Anarchist Scientist, Part 2

by Kiko Matsing

Paul Feyerabend Sir Karl Popper Albert Einstein
The venerable philosopher, all too serious in his problem solving, while the anarchists and scientists are having all the fun. Awww… Don’t be such a party Popper!

The central narrative of the religion of Science is the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church. In Against Method, Feyerabend closely examines this affair, the epistemological import of Galileo’s experimental and theoretical work, and demonstrates that the Galilean approach disagreed with the Pharisaic laws of critical rationalism. Specifically, the criteria for evaluating theories (i.e., refutation, falsifiability) did not and could not have produced Galilean science; it would have killed it. Galileo had to resort to irrational means (e.g., propaganda, psychological tricks) to railroad the Copernican view, until ‘factual’ support came with further research. Clearly, what scientists do in practice–as described in history–is not the same as what they ought to be doing according the ‘scientific’ standards for producing knowledge–as prescribed in philosophy.

The following chapters (specifically 15 and 16) develop the notion of incommensurability which directly attacks the Popperian account of theory evaluation and the evolutionary development of science. The terms of a refuted theory (e.g., facts, laws, axioms, principles) are not merely subsumed by a theory with greater information content and explanatory power. What is problematic in a new theory that engenders further research may not have been so (or may have been fully explained) in a supplanted one. This is because the terms are different–even what are considered ‘facts’ are different–between different ways of looking at the world.

[Why] should an ideology be constrained by older problems which, at any rate, make sense only in the abandoned context and which look silly and unnatural now? Why should it even consider the ‘facts’ that gave rise to the problems of this kind or played a role in their solutions? Why should it not rather proceed in its own way, devising its own tasks and assembling its own domain of ‘facts’? A comprehensive theory, after all, is supposed to contain also an ontology that determines what exists and thus delimits the domain of possible facts and possible questions… New views soon strike out in new directions and frown upon the older problems (what is the base upon which the earth rests? what is the specific weight of phlogiston? what is the absolute velocity of the earth?) and the older facts (…the properties of phlogiston or those of the ether) which so much exercised the minds of earlier thinkers. And where they do pay attention to preceding theories, they try to accommodate their factual core… with the help of ad hoc hypotheses, ad hoc approximations, redefinition of terms, or simply by asserting, without any more detailed study of the matter, that the core ‘follows from’ the new basic principles…

The result of all this procedures is an interesting epistemological illusion: the imagined content of the earlier theories… shrinks and may decrease to such an extent that it becomes smaller than the imagined content of the new ideologies… (pp. 155, 156)

Incommensurability is the lack of overlap between the terms of different (and perhaps conflicting) world views. The development of science is thus discontinuous, in what Kuhn describes as paradigm shifts.

Greek Amphora Greek Vase
(Sources: ElissaSCA’s Flickr photostream,
Early Greek Art: from Geometric – Archaic)

What Feyerabend does next is what I found most surprising (and delightful!) in the book: he proceeds with an example, not from the variegated history of the sciences (you can read such examples in Kuhn), but from classical philology, and he starts with Whorf’s principle of linguistic relativity:

[Languages] and the reaction patterns they involve are not merely instruments for describing events (facts, states of affair), but that they are also shapers of events (facts, states of affairs), and that their ‘grammar’ contains a cosmology, a comprehensive view of the world, of society, of the situation of man which influences thought, behaviour, perception. According to Whorf the cosmology of language is expressed partly by the overt use of words, but it also rests on classifications…

Covert classifications (which, because of their subterranean nature, are ‘sensed rather than comprehended–awareness of [them] has an intuitive quality…’) create ‘patterned resistances to widely divergent points of view. If these resistances oppose not just the truth of the resisted alternatives but the presumption than an alternative has been presented, then we have an instance of incommensurability. (pp. 164, 165)

Greek Geometric Art

Scientific theories are similar to natural languages in that they bear the hidden baggage of conceptual systems and perceptual worlds. They are not just means of representation (their ‘overt’ use), but also demarcate the field of view of what can be represented (via subtle coercions through ‘covert’ classifications). Incommensurability requires an almost religious conversion, a suspension of belief about what one considers and perceives to be real, accompanying a fundamental change in world view. As an example, Feyerabend examines the style of painting and drawing in ancient Greece called the ‘archaic style’ to show covert classifications at work, i.e., there are no ‘neutral’ objects which can be represented in any style, and which measures its closeness to ‘reality’ (p. 170).

The human figure shows the following characteristics: ‘the men are very tall and thin, the trunk of a triangle tapering to the waist, the head of a knob with a mere excrescence for a face: towards the end of the style the head is lit up–the head knob is drawn in outline, and a dot signifies the eye’. All, or almost all, parts are shown in profile and they are strung together like the limbs of a puppet or a rag doll. They are not ‘integrated’ to form an organic whole. The ‘additive’ feature becomes very clear from the treatment of the eye. The eye does not participate in the actions of the body or establish contact with the surrounding situation, it does not ‘look’. It is added on to the profile head like part of a notation as if the artist wanted to say: ‘and besides all these other things such as legs, arms, feet, a man has also eyes, they are in the head, one on each side’. Similarly, special states of the body (alive, dead, sick) are not indicated by a special arrangement of its parts, but by putting the same standard body into various standard positions. The body of the dead man in a funeral carriage is articulated in exactly the same way as that of a standing man, but it is rotated through 90 degrees and inserted in the space between the bottom of the shroud and the top of the bier. Being shaped like the body of a live man it is in addition put into the death position… (We have what is called a paratactic aggregate: the elements of such an aggregate are all given equal importance, the only relation between them is sequential, there is no hierarchy, no part is presented as being subordinate to and determined by others.)… The picture becomes a list. (pp. 172, 173)

Amphora Detail

This mode of representation (and of perception) is also consistent with Greek epic poetry. Archaic heroes do not appear to move by their own will; their externalized gestures and detached glance turn them into animated puppets in a play. Homeric poetry also exhibits the paratactic feature of the late geometric style.

To start with, about nine tenths of the Homeric epics consist of formulae which are prefabricated phrases extending in length from a single word or two to several complete lines and which are repeated at appropriate places… Repetitions occur already in Mycenaean court poetry and they can be traced to the poetry of eastern courts: ‘Titles of gods, kings, and men must be given correctly…’ The requirement of memory [furthermore] demanded that there be ready-made descriptions of events that can be used by the poet who composes in his mind, and without the aid of writing. The requirement of metre demanded that the basic descriptive phrases be fit for use in various parts of the line the poet is about to complete… [The] Homeric poet ‘has no interest in originality of expression, or in variety. He uses or adapts inherited formulae. He does not have a ‘choice, do[es] not even think in terms of choice…’

Using the formulae the Homeric poet gives an account of typical scenes in which objects are occasionally described by ‘adding the parts on in a string of words in apposition. Ideas we would today regard as being logically subordinate to others are stated in separate, gramatically co-ordinate propositions. Example (Iliad, 9.556ff): Meleagros ‘lay by his wedded wife, fair Cleopatra, daughter of fair-ankled Marpessa, daughter of Euenos, and of Ides, who was the strongest of men on earth at that time–and he against lord Phoebus Apollo took up his bow for the sake of the fair-ankled maid: there then in their halls did her father and lady mother call by the name of Alkyon because…’ and so on, for ten more lines and two or three more major themes before a major stop… (pp. 178, 179)

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony Ajax and Achilles

The relation between the heroic world of Homeric epic and late geometric art is also described by the Italian author Roberto Calasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony as a mode of perception of sharp, sunlit clarity. This same notion belongs to what Camille Paglia describes as the ‘Apollonian’.

There is a moment in which the peculiarly Greek breaks away from the Asian continent, like one of those islands off the Anatolian coast whose jagged cliffs still follow the line of the vast maternal mainland. That moment is the Greek discovery of the outline, of a new sharpness, a clean, dry daylight. It is the moment when man enters into Zeus, into the clear light of noon. Éndios is what we have when “the earth warmed up / And the sky glittered more brilliantly than crystal.” By the time of the tragedians, dîos has come to mean nothing more than “divine,” in so far as it is a “property of Zeus.” But in the Homeric age dîos means first and foremost “clear,” “brilliant,” “glorious.” To appear in Zeus is to glow with light against the background of the sky. Light on light. When Homer gives the epithet dîos to his characters, the word does not refer first of all to what they may have of “divine,” but to the clarity, the splendor that is always with them and against which they stand out. The leaden eyes of the Sumers are the eyes of nocturnal birds; they sink away into the darkness. With foot arched, and the corners of his mouth upturned in an inexplicable smile, the Homeric hero pushes on toward the smoking earth, and his folly is the Pan-inspired madness of high noon. Before the hour strikes, he receives a vision of things as sharply separate from one another and complete in themselves as though scissored from the sky by cosmic shears and thrust out into the light from which there is no escape.

In its dark age, after four hundred years with neither writing nor cultural center, Greece rediscovered splendor. In Homer whatever is good and beautiful is also dazzling. Breastplates shine from afar, bodies from close up. Yet around them, while the bards were chanting the Iliad, the Greeks had very little that was splendid to enjoy. Gone the high-vaulted palaces, all burned, all ravaged. Gone the Asian jewels. Gone the embossed gold goblets. Gone the grand chariots of war.

The splendor was all in the mind. Among objects they handled were jars and vases where the same geometric figures were stubbornly repeated over and over, as if all at once the Greeks had decided there was only one thing that mattered: outline, the sharp angular profile, separation. On the immense urn found in the Dipylon, one band of geometric patterns follows hard on another, until framed between them we find a scene with human figures. It is a funeral and the men are black, faceless silhouettes, their muscles in sharp relief. The corpse lies on a long coffin, like a dangerous insect. The Homeric radiance and the sharp profile of that insect presuppose each other, balance each other off. In all surviving evidence of archaic Greece, the one is included in the other. (pp. 102, 103, underline mine)

Vase Detail

Now what are the ontological features of such a world that consists of elements represented in the style? What are the impression such a world makes upon the viewer? (p. 175) The formal features of both the archaic style and Homeric epic reveal a consistent world view (‘cosmology and modes of perception’) that is vastly different from (i.e., incommensurate to) our own:

The puppet does not have a soul in our sense. The ‘body’ is an aggregate of limbs, trunk motion, the ‘soul’ is an aggregate of mental events which are not necessarily private and which may belong to a different individual all together. ‘Never does Homer in his description of ideas or emotions, go beyond a purely spatial, or quantitative definition; never does he attempt to sound their special non-physical nature. Actions are initiated not by an ‘autonomous physical I’, but by further actions, events, occurrences, including divine interference. And this is precisely how mental events are experienced

The archaic world is much less compact than the wold that surrounds us, and it is also experienced as being less compact. Archaic man lacks ‘physical’ unity, his ‘body’ consists of a multitude of parts, limbs, surfaces, connections; and he lacks ‘mental’ unity, his ‘mind’ is composed of a variety of events, some of them not even ‘mental’ in our sense, which either inhabit the body-puppet as additional constituents or are brought into it from outside. Events are not shaped by the individual, they are complex arrangements of parts into which the body-puppet is inserted at the appropriate place. (pp. 181-183)

There is no interiority in this world. Everything is externalized, seen crystal clear in the light of noon. There is no dark night of the soul, no bitter-sweet eros (Sappho), no ambivalent subjectivity. Archaic man is a puppet motivated remotely. Thoughts and actions are impinged upon the subject from outside. Dreams, for example, are interpreted, not as symptoms of a subterranean ‘unconscious’ (Freud), but as objective entities sent from the gods.

Dreams, unusual psychological feats such as sudden remembering, sudden acts of recognition, sudden increase of vital energy, during battle, during strenuous escape, sudden fits of anger are not only explained by reference to gods and demons, they are also felt as such. Agamemnon’s dream ‘listened to his [Zeus’] words and descended’ (Iliad, 2.16)–the dream descends, not a figure in it–‘and it stood then beside his [Agamemnon’s] head in the likeness of Nestor’ (Iliad, 2:20). One does not have a dream (a dream is not a ‘subjective’ event), one sees it (as an ‘objective’ event) and one also sees how it approaches and moves away. Sudden anger, fits of strength are described and felt to be divine acts: ‘Zeus builds up and Zeus diminishes strength in man the way he pleases, since his power is beyond all others’ (Iliad, 20.241) is not just an objective description (that may be extended to include the behaviour of animals) it also expresses the feeling that the change has entered from the outside, that one has been ‘filled… with strong courage’ (Iliad, 13.60). (p. 182)

Confessional Booth Freud's Divan used in Psychonalysis
Sex talk: subjectivity as a modern invention from the confessional booth to the psychoanalyst’s divan (Foucault, History of Sexuality)

The operative words here are: felt, perceived, experienced. We can reconstruct this defunct world view from a post mortem perspective like a historian or archaeologist reconstructing an extinct civilization from its ruins. We can describe its features in detail, but we cannot enter into their mind set, that is, without changing ourselves. We can only imagine it disinterestedly and discuss it academically ad nauseam. There is an epistemological chasm that separates the theologian (or the professor of comparative religion) from the true faithful. Partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is an irrevocable act. You cannot know the difference, until you take that first bite.

In the same way, the epistemological (and covert) commitment to the conceptual system and perceptual world underlying a scientific world view makes the detached, synchronic evaluation of theories an untenable account of what scientists do in practice. The so-called Scientific Method is a philosopher’s fantasy, formulated in the moldy couches of the ivory tower, without the flesh-and-blood commitment (both intellectual and emotional) to any real theory. Galileo was distressed when his peers distrusted his telescope because it showed aberrations in the images (e.g., doubling) that was easily disproved with the naked eye (p. 88). Objective Knowledge, and, consequently, the evolution of theories towards more and more accurate depictions of one, grand Reality, is likewise philosophical wishful thinking–a relic of Western Enlightenment’s monolithic Reason, superseded since by modern anthropology.

Scientists speak of the entities of a debunked theory (e.g., phlogiston, ether) with the same ridicule as we do of the delusions of the religious or the insane, without being aware that they too are committed to delusions. What they consider ‘factual’ or ’empirical’ are also shaped by the conceptual and perceptual framework of their world view. Consider, for example, the esoteric entities of the most metaphysical/mythological aspects of physics, i.e., theoretical particle physics and cosmology. There is a level of absurdity in the obsessive (and expensive!) pursuit of the Higgs boson, and the confidence that this will settle questions about the nature of reality (or at least what physicists call ‘mass’). That taxpayers are willing to foot the bill (rather than stop the obsession with an intervention) shows the powerful grip on the public of the myth (i.e., the unexamined/covert assumption and conceit) of scientific realism.