Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Feyerabend and belief revision

I read Feyerabend's Against Method which was both quite interesting and quite frustrating. I don't think I buy the extreme view of epistemological anarchism he puts forward (I'm not sure if I understand it exactly), but I do buy his line that tackling related sets of problems from wildly varying angles can bring to light facts relevant to the approaches that would otherwise go unnoticed. That seems like the Wittgensteinian point I've mentioned before that philosophers suffer from a lack of examples. Taken a bit further, they also suffer from a lack of alternative view points. Same thing with scientists, so says Feyerabend.

I took his discussion of the lack of method in scientific inquiry to roughly support my complaint about belief revision theories. I'm going to talk about belief revision and theory testing as though they were roughly the same, which I think they are to a reasonable degree. He pointed out how Galileo ignored counter-arguments and evidence and took a bunch of problematic observations to be noise to be explained by future theories. Galileo was very selective about what sorts of things he took to bear on his ideas even though there was a large amount of evidence that didn't support it, even disconfirming it. One of the things Feyerabend emphasized was the interpretations that Galileo placed on the observations and how these differed from the interpretations that people who saw the evidence as refuting Galileo's position. Galileo had to conceptually reorient himself and adopt a theory that made claims about far fewer things than contemporary Aristotelian theory. The basic point I took away from this, in light of my previous discussion, was that experience never interacts directly with our web of beliefs. Interpreting the evidence is always up for grabs, within limits. Quine was right that there are beliefs we can hold come what may, but he was wrong about experience impinging upon the fringes of our network of beliefs.

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