A Paradigm Shift

My colleague and I have been talking in an inconclusive back-and-forth way about the subject of certainty, the revisability of scientific claims, the difference between in principle and in reality or in practice or in fact, transcendence, labeling, rhetoric, the difference between what can be imagined and what is a live possibility. We’ll talk about it further in a couple of days (well, three) when we’ll be able to do it with the useful accompaniment and assistance of gestures, grimaces, thrown objects, slaps, pinches, what my brother always called as he administered it to me an ‘Indian rope burn’ but which must be called something else now but I don’t know what, table-thumping, brow slapping, eye rolling, hair tearing, and food throwing. That is our rigorous and aerobic notion of collaboration. It has always been liberally laced with insults, taunts, mockery, and rude suggestions, and physical violence will be a welcome addition and enrichment of this tradition.

It comes up of course because of this book we’re writing, and because of thinking about the claims of people like Bloor and other Strong Programmistas. It’s impossible (naturally enough) to think about such claims without thinking about epistemology, and of course it’s impossible to think about epistemology without immediately getting lost in a bog of Yes but how do we know we know we know? and similar penetrating questions. Which is why people like Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus made such big names for themselves and why Montaigne inscribed ‘que scais-je?’ into the roofbeam and why Hume woke Kant from his dogmatic slumbers and why Derrida expanded on the point and why Rorty and Fish enjoy irritating everyone and why Douglas Adams thought of the mouse experiment and 42 and whoever thought of The Matrix thought of The Matrix. It’s not as if they’re wrong, it’s not as if there’s nothing problematic about knowledge. What one does with that thought is another matter, but the thought itself is a real thought.

My colleague’s real thought has to do with the fact that science is revisable in principle but, about some things, not in reality. That scientists may say that all scientific knowledge is revisable but there are plenty of things about which they don’t actually believe it. They don’t really believe that the fact that the earth goes around the sun is revisable. I’ve been putting up an argument. I think either that they do believe it, or that the fact that they don’t doesn’t really have any particular force. Or both of those – that they’re the same thing. They do believe it’s revisable, provided there is evidence. The difficulty of imagining what that evidence could be and how it could be reconciled with all the other evidence does make the belief very thin, or formal, or ‘merely’ verbal, I suppose – but then that’s how it is. That particular ‘if’ is a very big if – but some ifs are very big ifs. That’s the nature of ifs, and thought experiments and counter-factuals in general. So we argue about transcendence and certainty. Is it reasonable to say that some of science’s truth claims are in fact transcendent, or certain, because of this difficulty of real belief in revisability? Well, yes, in a sense, I suppose, but it’s also true that such words are used in rhetorical contexts and for rhetorical purposes – to attribute much greater certainty, and smugness and blindness and refusal to question, to science and scientists than they in fact have about a lot of their own work. They know from daily practice, from life at the coal face, how tentative theories can be, so…it seems to me that that’s enough to foster the kind of uncertainty and awareness of revisability that’s required. But then I’m the one writing this Comment, so I’m giving myself the last word. Followed by a few thrown apple cores.

Actually not. Jerry S typed and sent this extract from E O Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist (pp 319-20) by way of commentary, so I’ll give that the last word.

I picked Hamilton’s paper out of my briefcase somewhere north of New Haven
and riffled through it impatiently. I was anxious to get to the gist of the
argument and move on to something else, something more familiar and
congenial. The prose was convoluted and the full-dress mathematic treatment
difficult, but I understood his main point about haplodiploidy and colonial
life quickly enough. My first response was negative. Impossible, I thought:
this can’t be right. Too simple. He must not know much about social insects.
But the idea kept gnawing away at me early that afternoon, as I changed over
to the Silver Meteor in New York’s Pennsylvania Station. As we departed
southward across the New Jersey marshes, I went though the article again,
more carefully this time, looking for the fatal flaw I believed must be
there. At intervals I closed my eyes and tried to conceive of alternative,
more convincing explanations of the prevalence of hymenopteran social life
and the all-female worker force. Surely I knew enough to come up with
something. I had done this kind of critique before and succeeded. But
nothing presented itself now. By dinnertime, as the train rumbled on into
Virginia, I was growing frustrated and angry. Hamilton, whoever he was,
could not have cut the Gordian knot. Anyway, there was no Gordian knot in
the first place, was there? I had thought there was probably just a lot of
accidental evolution and wonderful natural history. And because I modestly
thought of myself as the world authority on social insects, I also thought
it unlikely that anyone else could explain their origin, certainly not in
one clean stroke. The next morning, as we rolled on past Waycross and
Jacksonville, I thrashed about some more. By the time we reached Miami in
the early afternoon, I gave up. I was a convert, and put myself in
Hamilton’s hands. I had undergone what historians of science call a paradigm

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