Paul Feyerabend was the enfant terrible of 1960s philosophy of science. His most famous book, Against Method argued that science is a quintessentially pragmatic enterprise, with scientists simply using or discarding what does and does not work, meaning that there is no such thing as the scientific method. It’s not for nothing that he was referred to as a methodological anarchist. (Incidentally, the new edition of the book, with introduction by Ian Hacking, is definitely worth the effort.)
Throughout his career as an iconoclast he managed to piss off countless philosophers and scientists, for example by once cheering creationists in California for their bid to get “creation science” taught in schools. That, Feyerabend thought, would teach a lesson to self-conceited scientists and keepers of order and rationality. But he wasn’t stupid, immediately adding that the creationists themselves would then surely become just as dogmatic and self-conceited as the scientific establishment itself. His hope was for a balance of forces, a 1960s version of John Stuart Mill’s famous concept of the free market of ideas, where the best ones always win, in the long run. (If only.)
When I was a young scientist I wasn’t too fond of Feyerabend, to put it mildly. And even as an early student of philosophy of science, I felt much more comfortable with the likes of Popper or even Kuhn (despite the famous intellectual rivalry between the two) than with the very idea of methodological anarchism. But while some people turn more conservative when they age, I guess I’ve become — to my surprise — more of an anarchist, and I have slowly, though not quite completely, re-evaluated Feyerabend.
The latest opportunity for doing so was an offer by the editor of the journal Social Epistemology to join their Review & Reply Collective and initiate a back-and-forth exchange with author Ian Kidd, who has published a paper for the journal entitled “Why Did Feyerabend Defend Astrology? Integrity, Virtue, and the Authority of Science.”
Of all things, one would think that astrology is, in fact, indefensible. (Should you have any doubt, I warmly encourage you to read this and follow up on several of the links therein.) And in fact, Kidd, argues, Feyerabend was perfectly aware that astrology is indefensible. Why then go on to write a panegyric about it?
Because Feyerabend was disturbed by what he saw as a dogmatic “manifesto” against astrology, put out by Paul Kurtz (the founder, among other things, of what was once known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP) and co-signed — seemingly mindlessly — by a number of scientists who lent their credibility to it.
You can find the manifesto here (ironically, at astrologer.com!), together with a critical response by both Feyerabend and astronomer Carl Sagan. Surprising to find Sagan there, isn’t it?
This is, in part, what the Manifesto says:
“Scientists in a variety of fields have become concerned about the increased acceptance of astrology in many parts of the world. We, the undersigned — astronomers, astrophysicists, and scientists in other fields — wish to caution the public against the unquestioning acceptance of the predictions and advice given privately and publicly by astrologers. … In ancient times people believed in the predictions and advice of astrologers because astrology was part and parcel of their magical world view. They looked upon celestial objects as abodes or omens of the gods and, thus, intimately connected with events here on earth; they had no concept of the vast distances from the earth to the planets and stars. Now that these distances can and have been calculated, we can see how infinitesimally small are the gravitational and other effects produced by the distant planets and the far more distant stars. … Why do people believe in astrology? In these uncertain times many long for the comfort of having guidance in making decisions. They would like to believe in a destiny predetermined by astral forces beyond their control. However, we must all face the world, and we must realize that our futures lie in ourselves, and not in the stars. … [The dissemination of astrology in the media] can only contribute to the growth of irrationalism and obscurantism. We believe that the time has come to challenge directly, and forcefully, the pretentious claims of astrological charlatans.”
Now, here is how Sagan explained, in part, his dissent:
“I struggled with [the manifesto’s] wording, and in the end found myself unable to sign, not because I thought astrology has any validity whatever, but because I felt (and still feel) that the tone of the statement was authoritarian. It criticized astrology for having origins shrouded in superstition. But this is true as well for religion, chemistry, medicine and astronomy, to mention only four. The issue is not what faltering and rudimentary knowledge astrology came from, but what is its present validity. Then there was speculation on the psychological motivations of those who believe in astrology. These motivations — for example, the feeling of powerlessness in a complex, troublesome and unpredictable world — might explain why astrology is not generally given the sceptical scrutiny it deserves, but is quite peripheral to whether it works. The statement stressed that we can think of no mechanism by which astrology could work. This is certainly a relevant point but by itself it’s unconvincing. No mechanism was known for continental drift (now subsumed in plate tectonics) when it was proposed by Alfred Wegener in the first quarter of the twentieth century to explain a range of puzzling data in geology and palaeontology.”
And this is Feyerabend’s take, again, in part:
“In 1484 the Roman Catholic Church published the Malleus Maleficarum, the outstanding textbook on witchcraft. The Malleus is a very interesting book. It has four parts: phenomena, aetiology, legal aspects, theological aspects of witchcraft. … Comparing the Malleus with accounts of contemporary knowledge the reader can easily verify that the Pope and his learned authors knew what they were talking about. This cannot be said of the scientists. They neither know the subject they attack, astrology, nor those parts of their own science that undermine their attack. … [The Manifesto] shows the extent to which scientists are prepared to assert their authority even in areas in which they have no knowledge whatsoever.”
So, both Sagan and Feyerabend were attacking Kurtz and his 186 not because they were wrong in criticizing astrology, but rather because they didn’t actually criticize it, resorting instead to a medley of ad hominem and irrelevant arguments because they knew they were right. That’s the definition of dogmatism, which, in theory at the least, is not a scientific virtue.
And it is in terms of the concept of virtue that Kidd defens Feyerabend’s defense of astrology, as I’ll explain in the next post, out tomorrow.