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The Nature of Methodological Variance: From Commensurable Canons to Incommensurable Strategies

  • G. L. Pandit
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 73)

Abstract

Ever since its coming into existence as a relatively independent enterprise, science has been characterized by a relentless dynamic quest for epistemologically effective and methodologically stable patterns of description/explanation. The task of critically selecting such relatively stable patterns of description has been from the very beginning entrusted to the system of scientific method. Thus the relatively short history of modern science is replete with interesting episodes of interaction between (a) the system of scientific method and (b) the scientific problems and the patterns of description proposed from time to time. As a consequence, two things are noteworthy in the growth of science ever since its inception in the modern period. First, the system of scientific method, which developed gradually to promote and regulate the selective growth and proliferation within the corpus of empirical science, has had to be an open system subject to constant negative-feedback-type evolutionary pressures from what it, as a rule, operates upon, viz., the open theory-problem interactive systems. Thus there is not only considerable historical evidence in favour of a constant growth of the system of scientific method in the past but also sufficient reason to believe in unlimited possibilities of its progressive transformation in the future. Secondly, considered as an interactive system of theoretical problems and their attempted solutions, science is best understood as a perpetually growing system not only in the usual specific theoretical sense of conceptual innovations that take place in its different fields, but also in the methodological sense of progressive transformations in its canonical patterns of description themselves.

Keywords

Scientific Theory Physical Theory Classical Physic Physical Concept Empirical Science 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    I am indebted to Arthur Koestler for borrowing the terms canon’ and strategy’ from his (1969) which uses them in a different sense in a general systems-theoretical context.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    While every science must keep asking similar questions according to its unique subject-matter, there nevertheless remain fundamentally common questions between them such as: What distinguishes a scientifically permissible theory from a scientifically impermissible one? Any doctrine that denies that there is a fundamental methodological problem of demarcation in the sense of this question inevitably leads to a consequence of incommensurability in Kuhn’s sense. According to Kuhn each paradigm and the associated practice of puzzle-solving has its own unique demarcation criterion that is internal to it. Hence on this view, each paragidm must be incommensurable with the other.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Since “science connecting theory and experiment really began with the work of Galileo” — cf. A. Einstein and L. Infeld (1961), p. 52 — Galileo’s contribution in this context is undoubtedly of considerable methodological significance. Indeed in so far as it is Galileo who said that “Nature is a book and the characters in which it is written are triangles, circles, and squares”, his anticipations of the idea of the physical world as a vast system capable of detached scientific study in terms of a unitary system of abstract physical theory and abstract mathematical models come close to those of Descartes, the seventeenth century staunch advocate of the doctrine of the essential methodological unity of all science. Arguing from his basic epistemological doctrine of “the clear and the distinct ideas,” Descartes defines matter as all those kinds of things that are characterized and distinguished by `extension’. The great philosophical significance of this definition lies in the fact that it lays down a whole methodological and epistemological framework for the kind of physical theory that has to be of an abstract geometrical character. Cf. V. F. Lenzen (1931), p. 231.Google Scholar
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    A. Einstein and L. Infeld (1961), p. 65.Google Scholar
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    H. Helmholtz (1847) as quoted in N. R. Hanson (1969), P. 203.Google Scholar
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    Heinrich Hertz (1910), xxix.Google Scholar
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    Cf. A. Einstein and L. Infeld (1961), pp. 120–22; and E. Nagel (1961), p. 46.Google Scholar
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    For a detailed discussion on this subject, see A. Einstein and L. Infeld (1961), pp. 119–22, 137–52; see also A. D’Abro (1939), pp. 71–78.Google Scholar
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    The situation is best described as well as analyzed by Pierre Duhem (1954), pp. 7071, in terms of electrostatics: “This whole theory of electrostatics constitutes a group of abstract ideas and general propositions, formulated in the clear and precise language of geometry and algebra, and connected with each other by the rules of strict logic. This whole satisfies the reason of a French physicist and his taste for clarity, simplicity and order. But not so for an Englishman. These abstract notions of material points, force, line of force, and equipotential surface do not satisfy his need to imagine concrete material, visible, and tangible things... ”Google Scholar
  10. The famous model of electrostatic action imagined by Faraday and admired as a work of genius by Maxwell and the whole English school consists in materializing, in the space separating two conductors, abstract lines of force having no thickness/real existence by thickening them to the dimensions of a tube filled with vulcanized rubber...Google Scholar
  11. The employment of similar mechanical models, recalling by certain more or less rough analogies the particular features of the theory being expounded, is a regular feature of the English treatises on physics. Here is a book [by Oliver Lodge] intended to expound the modern theories of electricity and to expound a new theory. In it there is nothing but strings which move around pulleys, which roll around drums, which go through pearl beads, which carry weight; and tubes which pump water while others swell and contract; toothed wheels which are geared to one another and engage hooks. We thought we were entering the tranquil and neatly ordered abode of reason, but we find ourselves in a factory.“Google Scholar
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    Quantum mechanics abandons the description of atomic and sub-atomic events as happenings in space and time while dealing with the fundamental questions like: Is light a wave or a shower of photons? Is a beam of electrons a shower of elementary particles or a wave? Cf. A. Einstein and L. Infeld (1961), p. 297. Writing in early 1930s, V. F. Lenzen (1931), p. 178, views the actual scene of physical research as dominated by the concept of a force as arising from the action of the electromagnetic field upon the electric charges of bodies and hence by the electrodynamic conception of nature that seeks to interpret all physical phenomena in terms of thic concept.Google Scholar
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    Known as Coulomb’s law of electrostatic actions, it illustrates excellently the dominance of the CSD of the mechanical view in every problem-area in classical physics. That is, the Newtonian action-at-distance conception of a force is precisely what underlies this law which states “that opposite electric charges attract each other in accordance with the Newtonian law of the inverse square, and that charges of the same sign repel according to the same law.” For details, see A. Einstein and L. Infeld (1961), p. 76.Google Scholar
  25. Thinking of scientific theories by means of models,“ writes R. B. Braithwaite (1968), p. 93, ”is always as-if thinking; hydrogen atoms behave (in certain respects) as if they were solar systems each with an electronic planet revolving round a protonic sun. But hydrogen atoms are not solar systems; it is only useful to think of them as if they were such systems if one remembers all the time that they are not. The price of the employment of models is eternal vigilance.“ Far from clarifying the nature of model-building in science, this remark avoids the real issue: why and in what sense is this as-if thinking useful?Google Scholar
  26. 23.
    Cf. P. Achinstein (1968), p. 212.Google Scholar
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    James Clerk Maxwell’s mathematical equations in his (1873) unify in a single mathematical formalism not only the electric and the magnetic fields but also, in turn, electromagnetism and optics. Cf. Steven Weinberg (1977), p. 172.Google Scholar
  35. 32.
    Einstein’s special theory of relativity (as formulated in his 1905 paper `On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’) plays quite a significant role in making the concepts of electrodynamics such as electric charge and electromagnetic field the very basis for such an alternative. In this theory, as V. F. Lenzen (1931), p. 195, puts it, “Electrodynamics becomes the legislative system of physical theory.” Such an alternative programme for physical theory was further strengthened by the development of the quantum mechanics, particularly as it came to be represented by the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory in the early 1930s.Google Scholar
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    For details concerning these attempts, see C. H. Waddington (1966), pp. 105–123.Google Scholar
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    As a methodological doctrine, theoretical monism “demands that at any time only a single set of mutually consistent theories be used.” Theoretical pluralism, on the other hand, requires science to employ mutually inconsistent theories simultaneously as a means to promote the discovery of ever better alternatives to the existing theories in a given field. For details see P. K. Feyerabend (1965), pp. 149–153.Google Scholar
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    Cf. ibid., p. 260. Einstein’s (ibid., pp. 259–60) own account of the kind of radical transformation that our fundamental physical concepts undergo in special and general theory of relativity is remarkable for its lucidity.Google Scholar
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    Thus, e.g., while in the Newtonian view the sun produces in the space around it an action-at-a-distance force that makes the planets “move along curved trajectories instead of straight lines,” according to Einstein’s theory “space itself becomes curved and the planets move along the straightest (geodesic) lines in that curved space.” See G. Gamow (1968), p. 269. See also E. Whittaker (1949), pp. 10, 116–17, 188.Google Scholar
  58. 55.
    The field concept was first introduced into physics when, in the second half of the nineteenth-century, Michael Faraday proposed an alternative formulation of Coulomb’s (action-at-distance type) law of electrostatic force in terms of the concept of the electric field to organize the experimental facts in a better way. However, it was only after Maxwell worked out his differential equations for the electric and magnetic fields that the introduction of the field concept assumed the unifying significance of a theoretical innovation with resolving power of a new order. Owing to its far-reaching implications (e.g., that of the existence of waves with properties similar to those of light) optics was incorporated into the electromagnetic theory as another step at unification after it had already unified the electric and the magnetic field. See A. Einstein and L. Infeld (1961), pp. 151, 244.Google Scholar
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    These phenomena range from atoms, through biological systems, to psycho-social systems of variable orders of organized complexity.Google Scholar
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    For a precise definition of the pragmatic as against the semantical/syntactical analysis of language, see R. Carnap (1958), pp. 78–79; R. Carnap (1949), p. 410; R. Carnap (1939), pp. 1–18; and C. W. Morris (1938). The term pragmatic’ is however used more broadly to cover the kind of analysis of our knowledge-claims, whether in ordinary language or science, that takes the knowing-subject or the understanding-subject as its fixed frame of reference.Google Scholar
  74. 71.
    The indispensability and relevance of such an imperative and some of its underlying assumptions to the psychologically investigative, inventive or creative situations is not in doubt here. The point is that the pragmatical relations of interaction that are true of such situations have no relevance whatever to the contexts of building and testing the theory-problem interactive systems under a given CSD. Hence the only legitimate role they can assume after a CSD establishes itself as a successful problem-solving enterprise is one of an ideological defence of the given CSD as opposed to some other. Perhaps it is quite reasonable to think that the pragmatical framework of the human performer that accompanies the methodologically significant contexts of testing the objective theory-problem interactive systems is dispensable in principle. That is, the replacement of this framework in the ideologically neutral contexts of theory-testing by the framework of a sophisticated machine with all the required devices for it to operate and improve its performance according to the principle of negative feedback is at least conceivable. Cf. P. K. Feyerabend (1969), p. 792.Google Scholar
  75. 72.
    Examples of pragmatical predicates, which explain the underlying idea, are ‘observability’, perceptibility’, ‘familiarity’, etc. Such predicates serve to express pragmatical imperatives relative to a given CSD, since they are most appropriately used to characterize the nature as well the scope of our interaction with our world under that particular CSD.Google Scholar
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    The pragmatical framework of a concept’s or a theory’s application to concrete cases is of considerable interest and relevance from the point of view of language-learning of which learning a scientific concept is a special case. Certainly language-learning is inconceivable without a whole complex pragmatical framework/setting of the relations of interaction (a) between the different language-users themselves and (b) between the language-users on the one hand and the world around them on the other. What is true of language generally is also true of science. This shows that operationism only reverses the role of these pragmatical relations of interaction: What is true of the contexts of learning/teaching a concept is, instead, said to be true of its semantical determination. 9° F. Suppe (1972), p. 135.Google Scholar
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    Adolf Grünbaum’s criticism of operationism in his (1956), pp. 84–94, is similar to this. According to him it seeks to absorb the semantics of a physical theory into its pragmatics. For other recent criticisms to the effect that operationism does not serve the purpose for which it was originally introduced, see F. Suppe (1972), pp. 129164.Google Scholar
  94. As a theory of the nature of the meaning of physical concepts operationism rests on the implicit assumption that meaning at the higher level of the physical theory takes care of itself. That is, it rests on the hidden assumption that the sentence-meaning is the compositional function of the component word-meanings. But it is precisely the idea that a semantical characterization or determination at the level of the concepts leads to a semantical determination at the higher level of the structure of scientific theory that requires explaining. One who believes in the compositional theory of sentence-meaning must explain the nature of the compositional function in question.Google Scholar
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    P. A. M. Dirac (1958), p. 10; his italics.Google Scholar
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    This is particularly true of Braithwaite’s quite influential interpretation. Thus, while discussing this passage from Dirac’s (1958), he writes in his (1968), p. 93: “If there is a doubt as to the self-consistency of the highest level hypotheses of a scientific theory, an interpretation of the calculus representing the theory by means of a model may serve to establish their consistency.” My attention was also drawn to this kind of interpretation in the comments by an anonymous referee of Philosophical Studies on the manuscript of my (1975).Google Scholar
  99. 96.
    Epistemology is in the context of this requirement taken strictly in its traditional subjectivistic sense. In this sense, its subject-matter is subjectivistically conceived of and its problems formulated in terms of the pragmatical predicates of ‘belief’, certainty’, experience’, etc.Google Scholar
  100. 97.
    This characterization is borne out by the requirement of familiarity as discussed above.Google Scholar
  101. 98.
    See G. L. Pandit (1975), pp. 209–224 and G. L. Pandit (1976), pp. 409–36.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • G. L. Pandit
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of DelhiIndia

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