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The Scientist and the Savage

A dialogue by Mike Fuller.

SCIENTIST: Look here, my passion for the truth forces me to try and convince you of the error of your ways: the earth is not flat!

SAVAGE: (shrugs) Perhaps for your tribe it is not flat, as you say. But my tribe have always believed it so, and it has always served our purposes very well to believe it so. Why quarrel about it?

SCIENTIST: But if you started walking, from where you stand now, in a straight line, over the land and the ocean, you would return to the same spot you started from, because the earth is round, I assure you! Now there’s an objective, conclusive experiment for you!

SAVAGE: Huh …. I would have to be some big fool to play such a silly game. We have better things to do with our time around here.

SCIENTIST: (aside) I can see I’ve got a serious problem of incommensurability with this fellow …. Perhaps I can convince him with Feyerabend’s ‘indirect test for incommensurable theories in terms of internal inconsistency’ …. (to the Savage) Look, if I can demonstrate to you that your paradigm, your conceptual-scheme, your world-view is seriously inconsistent in its interpretation of facts, will you be convinced then?

SAVAGE: Huh? Come again?

SCIENTIST: Let me put it this way: do you believe the earth is flat on the evidence of your eyes?

SAVAGE: I suppose so.

SCIENTIST: Well, if I shot you into space in a rocket, those same eyes of yours would see he world as round. And that would constitute an inconsistency; it would be an anomaly, an awkward fact that didn’t fit in with your view that the earth is flat.

SAVAGE: I don’t know …. You keep on about things being so ‘awkward’ and ‘inconsistent’ like I should be feeling bad about it. But it seems to me that all this ‘awkward’ and ‘inconsistent’ stuff doesn’t really bother me. This ‘awkward’ and ‘inconsistent’ you make so much of would only bother me if it made me unhappy, or interfered with the crops, or upset the hunting. If it did that, then I would make as much of it as you do, because then it really would be awkward and inconsistent.

SCIENTIST: So you’d be prepared to dismiss the anomaly as unimportant on pragmatic grounds, adopting an ‘edificationist’ rather than a ‘mirror of nature’ approach to the question of truth?

SAVAGE: Come again?

SCIENTIST: You’re saying that the anomaly wouldn’t seriously bother you because it wouldn’t affect seriously your life-style, your happiness, your survival? You’d be quite happy just to ignore it. Your paradigm is so divorced from Western science that you wouldn’t even feel the need to account for such an anomaly with an ad hoc hypothesis so as to render it consistent with your paradigm?

SAVAGE: Well, I guess not …. Not unless the rest of the tribe made a big deal about it, as you seem to think we ouqht to. I’ll tell mv tribe about your space-ship and your earth being round, but I think they’ll feel the same way that I do about it. Maybe it’s you who worry about these things too much? But, then again, maybe they affect you more than they do me?

SCIENTIST: Well, we could just opt for a ‘forms of life’ relativism at this point. But I’d still like to prove to you that my view of the matter is the best one, the most ‘edifying’ one, and that much of the reason why it is the most ‘edifying’ or valuable one is because it provides the most accurate ‘mirror of nature’ or true description of the world.

SAVAGE: Sure, go ahead.

SCIENTIST: The proposition that the earth is round is only a small but necessary part of the entire conceptual framework of Western science. It is the whole framework that I’m urging you to accept, and not just the one isolated but implicated proposition. And I’m not urging you to accept Western science for imperialistic reasons, but for altruistic ones: because it has the power to make you happier in your life-style. Western science has the ability, through its technology, to remove many of the ills of your life - disease, famine, back-breaking labour. It can improve crop-yields, replace the ox with the internal combustion engine, electricity, nuclear power -the list of labour-saving and life-enhancing technology is endless.

But the reason why this technology works (and so is to be valued because it enhances life) is because our technology is based on our science. Quite simply, the technology wouldn’t work unless we had discovered, and are still discovering, an ever-increasingly accurate model of nature. We can control nature, and so improve the quality of life, only because we understand nature in a more truthful way than you and your tribe.

So, although I accept your ‘edificationist’ or ‘pragmatic’ criterion of truth, I am suggesting that this criterion is i ‘realist’nextricably bound up with a or ‘mirror of nature’ criterion of truth. In a sense, I am trying to convince you of the superiority of my paradigm in terms of your own paradigm, and so overcome the apparent incommensurability between us. Have we found common ground at last?

SAVAGE: Well, I have to admit that you’re some clever fellow …. But I want to be sure that I know what you’re saying. Do you mean that your way of doing things is better than our way of doing things because your way of doing things would make us happier in our lives than our way of doing things does?

SCIENTIST: Yes, and I’m also saying that the reason for this is because our way of doing things understands nature better than yours, and that’s proved by our superior control over nature in our science-based technlogy.

SAVAGE: Well, I’m not going to say that I completely disagree with you, but I do have some doubts. Do you want to hear them?

SCIENTIST: By all means; at least we’re communicating at last.

SAVAGE: I’ll put my doubts to you in an orderly way, since you seem to prefer it that way. First of all, I’m not sure about your claim that your way of doing things would make us happier. I’d be inclined to say in some ways yes, in some ways no. If we used your science and technology to improve our lives, there are some things you’ve lost that we’ve still got and want to keep, and I’m not sure that that would be possible. Maybe your way of doing things would impoverish our happiness as much as enrich it - and maybe that’s inevitable, maybe it’s to do with the way your kind of world forces a particular Iife-style on people, alters them, creates a kind of world that makes people happy and sad in a way that our kind of world does not. Our life has its happiness and sadness too, of course, but it’s in a different way from yours. So would we be happier? I’m not sure.

SCIENTIST: Fair point. Though remember what Feyerabend says about the clash of two cultures always being something of an experiment, sometimes leading to domination of one over the other, sometimes leading to a balanced fusion of both, and sometimes leading to something unpredictably new and different from both. I grant that we can learn from you, as well as vice versa. And though I’d still insist that the earth is round, I realise that the logic of my pragmatic or ‘edificationist’ criterion of truth at any rate forces me to insist on the point a little less dogmatically.

SAVAGE: All right, now for another doubt, though it’s connected to my first. I’m not convinced that your way of doing things gives a truer picture of nature. You claim that your science must inevitably give a more accurate description of the world because the technologies based on those descriptions help us to control nature - and if we were trying to v control nature by means of false descriptions, well, it just wouldn’t work.

Now, we’ve got a saying in our tribe: “There’s no one right way to train an elephant.” You follow me?

SCIENTIST: No, I can’t follow your logic at all, I’m afraid. What do you mean?

SAVAGE: Controlling nature is like training an elephant. If you want a fierce war-elephant, you train it one way; if you want a placid elephant to carry little children, you train it another way. Isn’t it the same with nature? The sort of description you get of nature will depend on the sort of questions you ask her, and the sort of questions you ask will depend on the kind of control, or the kind of technologies, that you are interested in developing?

SCIENTIST: That’s fairly sophisticated for a savage …. And my answer is that on the whole I think you’re confusing pure and applied science. It’s true that technological, (and business and government) interests may and do promote research in areas of pure science on account of the interest in those areas to technologists, businessmen, and governments. And to that extent science may be connected to ideology. But it is equally true that discoveries in pure science which were prompted by, say, militaristic interests or capitalist greed may with equal facility be used technologically in very different directions, given the right social context. So I’m not very convinced by that line of reasoning. For instance, the same scientific atomic theory can lead to nuclear warheads or to nuclear-powered hospitals.

SAVAGE: All right then, let me raise another doubt about the way what you call ‘ideology’ affects the ‘true picture of the world’.

In our tribe, we sometimes make magic to evoke the spirits of rain. Our magic is not always successful. Now, you say that this is because we are using a primitive science and technology through which we are trying to control nature. And you say that it does not work effectively because we have a false model of nature and so no real control over it. But we look at the matter differently. When we pray for rain, we see ourselves as entreating nature reverently, not demanding boldly, that she produce it. Your science and technology demand things boldly of nature. Nature is annoyed by your presumption, so she punishes you, indirectly, by making you in many ways unhappy and lost, and your world a glittering but dangerous place to live in. So what I am saying, perhaps, is that you are mistaken in your proud boast that you have the true picture of nature because you can control her. There are other ways of knowing nature than through pictures which control - and perhaps they are wiser and deeper ways than yours.

SCIENTIST: I admit there are strains in my own culture which support your view: Romanticism especially; and German Idealism. And of course our Christian culture has always reserved a place for prayer and entreaty as well as for the ‘Protestant work-ethic’ of controlling nature. And contemporary thinkers as diverse as Heidegger and Feyerabend have urged that we need to open our minds to different ways of knowing, and even to incorporate them into our scientific method in order to enrich it. But, on the whole, your view strikes me as regressive anthropomorphism. Like a child, the reason why you entreat nature is because you lack the power to control it; and the reason why you lack the power to control it is because you lack sufficient understanding of it.

SAVAGE: But perhaps I prefer to be a warmhearted child rather than a cold-blooded controller?

SCIENTIST: If you like. But warm-hearted children can sometimes be very cruel to each other, and cold-blooded controllers can sometimes improve the lot of humanity.

SAVAGE: And vice versa.

© M. Fuller 1995

Mike Fuller lectures in philosophy at Bolton Institute of Higher Education

The Sociology of Science

The philosophers Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend have argued that the true situation of Western science and technology is a lot more complicated than the Scientist claims in die passage on the left.

According to the canons of Western science, a good theory should satisfy criteria such as simplicity, internal consistency, freedom from anomalies, high predictive power, capacity for technological application, etc. Ideally, it should satisfy all these criteria, but where it does not, the actual decision whether to save the theory or to abandon it may depend on the pressures on the scientists working with the theory to opt for certain criteria as significant and to exclude others as insignificant. The following situation, some claim, is quilc conccivable:-

Scientist A wants to retain a particular theory on account of the fact that it is beautifully simple, although its predictions are rather inaccurate when tested, and it is not free from anomalies. Also, he invented the theory.

Scientist B It wants to abandon the same theory due to its faults. He prefers a more complex theory with belter predictive power, though also containing anomalies. Also, he does not like Scientist A.

The Ministry of X, which is funding the research, is chiefly interested in the technological applications for space research. Since these do not seem to be forthcoming, it is impatient and would like to abandon research based on the theory. But it is reluctant to do so because of the vast amount of money already invested in the research-programme suggested by the theory.

Finally, I hope this succeeds in showing how vast, diffuse, and confusing the whole topic of science has become for philosophy. It raises such central questions as:-

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