Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Revolution or Revolutions?

Fr. Jaki showed great fondness for a book by David Stove, an Australian philosopher, critiquing the famous four irrationalist philosophers of science - Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend. The book - Scientific Irrationalism - Origins of a Postmodern Cult. - is relatively unknown but doesn't fail to provoke a polarised reaction, as can be gathered by the Amazon reviews. It has been reprinted several times under different titles, my own copy is called 'Popper and After'. Part one discusses how the irrationalist philosophy is made credible through language, while part two asks how irrationalism about science began. I will be taking excerpts from this book along with comments by Fr. Jaki as we introduce these writers who have shaped the discourse on philosophy of science these past few decades. For today however as an introduction, I provide an excerpt from Fr. Jaki, as he sets their writings set in the context of Duhem and Koyre.

~ Jakian Thomist

Undoubtedly, it would pay to look into the impact that Koyre's pantheism had on his historical researches into the origin and chief characteristics of Galileo's science. Here, let me note only the price one has to pay if one accepts Koyre's contention that Duhem was wrong in claiming a continuity from Buridan through Oresme and Leonardo to Galileo and beyond. The price is that if Koyre is right, science must be taken with him for a succession of disconnected periods, a mere sequence of revolutions. Such a sequence is not a continuity and therefore cannot represent a progress.

In other words, if Koyre's critique of Duhem is accepted - and many modern philosophers and historians have accepted it - one cannot give a logical account of a fact, the fact of scientific progress which it would be absurd to deny. A telling point of that logical conundrum is that neither Koyre not his disciples - such as Thomas Kuhn of MIT, Paul Feyerabend of Berkeley, Bernard Cohen of Harvard, to mention some principal ones - give a clear definition of what they mean by revolution, while they profusely use that word. If they mean a complete break with the past, that is, with former ideas, they invite incomprehensibility of the pre-revolutionary phase as seen from the vantage point set up by the revolutionary change. To ward off the specter of incomprehensibility, they usually resort to some scientific expression, such as incommensurability, mutation, and paradigms.

The last of these is best left to Latin grammarians. They never expected their students to undergo a mental mutation or a revolutionary reorientation as they proceeded from a paradigm noun of the first declension to a paradigm noun of the second declension. As to genetic mutation, it consists in an extremely minute rearrangement of the chromosomatic material and not in its complete replacement. This is why one species can be instrumental in the rise of another species.

As to incommensurability, it occurs in a right-angled triangle with unit sides. The measure of the hypotenuse is an irrational number. Yet, no rationality was displayed by that Pythagorean of old who, on discovering the strange nature of that measure, drowned himself on the high sea. As to those moderns who cavort in the idea of incommensurability and do so in the name of their philosophies of science, they should rather take note of the Bulgarian proverb: Those who want to drown should not torture themselves in shallow waters. At any rate, they seem to ignore a principal lesson about revolutions, the point best conveyed in the French saying: Plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme chose.

[S.L. Jaki, Patterns or Principles and Other Essays, p. 174-175]

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