Comments on Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’ II: Revolutions in Subjectivity


In my previous commentary on Feyerabend’s book I criticised him for being incoherent in his understanding of the relationship between the philosophy of science that he is actually expounding and his own philosophy which he thinks to be materialist but which is quite evidently not. In this commentary I seek to clarify what is actually taking place in the conceptual revolutions that Feyerabend documents in the book. He argues that these are revolutions in ‘language’ and ‘concepts’ but I think when they are examined closely it is obvious that they are rather revolutions in subjectivity.

In chapter 7 Feyerabend documents how Galileo overturns the contemporary arguments against the idea that the earth is in motion. Galileo’s detractors pointed out that if you drop a ball off a tower it will fall straight to the ground — we will find the ball directly underneath the spot from which it would be dropped. They said that if the earth was indeed moving then the ball should fall off to the side — that is, we would find the ball quite far off to the side from the point at which it was dropped.

Galileo retorted that this was poor reasoning. He asked his interlocutors to consider what might happen if we were in a moving vehicle and we dropped a ball (this is not actually his example but it will suffice). Obviously it would fall downward in the vehicle and end up directly underneath the point at which we dropped it. The same then must be true of the moving earth. The earth is then analogous to the moving vehicle.

Feyerabend recognises well that Galileo had completely disturbed how people conceptualised the world with this argument. He is absolutely correct in saying that despite Galileo’s reasoning being correct what he was saying begged an awful lot more questions than it answered. And he is also correct when he says that Galileo’s argument was one that he concocted almost entirely in his own imagination and was not at the time subject to ‘falsification’. But what I think Feyerabend misses is what is really going on here. And what is really going on is a revolution in subjectivity.

Galileo’s interlocutor at the time would have easily been able to conceive of a ball being dropped in a moving vehicle because he could imagine himself standing outside of such a moving vehicle and watching the momentum of the ball. It was not nearly so easy subjectively to put oneself in the position of an observer looking at the earth from the outside. Indeed, the only reason that Galileo and other scientists were able to make such an imaginary leap was because, in looking through their telescopes, they were able to conceive of points in distant space that conceptually someone else might look back upon them from.

What Galileo was asking of his readers was that they think at a higher level of abstraction than they were used to. The readers were, in the eyes of those at the time, being asked to put themselves in the position of a God that existed off of the earth itself. To Galileo and others who spent their time looking through telescopes this might not have been too much of a leap as they could conceptualise a point far away from the earth looking back upon it, but to everyone else at the time the only position which they might imagine off of the earth would have been the position of God. Thus what Galileo was asking for was, in fact, a revolution in subjectivity; a revolution in how people imagined that they were situated in space.

I fear that many readers will not really understand how fundamental this revolution was. In order to do so you really have to put yourself in the position of a person from Galileo’s time and appreciate that they organised their conception of space in an entirely different way. They stood on an unmoving landmass, above them stars that rotated around them and above and beyond this sat God watching over this tiny little universe which he had created especially for Man to inhabit. Galileo told them that is was the earth itself that was moving — and what’s more in doing so he asked them to engage in a thought experiment that forced his reader to imagine themselves occupying a position that was usually associated with God looking down upon the earth. In order to “get” Galileo the reader quite literally had to imagine themselves occupying the position of a God’s Eye view of the world.

While Feyerabend seems to me unable to quite express what is taking place here he nevertheless makes an effort when he writes,

Viewing natural phenomena in this way leads to a re-evaluation of all experience… it leads to the invention of a new kind of experience that is not only more sophisticated but also much more speculative than the experience of Aristotle or of common sense. (pp75-76 — Emphasis Original)

What Galileo kicked off was a tendency for thinkers to abstract at higher and higher levels — there thoughts becoming ever more speculative and detached from experience. People would eventually, with the onset of materialism in science proper, begin to conceive of their emotions and their very being as abstract objects existing in the world independently of themselves — a neuron here, a secretion of serotonin there. This would, as the Church recognised in Galileo’s time, eventually lead to a sort of naive atheism as people began to think that all possible points in space and time could, in their imaginations at least, be occupied by any individual. And indeed this ‘individual’ was now nothing but a bundle of genes passive in the face of a deterministic Science (a ‘dividual’, rather than an ‘individual’, perhaps?). Thus there became nowhere left for God to reside as everything was already revealed in peoples’ now highly abstracted imaginations.

Today, however, these abstractions have congealed into a dogma of their own. People accept the often inconsistent and fantastic propositions that scientists put forward based purely on the authority and supposed wisdom of said scientists. Some of these propositions are just as bizarre and run just as counter to experience as any miracle that the Medieval Church might have come up with but just like with those old miracles such counter-intuitive claims lend Science an aura and mystique that solidify its authority over the minds of men. While many of the more fantastic claims of Science today are likely exaggerated — perhaps they are simply material for science fiction writers — people nevertheless defer to them without understanding them.

Meanwhile, at a lower level of discourse, haphazard statistical studies are pumped out for mass consumption. These tell people either titillating pseudo-facts such as that drinking alcohol makes you more conservative or platitudes about the differing opinions that men and women have toward sex. Others hint at the ‘fact’ that becoming vegetarian will enhance your sex life while still others — those on the more outlandish and highly methodologically suspect end of the scale — tell us that legalising pornography will lower sexual violence.

These are truly the folklore of today and when you scratch the surface of most of these studies, with their dubious deriving of effect from what often seems an a priori or pre-determined cause, most of them turn out to be no more sophisticated than the folklore of old — and there can be no doubt that they serve the same anthropological purpose. All this can be chalked up to harmless fun, however, with a wink and a nod toward the perpetual presence of human folly perpetuated by men in lab coats in a supposedly enlightened age.

Even more dangerously, however, people confer this same authority and prestige on certain groups of social scientists who actually influence political issues of the day and help shape policy — most notably economists. These people then construct the most absurd and perverse conceptual systems imaginable and foist them on governments as a series of rules by which we should live our lives. That is how today, running directly from the abstractions of Galileo, the light that Science once shone upon the world from high in the heavens is now creating shadows everywhere. And it remains to be seen whether these abstractions — now reified and imbued with what has become a power that is not allowed be questioned — will usher in another Dark Age.

Addendum: A commenter on Facebook has asked me to clarify what I meant when I spoke about the more fantastic aspects of science that I thought bizarre and similar to mystical explanations given by the Church. Here I will give one example: the “multiverse” or the idea that many parallel universes exist. This seems to me far too speculative to be anything more than science fiction. Here is a nice quote from the physicist Paul Davies who raises similar epistemological objections as I might,

For a start, how is the existence of the other universes to be tested? To be sure, all cosmologists accept that there are some regions of the universe that lie beyond the reach of our telescopes, but somewhere on the slippery slope between that and the idea that there are an infinite number of universes, credibility reaches a limit. As one slips down that slope, more and more must be accepted on faith, and less and less is open to scientific verification. Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith. (My Emphasis)

About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a macroeconomist and investment professional. Writing about all things macro and investment. Views my own.You can follow him on Twitter at @philippilk.
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