Kuhn vs Popper; the philosophy of Lakatos

We saw earlier that Kuhn described scientific knowlege as progressing in a very different way from Popper. One attempt to reconcile their very different views was provided by the philosopher Imre Lakatos. Lakatos attempted to reconcile the two views of science by replacing Kuhn’s concept of the scientific paradigm with his own concept of the progressive research programme.

Imre Lakatos

Recall that Popper described science as progressing by a process of falsification; theories whose predictions conflict with experimental observation are soon discarded, and science progresses as a process of elimination. Kuhn saw this as an idealist view of science; a study of the history of science led him to view science as consisting of periods of ‘normal science’ in which experiment and theory are performed within a particular paradigm, with scientists holding on to their theories in the face of anomalies. Very occasionally, the reigning paradigm is overturned, but even when such a paradigm shift occurs, it is not based on reason alone because observation is influenced by the paradigm in which it occurs (see previous post for details).

The Lakatos view of science lies in between the two views above. The key to his contribution lies in what we understand by a ‘theory’; Lakatos suggested that in science, a ‘theory’ is really a succession of of slightly different theories and experimental techniques developed over time that all share a common hard core; such a collection he named the research programme. Scientists working within a given research programme shield the core from falsification with a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses. The question of whether a worldview is true of false is replaced by the question of whether a research programme is progressive or degenerating. A progressive research programme is characterized by growth, prediction of novel facts and more precise predicitions etc. In contrast, a degenerative program is marked by a lack of growth; its auxiliary belt does not lead to novel predicitions that are later verified.

Note first that Lakatos’s idea of the research programme leads to a more nuanced version of Popper’s falsifiability; instead of theories being summarily rejected at the first conflict with observation (see earlier post), science is now seen to proceed by continually adjusting and developing the protective belt aound the hard core of a research programme; this is a systematic process that forms part of normal science. [It's worth noting that Lakatos was a student of Popper and considered the Popperian viewpoint to be oversimplified by Kuhn and others].

Lakatos’s view is very different to that of Kuhn.  By replacing the notion of the paradigm with the notion of the research programme complete with hard core and auxiliary belt, Lakatos legitimizes the action of scientists of expanding the auxiliary belt in order to preserve the hard core of the research programme as far as possible. This is a rational process. More importantly, when a paradigm shift does occur, the shift occurs from a degenerative research programme to a more progressive one; hence the paradigm shift is rational, not irrational as seemingly suggested by Kuhn.

Criticisms

Among scientists, Lakatos is not as well known as Popper or Kuhn, but many of those familiar with his work find his view of science more nuanced than Popper, and more reasonable than Kuhn. The lLakatos concept of the research program certainly avoids the Popperian problem of ‘falsification at the first fence’ (see above). At the same time, Lakatos’s view of the replacement of one research programme by a more progressive one according to a rational process seems more reasonable than Kuhn’s irrational paradigm shifts. It neatly avoids the Kuhnian paradox of incommensurable paradigms and goes some way to explaining how science really does make progress.

On the other hand, the Lakatos view of science was severely criticized by philosophers such as Paul Feyerabend; we will look at Feyerabend in the next post.

However, before we consider any more philosophers, it’s a good time to note a more general criticism of the philosophy of science from some scientists. As we explore the views of different philosophers, you will have noticed that we seem to be building up a repository of who said what (Popper sees science in one way, Kuhn in another, Lakatos yet another). How can we ever know which view is the more valid? Many empirically-minded scientists see this as a fundamental problem; there are no controlled experiments one can do to distinguish between competing models – unlike in science itself. The evidence philosophers of science offer to support their views is based on reason, interviews  and case studies from the history of science, but the latter can often be interpreted in many different ways. This is a very different process to the testing of theory against experiment carried out by scientists (however flawed). So to hardened empiricists, this is the great irony; while philosophers and sociologists of science like Kuhn and Feyerabend seem to take a skeptical view of science, they arrive at that view using a methodology that ould be  considered less rigorous than the scientific method (flawed though the latter may be). Perhaps this is one reason some practicing scientists take only a marginal interest in the views of the philosophers and sociologists of science…it is an example of the battle between the two cultures of science and humanities articulated by the physicist C.P. Snow.  I think the answer to this criticism is that one cannot/should not expect philosophers to use the empirical methods of science for enquiry that is outside of science; this does not make their views any less important…see comment 5 for an excellent exposition on this.

Comment

[Saying that philosophy and social science is less rigourous that physical science kind of misses the whole point, doesn’t it, Cormac? It’s like saying, “The only knowledge worth having is the knowledge that we can be sure we know.” Leaving aside for the moment the debate on the social construction of facts, the reason we have social science and philosophy isn’t to get at “the truth,” but to be able to think more critically about the structure of our (sociotechnical) world. For instance, a value in an approach like actor-network theory is its ability to get us thinking about the role both human and non-human things play in stabilising what we take to be “real”. Is ANT valid? I think that’s a nonsensical question. Is it useful? Certainly, in many cases it provides ways of thinking about our world that other approaches to not bring out. It is, then, at least valuable.

That scientists only take a marginal interest in social sciences and philosophy reflects, I think, a belief that the knowledge these fields provide is not relevant to conducting scientific research. But if a scientist is trying to build a lab, get funding, get published, or engage in policy debates (e.g. over climate change) then they would be walking blind.]

Comment by Sam | February 13, 2011 | Edit | Reply

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12 Comments

Filed under History and philosophy of science

12 responses to “Kuhn vs Popper; the philosophy of Lakatos

  1. John

    Dr. O’Raifeartaigh,
    I think this is your 4th article on philosophy of science. Really interesting stuff to read, its gripping stuff.

    But this is my question to you Dr. O’Raifeartaigh. Are you writing these articles because your are simply interested in the topic of scientific paradigm change? Or are you writing the articles because you think our current science, today, is due for a shift in paradigm? Is “normal science” happening today and scientists just don’t notice it? Do we need a scientific paradigm shift now, today?

    John in Waterford.

  2. cormac

    Hi John, the impetus for the articles is a course in the history and philosophy of science I’m sitting at Harvard. I’m trying to summarize the main views of each philosopher as we come across them, working from primary sources.
    Re today’s science, yes I think this stuff is very relevant. For example, we are entering a new energy frontier at the Large Hadron Collider; if the Higgs boson is not found at the expected energies, we will definitely be faced with a paradigm change. That said, we already know the Standard Model is incomplete, so these things are never black and white..

  3. John

    Yes, that little devil of a Higgs Boson is rearing up its ugly head again. Dr. O’Raifeartaigh will we ever find that little rascal of a Higgs boson, elusive little scoundrel. And not to forget the magical land that he lives in, the Higgs field, i believe the field is over 10 hectare’s.

    Thank you for some very interesting and educational blog articles. I will continue reading them with enthusiasm.
    John.

  4. Bent Rothenberg

    hi when some theories are repeted enough times,they becomes real and a hell of troubles to break them down.
    Why is the universe flat, the galaxies too and our solar system is flat, the earth has a movement of 2%, Venus 1%???
    In the solar system the planets is 1% of the total mass, in the atom the electrons are 1% of the total mass,conclusion the solar system is an atom or a mole-kyle in macro cosmos and we are living on an electron!
    The center of the Galaxy should then be, the kernel of a cell(highly concentrated) our solar system a part of the surrounding membrane.

  5. Sam

    Saying that philosophy and social science is less rigourous that physical science kind of misses the whole point, doesn’t it, Cormac? It’s like saying, “The only knowledge worth having is the knowledge that we can be sure we know.” Leaving aside for the moment the debate on the social construction of facts, the reason we have social science and philosophy isn’t to get at “the truth,” but to be able to think more critically about the structure of our (sociotechnical) world. For instance, a value in an approach like actor-network theory is its ability to get us thinking about the role both human and non-human things play in stabilising what we take to be “real”. Is ANT valid? I think that’s a nonsensical question. Is it useful? Certainly, in many cases it provides ways of thinking about our world that other approaches to not bring out. It is, then, at least valuable.

    That scientists only take a marginal interest in social sciences and philosophy reflects, I think, a belief that the knowledge these fields provide is not relevant to conducting scientific research. But if a scientist is trying to build a lab, get funding, get published, or engage in policy debates (e.g. over climate change) then they would be walking blind.

    • cormac

      Yes, I think it does miss the point, many thanks Sam.
      I should have emphasized that this criticism comes from some empiricists and does not represent the view of all scientists. The problem with the viewpoint, as you rightly point out, is that it presupposes that empirical methods are the only method of acquiring knowledge, even outside of the lab…a form of scientism

  6. Oliver

    Cormac, I think the problem you are referring to – philosophers not using an empirical approach to disclose the true nature of the scientific project – is inevitable and unavoidable. If one tried to explain the natural sciences by using an empirical approach, in other words, but using science, science would try to define itself, which ends up being nothing but a complex tautology. Unless you are a logical positivist employing some Wittgensteinian understanding of tautology, that really doesn’t help… It is exactly for that reason that it is philosophy of science, which is not at last a metaphysical business, seeks to provide the foundation on which science can unfold. This, of course, includes methodology. The “scientific method,” if it exists, cannot be determined using science (which presupposes its method to be in place already), but only through methodology, which is philosophy.

    Let me make the point clear from a slightly different angle using the conversation you had with Sam as a starting point. As you rightly say, some believe that science is the only legitimate way to generate science, which is problematic. Let me paraphrase this view in such a way that it fits the view of logical positivism: Science is the only way to the truth. This statement is problematic on a purely logical level, since it is not only a metaphysical statement (thus doing what it claims is impossible), but more importantly a paradox like the liar’s paradox. The claim cannot be tested scientifically, which means that if the statement “science is the only way to the truth” were true, the claim would be meaningless. And in turn, if the claim were meaningful, it would be false.

    I once had a scientist friend of mine tell me that philosophy has never done anything good for humankind; only science has done as much. I replied that I respect his opinion as long as we agree that he has made a philosophical statement, not a scientific one. He kicked me out in frustration…

    The problem is that science is a way of knowing, but not the only way of knowing. More importantly perhaps, and here I like Feyerabend’s approach, even if I don’t necessarily share his conclusions (I wish he had taken a closer look at philosophical hermeneutics as an alternative approach), it is perhaps a problem to focus too much on explanation and less on understanding. By understanding I do not mean intellectual control, but a way of being and of relating to being and beings. Such understanding, as Ricoeur pointed out, requires explanation, but explanation by itself is merely a methodological artifact.

    Be that as it may, great summary of the philosophers of science!

  7. Hi. I am a doctoral student studying in the U.S. and your blog has been very helpful throughout the semester in navigating the ideas in a pretty compact way. I liked the way you organized the contents :) I see that many of researchers these days neglect the important of understanding how the knowledge grows.. Thanks for the post!

  8. Thank you for your blog posts on Popper, Kuhn and Lakatos. They were quite helpful in synthesizing a large body of work by each scholar. I am a doctoral student at the University of Utah. Kind regards.

    • cormac

      Anytime, Wendy. Of course these are only short ‘drive-by’ characteristics. I must see if I have any good overviews on the philosophy of science in the office,it’s been a while!

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