Progress and Its Problems by Larry Laudan

From time to time, I read books on philosophy of science. A good while ago, I read Progress and Its Problems by Larry Laudan. The book has the subtitle Towards a Theory of Scientific Growth. I have had this book for a long time, but has hesitated to read it after I found Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller an unsettling read. (I actually wrote a longer review of Kuhn vs. Popper than what I posted here, but never got around to edit the last part of it properly; I guess I should, as my ‘review’ is actually just a weird sort of summary.)

Anyway, another reason for my hesitation was that I was quite frustrated with philosophy of science and did not realize it was my understanding (or depth) which frustrated me. Most who has tried to produce knowledge (to be a scientist) and tried to understand Popper and Kuhn must agree that both their theories are artificial. Laudan, however, presents a theory for scientific growth which makes good sense and agrees well with empirical (anecdotal?) knowledge of scientific development.

ProgressAndItsProblemsThe central element in Laudan’s theory is the research tradition:

[…] I propose that the rationality and progressiveness of a theory are most closely linked-not with its confirmation or its falsification-but rather with its problem solving effectiveness. I shall be arguing that there are important nonempirical, even “nonscientific” (in the usual sense), factors which have-and which should have-played a role in the rational development of science. I shall suggest, further, that most philosophers of science have mistakenly identified the nature of scientific appraisal, and thereby the primary unit of rational analysis, by focusing on the individual theory, rather than on what I call the research tradition. This study will show, moreover, that we need to distinguish between the rationality of acceptance and the rationality of pursuit if we are to make any progress at reconstructing the congitive dimensions of scientific activity [p. 5,* italics in original]

Laudan aims to shift the research focus from a search for truth (which we cannot identify anyway) to a focus on progress:

[…] the rationale for accepting or rejecting any theory is thus fundamentally based on the idea of problem-solving progress.  If one research tradition has solved more important [scientific] problems than its rivals, then accepting that tradition is rational precisely to the degree that we are aiming to “progress,” [that is], to maximize the scope of solved problems. […], the choice of one tradition over its rivals is a progressive (and thus rational) choice precisely to the extent that the chosen tradition is a better problem solver than its rivals [p. 109].

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to give a decent and comprehensive account of Laudan’s ideas, for that, I must refer you to the book. (I am not even sure a decent account of short length is probably; the book is perhaps as brief as it can be. Laudan mostly writes economically.) Some key parts that to some degree can be studied out-of-context: The discussion of anomalous problems (pp. 26-ff). On problem solving and ambiguous tests (pp. 42-ff). The deconstruction of Kuhn and Lakatos (pp. 73-ff). On the progressiveness of ad hoc modifications (p. 115). The discussion of rationality at the beginning of chapter four (pp. 121-ff) should be read by every rational scientist, and perhaps in particular economists for whom rationality has such an central, theoretical role. On scientific revolutions, and Kuhn again (pp. 133-ff). Finally, on the justification for scientific research (pp. 224-225).

Some further interesting points: The note on on why Adam Smith wrote his treatise on moral philosophy (to resolve tensions between his economic theory and the Newtonian thesis of a balance of forces in nature (endnote 10 to chapter 2, p. 230). The (long) note on Foucault (“[…] Foucault has benefited from that curious Anglo-American view that if a Frenchman talks nonsense it must rest on a profundity which is too deep for a speaker of English to comprehend[!]”) (endnote 12 to chapter 6, p. 241). Again finally, the note on sociology of knowledge is also great (endnote 29 to chapter 7, pp. 244-245). Why do so many nonfictional writers put so much of interest in small print at the back? Who started this odd tradition?

I should have written a proper review of Laudan when I had it fresh in mind. What I can say is that it reinserted a feeling of aim and purpose into my own work as a researcher (something neither Kuhn nor Popper will likely do for you). It also felt like some sort of closure, as my thirst for further insights into the philosophy of science has since dried up(?). My unread volumes on Popper and Feyerabend will likely remain unread for a while still. But, in parts Laudan only sketches out his ideas. Some day I will most likely try and follow some of the loose ends; perhaps there are some interesting problems at the end of some of them? (A [long run] better solution would of course be to befriend someone in the philosophy department, but who has the [short run] courage for that?)

I am trailing off. Let me rather conclude with a sobering economic comment on research funding from Laudan’s epilogue:

Far too much scientific research today is devoted to problems which are as cognitively trivial as they are socially irrelevant. If the “pure” scientist is to deserve the generous support presently being lavished on him [Laudan might be thinking of English college professors here], he must be able to show that his problems are genuinely significant ones and that his program of research is sufficiently progressive to be worth gambling our precious and limited resources on it [p. 225].

* Page numbers refer to the 1978 paperback edition.

Advertisements

Tags: , , ,

3 Responses to “Progress and Its Problems by Larry Laudan”

  1. Erik Andrulis Says:

    Thanks for sharing this; I was unaware of Laudan but well aware of Kuhn, Popper, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and others. I’ll look it up.

    However, if Laudan argues a shift from a search for truth to a one of progress, that’s disappointing. The goal of the theoretician is Truth—absolute truth.

    Progress is a word packed with dead ends, bad choices, and wrong assumptions.

    • kvams Says:

      More accurately, I think, is that Laudan argues that progress (which he defines relatively accurate) is a better principle than truth when choosing between theories. One aspect of falsification which he delves into, for example, is that upon data which conflicts with a theory, it could be that the data is refuted rather than the theory. (Is this Duhem inverted or something?) Point is, I guess, are data true?

      I like your blog, by the way.

    • kvams Says:

      I was supposed to mention ‘Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty’ by Morris Kline in my previous reply. I’ve only read the first 18 pages of it (had to abandon it for reasons I cannot remember and never got back to it), but it discusses, I think at least in part, the truth of mathematics. Should be interesting.

Comments are closed.


%d bloggers like this: