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A Shopper’s Guide to the Philosophy of Science

By Phil Kime, our man with the trolley next to the cheese counter.

It occurred to me, while returning from a shopping expedition, that this particular pastime was intricate, traditional and important enough to support a frighteningly accurate analogy of basic themes in the Philosophy of Science. What better way to introduce people to the problems than through a familiar and necessary activity?

There are lots of types of shoppers. First you have your Popper shopper. This creature carefully details his empirical needs and notes them in order of importance in an activity technically known as ‘making a shopping list’. From this list, he decides (deductively of course) exactly what items are necessary to fulfill his requirements as he scans the shelves. Famous for setting strict standards, the Popperian shopper never ever re-buys a product that fails to satisfy, unless it has been non-trivially improved in some way. ‘10% extra’ and ‘new improved recipe’ are not good enough for the Popperian and just count as ad hoc modifications of the original unsatisfying product.

The Kuhnian customer thinks this is all a bit too strict and he is more prone to marketing effects. These external manipulations of his consumer tastes lead him to sometimes adhere to certain products with a blatant disregard for his personal satisfaction. He will trundle along, happily filling his basket with only an occasional recourse to reason at the dictates of the brightly coloured signs that form in integral part of the modern shopping experience. However, eventually, the poor performance of his ill-chosen products will reach such a zenith: the floor won’t have that sparkle anymore, the kids will get sick of chicken nuggets etc. that the poor shopper will throw them all away in a fit of rage exclaiming that the mists have cleared and he/she now sees it all in a different light. It’s muesli and Perrier from now on and the children must be brought up to appreciate this new and obviously superior regime.

The Lakatosian customer is more acutely susceptible to the advertisers. He adheres to a ‘core’ of brands that he won’t be unfaithful to, nomatter what the cost to his lifestyle. Be it McVities, Heinz or Cadburys, he defends his favourite brands by drawing a ‘protective belt’ around his biases that consists of remarks about ‘quality’, ‘reliability’ and constant references to the ingredients label and the similar preferences of his parents. Asked to defend his choice of purchases, the Lakatosian shopper will blatantly rationally reconstruct his motivation for buying and attempt to render it as reasonable and as sertsible as he can. This usually fools no-one. This endless rationalising means that giving up a core brand involves much adaptation for the Lakatosian and considerable changes in lifestyle are needed to accommodate the upheaval.

The Feyerabendian shopper chuckles at his fellow consumers as they scurry by from shelf to shelf. He doesn’t have a method for shopping and is proud of it. “What does it matter as long as the dinner party goes ok?”, he asks. Choose your products by Tarot cards, dice or even, heaven forbid, a hypothetico-deductive shopping list but don’t force others to do the same. The Feyarabendian points out that there are primitive tribes in North Yorkshire who manage quite nicely choosing their consumables on the basis of what they need to survive and that this is a perfectly adequate way to proceed. This may seem bizarre to the modern and sophisticated Southern shopper to whom quick-frozen Sainsbury’s duck à l’orange is a necessity of life but it is an equally valid way of coping with the rigours of everyday supermarketry. The Feyerabendian shopper can expect on average 2 court cases for suspected shoplifting in his prime purchasing period of life. Often accused of being ‘anarchistic’ on the grounds that he sometimes returns from a buffet-preparing shop with only a 12 pack of toilet rolls and a new toothbrush, the Feyerabendian generally replies that it is not he who is to blame but the definition of ‘buffet’.

It is an interesting corollary that we can also recast some of the classic problems in the Philosophy of Science inside this framework. The problem of the ‘underdetermination of theory by evidence’ is a famous problem for rationalists who believe there is a method for deciding between competing scientific theories. This problem is simply that what you see equally supports hundreds and hundreds of alternative things that you may say about what you see. For example, you see a blue pan of water come to the boil on an electric oven top. What can you theorise? That water boils when heated on electric oven tops? That water boils when heated in blue pans on electric oven tops? That water simply boils in pans regardless of heat? Obviously you can check some of these alternatives by turning the heat off etc., but the problem of underdetermination is that there are always some alternatives you can’t get rid of. Maybe the correct conclusion is that water boils when heated as long as John Major is smiling at the time. Could be true but, as you can appreciate, allowing for all of these factors is quite impossible. Theories are undetermined by the evidence.

This arises in the marketplace as the ‘underdetermination of brands by needs’. It’s an all too common experience: you want shampoo but are confronted with 1456 different brands. Which one to buy? What is the rational choice? You want that bouncy, shiny look but there’s a brand that provides this plus an extra vitality conditioner. Your wants just don’t uniquely determine what to buy. It’s here that the Kuhnian says that consumer dogma needs to exist in order to stop you standing there chewing your lip until the bored voice announces the special offers and closing time. This is commonly supposed to be a real problem for the Popperian …. lots of brands do what you want so how can it be rational to choose one over the other? Popperians typically resort to penny pinching and arguing over special offers at this point.

The problem of ‘incommensurability’ has obvious parallels. This is the phenomena where scientists of different fundamental persuasions think such different things that they argue right past each other in an attempt to convert the other to their cause. Their views aren’t contradictory, they’re so different, they can’t even find common ground to disagree! Just go to any Marks and Spencer foodhall after shopping at Shoprite for a few weeks and you will soon begin to wonder out loud whilst standing over pre-packed Eskimo seal and huskie curry for two “Who could possibly want that?”. Witness also people who shop in pairs and the amused expressions that pass between them as they observe oddities in other peoples trollies: “Why did he buy that?”. This is aH classic shopping incommensurability: radical differences in consumable taste that are irreconcilable by rational argument.

A final remark; as a result of the ecological revolution in the supermarket, we now have a version of Nelson Goodman’s famous ‘grue’ paradox. Strictly speaking, a type of underdetermination, this is the problem of deciding between two things purely empirically given that that they are empirically identical now but won’t be in, say 2000 years. What should you call an emerald now: ‘green’ or ‘grue’ where ‘grue’ means ‘green now and turns blue in 2000 years’ when we have equal empirical evidence for both alternatives at the present moment? We have the same dilemma in the supermarket. Should you buy the non-eco washing powder or the eco-one that promises less environmental damage in 2000 years time given that they both do the job? Tough philosophical problems indeed.

Anyway, we must leave our thoughtful consumers to it as the Popperian, the Kuhnian and the Lakatosian pour intently over the shopping list, the advertising banners and ingredient labels respectively while the Feyerabendian makes reckless use of the ‘10 items or less’ checkout by going round 4 times and beating the other queues.

© P. Kime 1993

Further reading of a relatively serious kind:
Karl Popper The Logic of Scientific Discovery
Thomas Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Phil Kime is a PhD student in the Cognitive Science Department at Edinburgh University, and tutors in philosophy of science. He’d like to say ta to Paula Surridge for the Feyerabend comments and the shopping trip.

Imre Lakatos The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes

Paul Feyerabend Against Method

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