The rationality of scientific discovery part 1: The traditional rationality problem

Philosophy of Science 41 (2):123--53 (1974)
Abstract
The basic task of the essay is to exhibit science as a rational enterprise. I argue that in order to do this we need to change quite fundamentally our whole conception of science. Today it is rather generally taken for granted that a precondition for science to be rational is that in science we do not make substantial assumptions about the world, or about the phenomena we are investigating, which are held permanently immune from empirical appraisal. According to this standard view, science is rational precisely because science does not make a priori metaphysical presuppositions about the world forever preserved from possible empirical refutation. It is of course accepted that an individual scientist, developing a new theory, may well be influenced by his own metaphysical presuppositions. In addition, it is acknowledged that a successful scientific theory, within the context of a particular research program, may be protected for a while from refutation, thus acquiring a kind of temporary metaphysical status, as long as the program continues to be empirically progressive. All such views unite, however, in maintaining that science cannot make permanent metaphysical presuppositions, held permanently immune from objective empirical evaluation. According to this standard view, the rationality of science arises, not from the way in which new theories are discovered, but rather from the way in which already formulated theories are appraised in the light of empirical considerations. And the fundamental problem of the rationality of science—the Humean problem of induction— concerns precisely the crucial issue of the rationality of accepting theories in the light of evidence. In this essay I argue that this widely accepted standard conception of science must be completely rejected if we are to see science as a rational enterprise. In order to assess the rationality of accepting a theory in the light of evidence it is essential to consider the ultimate aims of science. This is because adopting different aims for science will lead us, quite rationally, to accept different theories in the light of evidence. I argue that a basic aim of science is to explain. At the outset science simply presupposes, in a completely a priori fashion, that explanations can be found, that the world is ultimately intelligible or simple. In other words, science simply presupposes in an a priori way the metaphysical thesis that the world is intelligible, and then seeks to convert this presupposed metaphysical theory into a testable scientific theory. Scientific theories are only accepted insofar as they promise to help us realize this fundamental aim. At once a crucial problem arises. If scientific theories are only accepted insofar as they promise to lead us towards articulating a presupposed metaphysical theory, it is clearly essential that we can choose rationally, in an a priori way, between all the very different possible metaphysical theories that can be thought up, all the very different ways in which the universe might ultimately be intelligible. For holding different aims, accepting different metaphysical theories conceived of as blueprints for future scientific theories will, quite rationally, lead us to accept different scientific theories. Thus it is only if we can choose rationally between conflicting metaphysical blueprints for future scientific theories that we will be in a position to appraise rationally the acceptability of our present day scientific theories. We thus face the crucial problem: How can we choose rationally between conflicting possible aims for science, conflicting metaphysical blueprints for future scientific theories ? It is only if we can solve this fundamental problem concerning the aims of science that we can be in a position to appraise rationally the acceptability of existing scientific theories. There is a further point here. If we could choose rationally between rival aims, rival metaphysical blueprints for future scientific theories, then we would in effect have a rational method for the discovery of new scientific theories! Thus we reach the result: there is only a rational method for the appraisal of existing scientific theories if there is a rational method of discovery. I shall argue that the aim-oriented theory of scientific inquiry to be advocated here succeeds in exhibiting science as a rational enterprise in that it succeeds in providing a rational procedure for choosing between rival metaphysical blueprints: it thus provides a rational, if fallible, method of discovery, and a rational method for the appraisal of existing scientific theories—thus resolving the Humean problem. In Part I of the essay I argue that the orthodox conception of science fails to exhibit science as a rational enterprise because it fails to solve the Humean problem of induction. The presuppositional view advocated here does however succeed in resolving the Humean problem. In Part II of the essay I spell out the new aim-oriented theory of scientific method that becomes inevitable once we accept the basic presuppositional viewpoint. I argue that this new aim oriented conception of scientific method is essentially a rational method of scientific discovery, and that the theory has important implications for scientific practice.
Keywords Philosophy of Science  Scientific Method  Rationality of Science
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