preceded him. Point 6 (desideratum of truth) is something Kuhn doesn’t state explicitly but is an unavoidable conclusion from his discussion of points one through three.
In my view, Kuhn’s first three points are often, but not always, true. Yes, Einsteinian mechanics overturned – not added onto – Newtonian mechanics. A Newtonian cannot make sense of measuring distance in years and mass in Joules. But many major changes in science were simply additive. And some radical changes in reality models, while not additive (to the previous paradigm), did not involve revolutionary crisis at all. When DNA was discovered, I’m pretty sure just about every biologist said, “ah, so that’s how it works,” and nary a shot was fired; no crisis started the DNA revolution. Against incommensurability (point 3), opponents of plate tectonics conversed effectively with its proponents. I’ve read quite a bit of dialog between quantum mechanics friends and foes where it was clear that both sides, while disagreeing, even violently (“God does not play dice”), fully understood each other. Thus, against Kuhn, paradigm-neutral communication not only exists but is commonplace. One could rightly say that Galileo’s excommunication fully proceeded from normal science’s (i.e. the church) rather full grasp – across paradigms – of the revolutionary science’s content.
Kuhn’s last three points (as I have identified them) are the ones that fueled the Kuhnians. Kuhn’s constructionist (point 4 and 5) views completely escape me. Point 4 is too complex to discuss here, but for argument’s sake can be lumped with point 5, which is easier to digest but has more radical consequences. These two point are not merely a rejection of epistemic presumptuousness (that we can truly “know” the world as it is) – a position that has certain philosophical merit – but assert that there is no accessible world but that which is a mental construction. It’s there in black and white; and has spawned, or at least nursed, volumes of moral-relativist social-theory drivel – as I see it anyway. I’ll spare you the argument for this.
Point 6 should ruffle the feathers of conservatives of all flavors, including political and scientific. Repulsive as this claim first appears, I can get no distance from it; though I’ve winded myself trying to do so. “You are only as old as the last time you changed your mind” (Leary).
One wants to say that science is objective, or at worst, that it strives vigorously for objectivity. And of course it does. It’s the most honest thing the human race has ever done. But how does science know when it has been objective? Or, viewed slightly differently, deciding what constitutes objectivity is outside the realm of science. How do we decide between two irreconcilable claims that both profess to have been objectively reached? The only conceivable means of deciding is consensus.
Consider two competing scientific theories. Neither is perfect; both fit the limited evidence reasonably well (“underdetermination of theory by evidence,” for the epistemologists among us). This brings up the issue of deciding what attributes of theory are most important in a given situation. Some will support the one that appears simplest mathematically (e.g. Poincare), some will chose the most intuitive, some will go for one with the greatest empirical content (e.g. Popper). How do we create a value matrix with weightings of the theories’ various attributes. And how do you objectivize the subjective judgments of “grades” and how well each theory scores for each attribute. Such decisions are subjective, and involve values and beliefs. Quantifying their components simply pushes subjectivity back one level, since someone needs to decide on the criteria, the weights, and the scores. And since disagreements on these are inevitable, consensus within a community of peers or competent judges seems the only option. Finally, those excluded from the group of deciders may disagree with its findings. Kuhn documents many cases of this, introducing corporate and political biases that fueled the fires of science’s critics. Defenders of science (critics of anti- and pseudo-science) like Alan Sokol famously refuted the claims of only the most facile of the social constructionists fueled by this facet of Kuhn. But Sokol and his ilk sidestepped the more logically-troublesome aspects of communities of scientists – namely, that the ultimate desideratum of truth (in the practical, non-metaphysical sense of that term) is solidarity.
So I, like some of the Kuhnians, find one of Kuhn’s main points inescapable and strangely compelling. And on the grounds stated above I simply can’t accept Kuhn’s claim that he is not a Kuhnian. This, by the way, is also the basis on which Richard Rorty proclaimed himself a Kuhnian, despite claims by Kuhn’s defenders that Rorty misused Kuhn. Rorty then based his bold, modified-pragmatist theory of truth heavily on Kuhn’s implications around truth.
Further, on point 5, I can’t avoid concluding that either Kuhn misstated his own position, using the language of social constructionists, or actually is a constructionist of the most extreme kind, in which case, again, Kuhn is in fact a Kuhnian. He certainly didn’t believe that all claims of truth (and all interpretations of evidence) are equally valid, that your reality can be different than mine, or that science is the first tool of oppression. Nor did he hold any anarchic or nihilistic perspectives. But you can still be a Kuhnian without holding all such beliefs. No Kuhnian holds simultaneously all the ideas derived from Kuhn; so you can’t falsify Kuhnianism based on absence of one or two Kuhnian characteristics.
I never expected it to come out this way, but I’m part Kuhnian. Are you?
William Storage 13 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Science, Technology & Society Center
Richard Rorty (1931-2007) was arguably the most controversial philosopher in recent history. Unarguably, he was the most entertaining. Profoundly influenced by Thomas Kuhn, Rorty is fascinating and inspirational, even for engineers and scientists.
Rorty’s thought defied classification – literally; encyclopedias struggle to pin philosophical categories to him. He felt that confining yourself to a single category leads to personal stagnation on all levels. An interview excerpt at the end of this post ends with a casual yet weighty statement of his confidence in engineers’ ability to save the world.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rorty looked at familiar things in different light – and could explain his position in plain English. I never found much of Heidegger to be coherent, let alone important. No such problem with Dick Rorty.
Rorty could simplify arcane philosophical concepts. He saw similarities where others saw differences, being mostly rejected by schools of thought he drew from. This was especially true for pragmatism. Often accused of hijacking this term, Rorty offered that pragmatism is a vague, ambiguous, and overworked word, but nonetheless, “it names the chief glory of our country’s intellectual tradition.” He was enamored with moral and scientific progress, and often glowed with optimism and hope while his contemporaries brooded in murky, nihilistic dungeons.
Richard Rorty photo by Mary Rorty. Used by permission.
Rorty called himself a “Kuhnian” apart from those Kuhnians for whom The Structure of Scientific Revolution justified moral relativism and epistemic nihilism. Rorty’s critics in the hard sciences – at least those who embrace Kuhn – have gone to great lengths to distance Kuhn from Rorty. Philosophers have done the same, perhaps a bit sore from Rorty’s denigration of analytic philosophy and his insistence that philosophers have no special claim to wisdom. Kyle Cavagnini in the Spring 2012 issue of Stance (“Descriptions of Scientific Revolutions: Rorty’s Failure at Redescribing Scientific Progress”) finds that Rorty tries too hard to make Kuhn a relativist:
“Kuhn’s work provided a new framework in philosophy of science that garnered much attention, leading some of his theories to be adopted outside of the natural sciences. Unfortunately, some of these adoptions have not been faithful to Kuhn’s original theories, and at times just plain erroneous conclusions are drawn that use Kuhn as their justification. These misreadings not only detract from the power of Kuhn’s argument, but also serve to add false support for theories that Kuhn was very much against; Rorty was one such individual.”
Cavagnini may have some valid technical points. But it’s as easy to misread Rorty as to misread Kuhn. As I read Rorty, he derives from Kuhn that the authority of science has no basis beyond scientific consensus. It then follows for Rorty that instituational science and scientists have no basis for a privileged status in acquiring truth. Scientist who know their stuff shouldn’t disagree on this point. Rorty’s position is not cultural constructivism applied to science. He doesn’t remotely imply that one claim of truth – scientific or otherwise – is as good as another. In fact, Rorty explicitly argues against that position as applied to both science and ethics. Rorty then takes ideas he got from Kuhn to places that Kuhn would not have gone, without projecting his philosophical ideas onto Kuhn:
“To say that the study of the history of science, like the study of the rest of history, must be hermeneutical, and to deny (as I, but not Kuhn, would) that there is something extra called ‘rational reconstruction’ which can legitimize current scientific practice, is still not to say that the atoms, wave packages, etc., discovered by the physical scientists are creations of the human spirit.” – Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
“I hope to convince the reader that the dialectic within analytical philosophy, which has carried … philosophy of science from Carnap to Kuhn, needs to be carried a few steps further.” – Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
What Rorty calls “leveling down science” is aimed at the scientism of logical positivists in philosophy – those who try to “science-up” analytic philosophy:
“I tend to view natural science as in the business of controlling and predicting things, and as largely useless for philosophical purposes” – Rorty and Pragmatism: The Philosopher Responds to his Critics
For Rorty, both modern science and modern western ethics can claim superiority over their precursors and competitors. In other words, we are perfectly capable of judging that we’ve made moral and scientific progress without a need for a privileged position of any discipline, and without any basis beyond consensus. This line of thought enabled the political right to accuse Rorty of moral relativism and at the same time the left to accuse him of bigotry and ethnocentrism. Both did vigorously. [note]
You can get a taste of Rorty from the sound and video snippets available on the web, e.g. this clip where he dresses down the standard philosophical theory of truth with an argument that would thrill mathematician Kurt Gödel:
In his 2006 Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy at the University of Chicago, he explains his position, neither moral absolutist nor moral relativist (though accused of being both by different factions), in praise of western progress in science and ethics.
Another example of Rorty’s nuanced position is captured on tape in Stanford’s archives of the Entitled Opinions radio program. Host Robert Harrison is an eloquent scholar and announcer, but in a 2005 Entitled Opinions interview, Rorty frustrates Harrison to the point of being tongue-tied. At some point in the discussion Rorty offers that the rest of the world should become more like America. This strikes Harrison as perverse. Harrison asks for clarification, getting a response he finds even more perverse:
Harrison: What do you mean that the rest of the world should become a lot more like America? Would it be desirable to have all the various cultures across the globe Americanize? Would that not entail some sort of loss at least at the level of diversity or certain wisdoms that go back through their own particular traditions. What would be lost in the Americanization or Norwegianization of the world?
Rorty: A great deal would be lost. A great deal was lost when the Roman Empire suppressed a lot of native cultures. A great deal was lost when the Han Empire in China suppressed a lot of native cultures […]. Whenever there’s a rise in a great power a lot of great cultures get suppressed. That’s the price we pay for history.
Asked if this is not too high a price to pay, Rorty answers that if you could get American-style democracy around the globe, it would be a small price to have paid. Harrison is astounded, if not offended:
Harrison: Well here I’m going to speak in my own proper voice and to really disagree in this sense: that I think governments and forms of government are the result of a whole host of contingent geographical historical factors whereby western bourgeois liberalism or democracy arose through a whole set of circumstances that played themselves out over time, and I think that [there is in] America a certain set of presumptions that our form of democracy is infinitely exportable … [and] that we can just take this model of American democracy and make it work elsewhere. I think experience has shown us that it’s not that easy.
Rorty: We can’t make it work elsewhere but people coming to our country and finding out how things are done in the democratic west can go back and try to imitate that in their own countries. They’ve often done so with considerable success. I was very impressed on a visit to Guangzhou to see a replica of the statue of Liberty in one of the city parks. It was built by the first generation of Chinese students to visit America when they got back. They built a replica of the Statue of Liberty in order to help to try to explain to the other Chinese what was so great about the country they’d come back from. And remember that a replica of the Statue of Liberty was carried by the students in Tiananmen Square.
Harrison (agitated): Well OK but that’s one way. What if you… Why can’t we go to China and see a beautiful statue of the Buddha or something, and understand equally – have a moment of enlightenment and bring that statue back and say that we have something to learn from this other culture out there. And why is the statue of liberty the final transcend[ant] – you say yourself as a philosopher that you don’t – that there are no absolutes and that part of the misunderstanding in the history of philosophy is that there are no absolutes. It sounds like that for you the Statue of Liberty is an absolute.
Rorty: How about it’s the best thing anybody has come up with so far. It’s done more for humanity than the Buddha ever did. And it gives us something that … [interrupted]
Harrison: How can we know that!?
Rorty: From history.
Harrison: Well, for example, what do we know about the happiness of the Buddhist cultures from the inside? Can we really know from the outside that we’re happier than they are?
Rorty: I suspect so. We’ve all had experiences in moving around from culture to culture. They’re not closed off entities, opaque to outsiders. You can talk to people raised in lots of different places about how happy they are and what they’d like.
Then it spirals down a bit further. Harrison asks Rorty if he thinks capitalism is a neutral phenomenon. Rorty replies that capitalism is the worst system imaginable except for all the others that have been tried so far. He offers that communism, nationalization of production and state capitalism were utter disasters, adding that private property and private business are the only option left until some genius comes up with a new model.
Harrison then reveals his deep concern over the environment and the free market’s effect on it, suggesting that since the human story is now shown to be embedded in the world of nature, that philosophy might entertain the topic of “life” – specifically, progressing beyond 20th century humanist utopian values in light of climate change and resource usage. Rorty offers that unless we develop fusion energy or similar, we’ve had it just as much as if the terrorists get their hands on nuclear bombs. Rorty says human life and nature are valid concerns, but that he doesn’t see that they give any reason for philosophers to start talking about life, a topic he says philosophy has thus far failed to illuminate.
This irritates Harrison greatly. At one point he curtly addresses Rorty as “my dear Dick.” Rorty’s clarification, his apparent detachment, and his brevity seem to make things worse:
Rorty: “Well suppose that we find out that it’s all going to be wiped out by an asteroid. Would you want philosophers to suddenly start thinking about asteroids? We may well collapse due to the exhaustion of natural resources but what good is it going to do for philosophers to start thinking about natural resources?”
Harrison: “Yeah but Dick there’s a difference between thinking of asteroids, which is something that is outside of human control and which is not submitted to human decision and doesn’t enter into the political sphere, and talking about something which is completely under the governance of human action. I don’t say it’s under the governance of human will, but it is human action which is bringing about the asteroid, if you like. And therefore it’s not a question of waiting around for some kind of natural disaster to happen, because we are the disaster – or one could say that we are the disaster – and that the maximization of wealth for the maximum amount of people is exactly what is putting us on this track toward a disaster.
Rorty: Well, we’ve accommodated environmental change before. Maybe we can accommodate it again; maybe we can’t. But surely this is a matter for the engineers rather than the philosophers.
A matter for the engineers indeed.
1) Rorty and politics: The academic left cheered as Rorty shelled Ollie North’s run for the US Senate. As usual, not mincing words, Rorty called North a liar, a claim later repeated by Nancy Reagan. There was little cheering from the right when Rorty later had the academic left in his crosshairs; perhaps they failed to notice.. In 1997 Rorty wrote that the academic left must shed its anti-Americanism and its quest for even more abusive names for “The System.” “Outside the academy, Americans still want to feel patriotic,” observed Rorty. “They still want to feel part of a nation which can take control of its destiny and make itself a better place.”
On racism, Rorty observed that the left once promoted equality by saying we were all Americans, regardless of color. By contrast, he said, the contemporary left now “urges that America should not be a melting-pot, because we need to respect one another in our differences.” He chastised the academic left for destroying any hope for a sense of commonality by highlighting differences and preserving otherness. “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals,” wrote Rorty.
For Dinesh D’Souza, patriotism is no substitute for religion. D’Souza still today seems obsessed with Rorty’s having once stated his intent “to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.” This assault on Christianity lands Rorty on a D’Souza enemy list that includes Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, D’Souza apparently unaware that Rorty’s final understanding of pragmatism included an accomodation of liberal Christianity.
2) See Richard Rorty bibliographical material and photos maintained by the Rorty family on the Stanford web site.
William Storage 4 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology & Society
Decades ago I read Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but forgot the details except for the general notion of paradigm shifts. Paradigm shifts are unforgettable. They’re popping up everywhere these days. Recently I’ve revisited Kuhn in detail with an eye toward understanding the application of science and criticism of science to technology and innovation (related posts: Postmodern Management Strategy, A New Misunderstanding of Science, Postmodernism, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend).
Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts was innovative and disruptive, and he’s often cited in reference to disruptive innovation. His influence is amazingly broad. It’s hard to get through a TED conference or an innovation seminar without hearing his name. As I mentioned in my first post on Kuhn, he strongly rejected most use of his work. No matter – the accidental rebel Kuhn lives on, 50 years after Structure was published. Kuhn is the most famous of several historians/philosophers of science whose work escaped the realm of academia in the ’60s. This explosion of popularity may never have happened without the others in that field who set the stage for Structure. Primarily, these were Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, and Paul Feyerabend.
In revisiting their work, I’ve collected some amazing quotes that show why these guys’ influence (mainly through Kuhn) went viral. The essential background here is that these scholars were, for the most part, methodologically and politically conservative and their writing was intended for a narrow audience of readers in their own fields. This important fact escaped (and continues to escape) most of the actual audience receiving their messages.
Kuhn was highly conservative, objectivist, authoritarian and generally positivist (by most understandings of positivism) when he wrote Structure and remained so throughout his career. The standard public view of Kuhn, however, was that he was subjectivist, relativist and liberal. These characteristics actually fit Kuhn’s opponent Karl Popper somewhat better, though Popper was closer in reality to the public conception of Kuhn. Paul Feyerabend was all over the board regarding Popper vs. Kuhn and most other subjects. Feyerabend, unlike both Popper and Kuhn, once embraced the cultural constructivist view of science but ultimately landed in objectivism. Imre Lakatos attempted a hybrid model of science somewhere between that of Popper and Kuhn. Kuhn’s runaway fame vanquished Popper and rendered Lakatos irrelevant.
The above summary grossly oversimplifies. None of these men where ideologues; their positions were far too highly developed for terms like relativist to be of much use beyond the coarsest of characterization. The below quotes show just how susceptible their writings can be to social reinterpretation, creative misunderstanding, and application to a spectrum of unrelated causes, especially when removed from their context.
Before the quotes from Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend, I’ll give links to some recent writings that use Kuhn – not merely his terminology, which is ubiquitous – but direct references that actually cite The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I’m listing some examples without judgment as to creative adaptation, creative misunderstanding, or clueless misappropriation.
Recent usage of Kuhn’s view of Paradigm Shift
- Towards a Philosophical Understanding of Agile Software Methodologies: The Case of Kuhn Versus Popper
- The Open Source Paradigm Shift (Tim O’Reilly)
- Innovation Paradigm Shift
- A Paradigm Shift in Design and Innovation
- Thomas Kuhn & Meaningful Innovation
- Kuhn’s Paradigm Shift, Christensen Disruptive Innovation and Solar Energy
- Climate Change, Sociological Theory and Paradigm Shift
- Organizational Change as Paradigm Shift
- The Paradigm Shift in Healthcare
- A Philosophical Analysis of The Evidence-Based Medicine Debate
- Paradigm Shift: The End of Normal Science in Medicine
- Leadership and Organizations for the New Millennium
- A Paradigm Shift in HR
- Outcome Based Religion: Purpose-Driven Apostasy
- Sailing the Shoals of Adaptive Management: The Case of Salmon in the Pacific Northwest
- From Marketing Mix to Relationship Marketing: Towards a Paradigm Shift in Marketing
- Paradigm Shift and Instructional Technology
- The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing
- Principles of Hypnotherapy
- Connectionism: Is It a Paradigm Shift for Psychology
- T. Kuhn Meets T. Rex: Critical Conversations and New Directions in Science Centres and Science Museums
- The Changing Context of Sexuality Education: Paradigms and Challenges for Alternative Futures
- Race and Immigration Law: A Paradigm Shift
- Global Television and the Shaping of World Politics
Provocative quotes from Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend:
Thomas Kuhn’s apparent attack on logic and empiricism:
As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice—there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community… this issue of paradigm choice can never be unequivocally settled by logic and experiment alone. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
Thomas Kuhn on the paradigm shift:
The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by an articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications. During the transition period there will be a large but never complete overlap between the problems that can be solved by the old and by the new paradigm. But there will also be a decisive difference in the modes of solution. When the transition is complete, the profession will have changed its view of the field, its methods, and its goals. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Kuhn on interpretation of evidence:
Examining the record of past research from the vantage of contemporary historiography, the historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Kuhn on bias in research:
Science does not deal in all possible laboratory manipulations. Instead it selects those relevant to the juxtaposition of a paradigm with the immediate experience that the paradigm has partially determined. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Kuhn on science’s distance from truth:
We may… have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Al Gore invoking Kuhn on paradigm shifts:
Well-established theories collapse under the weight of new facts and observations which cannot be explained, and then accumulate to the point where the once useful theory is clearly obsolete. – Commencement address at M.I.T. (7 Jun 1996)
Karl Popper on the role of the investigator:
… every step is guided by theory. We do not stumble upon our experiences, nor do we let them flow over us like a stream. Rather, we have to be active: we have to ‘make’ our experiences. It is we who always formulate the questions to be put to nature; it is we who try again and again to put these questions so as to elicit a clear-cut ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (for nature does not give an answer unless pressed for it). And in the end, it is again we who give the answer; it is we ourselves who, after severe scrutiny, decide upon the answer. – The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959
Popper on impossibility of justification and verification:
The best we can say of a hypothesis is that up to now it has been able to show its worth, and that it has been more successful than other hypotheses although, in principle, it can never be justified… – The Logic of Scientific Discovery
Popper on the shaky foundations of science:
The empirical basis of objective science has … nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being. – The Logic of Scientific Discovery
Paul Feyerabend’s often-quoted apparent defense of anarchy:
It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings. To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, ‘objectivity’, ‘truth’, it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes. – Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), 27-8.
Feyerabend’s rarely quoted qualification of the above:
Science is an essentially anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. – Against Method
Feyerabend, sounding very conservative on the cultural-construction model of science:
How can an enterprise depend on culture in so many ways, and yet produce such solid results? Most answers to this question are either incomplete or incoherent. Physicists take the fact for granted. Movements that view quantum mechanics as a turning-point in thought – and that include fly-by-night mystics, prophets of a New Age, and relativists of all sorts – get aroused by the cultural component and forget predictions and technology. – “Atoms and Consciousness,” Common Knowledge Vol. 1, No. 1, 1992
Sociologist Steve Fuller on Kuhn vs. Popper:
… both can reasonably lay claim to having been seriously misinterpreted by friends and foes alike. The situation has not been helped by the standard presentation of the ‘Kuhn–Popper debate’ in textbooks on philosophy and the scientific method. In terms of scholastic affiliations, Popper is portrayed as objectivist, realist and positivist, while Kuhn appears as subjectivist, relativist and historicist. … Thus, philosophers – even the great ones – spend most of their time attacking straw opponents who fail to correspond to any actual precursor. – Kuhn vs. Popper, 2003
Imre Lakatos defending philosophy of science against scientists:
How can a mere philosopher devise criteria distinguishing between good and bad science, knowing it is an inutterable mystic secret of the Royal Society? – ‘Lecture One on the Scientific Method’ (1973)
Lakatos against Popper:
No experimental result can ever kill a theory: any theory can be saved from counterinstances either by some auxiliary hypothesis or by a suitable reinterpretation of its terms. – ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes’, in I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge: Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London 1965 (1970), Vol. 4, 116.
Lakatos on science creating its own universe:
Scientists dream up phantasies and then pursue a highly selective hunt for new facts which fit these phantasies. This process may be described as ‘science creating its own universe’ (as long as one remembers that ‘creating’ here is used in a provocative-idiosyncratic sense). A brilliant school of scholars (backed by a rich society to finance a few well-planned tests) might succeed in pushing any fantastic programme ahead, or alternatively, if so inclined, in overthrowing any arbitrarily chosen pillar of ‘established knowledge’. – ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes
Feyerabend on popular use of Kuhn:
Kuhn’s masterpiece played a decisive role. It led to new ideas, Unfortunately it also led to lots of trash – Against Method
Thomas E. Woods, Jr., in How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, credits the church as being the primary sponsor of western science throughout most of the church’s existence. His point is valid, though many might find his presentation very economical with the truth. With a view that everything in the universe was interconnected, the church was content to ascribe the plague to sin. The church’s interest in science had something to do with Easter. I’ll get to that after a small diversion to relate this topic to one from a recent blog post.
Catholic theologians, right up until very recent times, have held a totally holistic view, seeing properties and attributes as belonging to high level objects and their context, and opposing reductionism and analysis by decomposition. In God’s universe (as they saw it), behavior of the parts was determined by the whole, not the other way around. Catholic holy men might well be seen as champions of “Systems Thinking” – at least in the popular modern use of that term. Like many systems thinking advocates in business and politics today, the church of the middle ages wasn’t merely pragmatic-anti-reductionist, it was philosophically anti-reductionist. I.e., their view was not that it is too difficult to analyze the inner workings of a thing to understand its properties, but that it is fundamentally impossible to do so.
Unlike modern anti-reductionists, whose movement has been from reductionism toward something variously called collectivism, pluralism or holism, the Vatican has been forced in the opposite direction. The Catholics were dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of reductionist science because one of their core values – throwing really big parties – demanded it.
The celebration date of Easter is based on pagan and Jewish antecedents. Many agricultural gods were celebrated on the vernal equinox. The celebration is also linked to Shavuot and Passover. This brings the lunar calendar into the mix. That means Easter is a movable feast; it doesn’t occur on a fixed day of the year. It can occur anywhere from March 22 to April 25. Roughly speaking, Easter is the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. To mess things up further, the ecclesiastical definitions of equinox and full moon are not the astronomical ones. The church wades only so far into the sea of reductionism. Consequently, different sects have used different definitions over the years. Never fearful of conflict, factions invented nasty names for rival factions; and, as Socrates Scholasticus tells it, Bishop John Chrysostom booted some of his Easter-calculation opponents out of the early Catholic church.
By the 6th century, the papal authorities had legislated a calculation for Easter, enforcing it as if it came down on a tablet. By the twelfth century, they could no longer evade the fact that Easter had drifted way off course.
Right around that time, Muslim scholars had just translated the works of the ancient Greek mathematicians to Latin (Ptolemy’s Almagest in particular). By the time of the Renaissance, Easter celebrations in Rome were gigantic affairs. Travel arrangements and event catering meant that the popes needed to plan for Easter celebrations many years in advance. They wanted to send out invitations specifying a single date, not a five week range.
Science appeared the only way to solve the messy problem of predicting Easter. And the popes happened to have money to throw at the problem. They suddenly became the world’s largest backer of scientific research – well, targeted research, one might say. John Heilbron, Vice-Chancellor Emeritus of UC Berkeley (who brought me into History of Science at Cal) put it this way in his The Sun in the Church:
The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions. Those who infer the Church’s attitude from its persecution of Galileo may be reassured to know that the basis of its generosity to astronomy was not a love of science but a problem of administration. The problem was establishing and promulgating the date of Easter.
The tough part of the calculation was determining the exact time of the equinox. Experimental measurement would require a large observatory with a small hole in the roof and a flat floor where one could draw a long north-south line to chart out the spot the sun hit on the floor at noon. The spots would trace a circuit around the floor of the observatory. When the spot returned to the same point on the north-south line, you had the crux of the Easter calculation.
By luck or divine providence, the popes already had such observatories on hand – the grand churches of Europe. Punching a hole through the roof of God’s house was a small price to pay for predicting the date of Easter years in advance.
Fortunately for their descendants, scientists are prone to going off on tangents, some of which come in handy. They needed a few centuries of experimentation to perfect the Easter calculation. Matters of light diffraction and the distance from the center of the earth to the floor of the church had to be addressed. During this time Galileo and friends stumbled onto a few work byproducts that the church would have been happier without, and certainly would not have invested in.
The guy who finally mastered the Easter problem was Francesco Bianchini, multidisciplinarian par exellence. The church OK’d his plan to build a meridian line diagonally across the floor of the giant church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome. This church owes its size to the fact that it was actually built as a bath during the reign of Diocletian (284 – 305 AD) and was then converted to a church by Pope Pius IV in 1560 with the assistance of Michelangelo. Pius set about to avenge Diocletian’s Christian victims by converting a part of the huge pagan structure built “for the convenience and pleasure of idolaters by an impious tyrant” to “a temple of the virgin.”
Bianchini’s meridian is a major point of tourist interest within Santa Maria degli Angeli. All that science in the middle of a church feels really odd – analysis surrounded by faith, reductionism surrounded by holy holism.
My goal for The Multidisciplinarian is to talk about multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary problem solving. This inevitably leads to systems, since problems requiring more than one perspective or approach tend to involve systems, whether biological, social, logical, mechanical or political.
I hope to touch upon a bunch of systems concepts at some point, including:
- systems theory
- systems thinking
- systems science
- visual thinking
- systems engineering
- morphological analysis
- systems philosophy
- logical positivism
- boundary object theory
I started following some of these terms on Twitter a few weeks ago, and ended up reading a lot of web topics on Systems Thinking. I found all the classics, along with, surprisingly, something of a battleground. I don’t mean attacks from the outside, like the view that organizations are not systems but processes. Instead I’m talking about the enemy within. It seems there are several issues of contention.
The matter of whether Systems Thinking is a deterministic or “hard” approach percolates through many of the discussions. “Hard” in this context means that it’s a mere extension of systems engineering, treating humans, society, and business organizations as predictable machinery. But on the street (as opposed to in academics), there’s also disagreement over whether that attribute is desirable or not. Some proponents defend Systems Thinking as being largely deterministic against criticism that it is soft. Other defenders of the approach argue against criticism that it is deterministic.
Is Systems Thinking an approach, a model, a methodology, or a theory? That’s debatable too; and therefore, it’s being debated. One can infer from the debates and discussions that much of the problem stems from semantics. The term means different things to different communities. Such overloaded terminology works fine as long as the communities don’t overlap. But they do overlap, since systems tend to involve multiple disciplines.
From a distance, you can grasp the gist of Systems Thinking. At its most rudimentary level, it is seeing the forest from the trees and using that vision to get things done. Barry Richmond, celebrated systems scientist, gave this high level definition:
At the conceptual end of the spectrum is adoption of a systems perspective or viewpoint. You are adopting a systems viewpoint when you are standing back far enough—in both space and time—to be able to see the underlying web of ongoing, reciprocal relationships which are cycling to produce the patterns of behavior that a system is exhibiting.
Peter Senge of MIT says that Systems Thinking is an approach for getting beyond cause and effect to the patterns of behavior that surface the cause and effect, and further, for identifying the underlying structure responsible for the patterns of behavior. If you, perhaps recalling your philosophy studies, detect a degree of rejection of reductionism in that definition, you’re right on track. More on that below. See the Systems Thinking World‘s definition page for a list of other definitions.
Barry Richmond, like Jay W Forrester, his mentor and prolific writer on Systems Thinking, was also heavily involved in System Dynamics. While many people equate the two concepts, others distinguish System Dynamics from Systems Thinking by the former’s use of feedback-loop computer models. Forrester, a consummate engineer and true innovator, developed the Systems Dynamics approach at MIT in the 1960s.
For several decades Forrester applied Systems Thinking to business management, society and politics, maintaining throughout, that system dynamics is the necessary foundation underlying effective thinking about systems. In a 2010 paper, Forrester, then in the Sloan School of Management, wrote:
Without a foundation of systems principles, simulation, and an experimental approach, systems thinking runs the risk of being superficial, ineffective, and prone to arriving at counterproductive conclusions. Those seeking an easy way to design better social systems will be as disappointed as if they were to seek an effortless route to designing bridges or doing heart transplants.
These bold and beautiful words are lost on the those who only know systems thinking from its current usage as little more than a strategic-initiative group-hug word. The quote is from Forrester’s appeal that Systems Thinking, at least as popularly defined, is insufficient without system dynamics modeling. Forrester speaks to usage of Systems Thinking that is nearly as deflated as current usage of “six-sigma,” by which our ancestors meant standard deviations of manufacturing tolerance (statistical process control). Nevertheless, as sociolinguists point out, a word means what a large body of its users think it means.
In the spirit of multidisciplinarity, it’s tempting to view this war from the perspective of study of religious cults. Too tempting – so I’ll succumb.
As with the internecine battles of religious cults, this is a war of small differences; often the factions in greatest dispute are the ones with the most similar views. Their differences are real, but imperceptible to most outsiders. They argue over definitions and interpretations, engaging in doctrinal disputes with constant deference to the cults’ founders. I also detect a fair amount of anxiety of influence in Systems Thinking advocates with roots in hard sciences.
Many systems engineers, including some very good ones, after opening the door to systems thinking, strain to differentiate themselves from their less evolved brethren. John Boardman and Brain Sauser, thought leaders for whom I have the utmost respect, oddly display the anxiety of influence in statements like this from their Worlds of Systems site:
Our engineering friends believe the term ‘system’ is theirs of right and they alone understand systems. After all, who builds them? Who gets the job done? You would think, to hear some engineers talk, that they invented the term itself. In fact what propelled it into the high currency values it occupies today were the ideas of Ludwig von Bertalanffy.
Here we have two brilliant engineers (see in particular their work on Systems of Systems) who – though perhaps in jest – downplay the development of systems thinking a la Forrester, deferring to Bertalanffy, the biologist who first used the term Systems Theory. Semantic mapping tools available on the web clearly show that Bertalanffy, ground-breaking as he was, had next to nothing to do with the propulsion of the term “system” to its current status. The route was, as you’d expect, from Greek philosophy to Renaissance astronomy, to biology and engineering, and then on to computers.
Without delving into heady problems of Bertalanffy’s worldview, such as the paradox of emergence and the paradox of system environment, I’ll suggest that Bertalanffy was a great thinker, but should not occupy too high a pedestal. His view that the reductionist nature of biology of the mid 1900s stemmed solely from the influence of Descartes and Newton (who thought nature could be modeled as mechanism) ignored the obvious necessity of reduction in order to link stimulus with response. Testing ten foods separately, to see which causes your allergic reaction, does not conflict with holism. Bertalanffy, despite his great contributions, beat a reductionist straw man to death. Finally, can anyone not find Bertalanffy’s language of his later works indistinguishable from that of liberal theologians? Paul Tillich meets business management?
Boardman and Sauser similarly quote Philip Spor’s remark, “the engineer must often go beyond the limits of science, or question judgment based on alleged existing science,” as if such going-beyond isn’t inherent in engineering. Really guys, does anyone really think that the science of turbomachinery predated the engineering of turbomachines? Recall that special relativity was solid before the fourth-order partial differential equations governing a turbocharger were nailed down, at which time Alfred Büchi ‘s invention was common on trucks and trains. The opponent here is also mostly made of straw – a purely reductionist caricature of a systems engineer.
As a scholar of history of science and a fan of history of religion, here’s what I think is going on. Systems thinking is often at the intersection of systems science and social and management science; and the most orthodox of each of those root beliefs accuses the others of being too hard (as seen by social science) or too soft (as seen by engineers). The most liberal (or reformist, in the religious model) accuse their own party of being entrenched in orthodoxy.
Cult members mine the writings of these clergymen for ammunition against rival cults, thus we see quotes from Forrester, Bertalanffy, Ackoff and the like on websites, grossly misunderstood, and out of context. And we see ludicrous and undisciplined extensions of their material, as with Gary Zukav, Fritjof Capra, and Roger Penrose. The cult’s most vocal advocates insist on deifying the movement’s founders, and speak in terms of discovery and illumination rather than evidence and development.
Reasoning by analogy, yes; but I think you’ll admit this analogy holds rather well.
Another face of the Systems Thinking wars deals not with definitions and philosophy but with efficacy. In a 2009 Fast Company piece Fred Collopy, an experienced practitioner and teacher of Systems Thinking opined more or less that Systems Thinking is a failure – not because it has internal flaws but because it is hard. Systems Thinking, says Collopy, requires mastery of a large number of techniques, none of which is particularly useful by itself. This requirement is at odds with the way people learn, except in strict academic circles. Collopy offers that Design Thinking is an alternative, but only if we can keep it from being bogged down in detailed process definition and becoming an overly restrictive framework. He notes that if Systems Thinking had worked like its early advocates hoped it would, there would be no management-by-design movement or calls for integrated management practice.
Interesting stuff indeed. It will be fun to see how this plays out. If history is a guide, and as Collopy seems to suggest, it may fizzle out before it plays out. Business schools and corporate leadership have a record of moving on to new, more fashionable approaches, independent of the value of current ones. More on that tomorrow.
Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. – Richard Feynman
Thanks to Ventana Systems, Inc. for use of their VENSIM® tools.
Thanks to @DanMezick for recent tweet exchange on Systems Thinking.