Scepticism and Scientism: On the possibility of new principles in the theory of knowledge
I. The Problem of Induction
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which investigates the nature of human knowledge and its limitations. This branch focuses on analysing what is the criterion that should be taken to distinguish what is true from what is false. The question of the justification of knowledge has been central to epistemology, and this question subjects all areas of knowledge to doubt, since it is necessary to have solid foundations to formulate any theories that examine the world. The question of the justification of knowledge consists in the attempt to guarantee that the postulates of several different theories and systems of thought are reliable and likely to be believed. A practical example of how this question is intrinsically related to men’s beliefs is the problem of induction. The problem of induction resides in the fact that it is not possible to prove that a general proposition based on particular observations made over time will always be true. This is exemplified in the following argument (the premises in the argument are designated as P and the conclusions as C):
P1: It is established that all swans ever observed are white swans.
P2: From P1 it is generalised and inferred that all existing swans are white swans.
P3: Only a limited and finite number of swans was observed.
C1: A general proposition cannot be inferred from a limited number of observations.
C2: The inference (P2) is not justified.
This argument concisely illustrates the importance of the question of the justification of knowledge. After all, this question concerns all areas of knowledge, including science, given that one of the fundamental traits of the scientific inquiry is the conviction on the generalisation of particular observations to formulate multiple theories. In this sense, epistemology plays a crucial role in the analysis of the justification of scientific knowledge.
II. Method as a Dogma
In the field of epistemology, there are two notable authors whose ideas have significantly impacted the question of the justification of scientific knowledge. It is imperative to introduce these ideas to provide clarification. The first author is David Hume, renowned for his sceptical stance on knowledge and his theory of causality. Hume was the first philosopher to formulate in a clear and precise way the problem of induction in his work “An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding” (1748), which is the cornerstone of his epistemological theory. Hume suggests that all knowledge derives from sensory experience and that it is not possible to rationally justify any beliefs formed from this experience. Furthermore, it is demonstrated in Hume’s work that the human belief in causality is not based on logically necessary connections between events, but rather on the observations of consistent and repetitive patterns of occurrence between events. These statements made by Hume imply the limitations of human knowledge and raise the question of the extent to which knowledge can be justified. The second author is Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian logician who proposed in his later work “Philosophical Investigations” (1953) a radical transformation in epistemology. Wittgenstein argues that language is not a formal logic system, but rather a social action. The structure of “Philosophical Investigations” (1953) is:
P1: The meaning of words is determined by their use in specific contexts.
P2: Knowledge is only possible using language.
P3: The comprehension of languages derives from social activity.
C1: Language is inherently contextual.
C2: There are no universal criteria for knowledge.
According to Wittgenstein, the understanding of a proposition does not depend solely on its logical structure, but rather on its use in a specific social context. Thus, there could not be universal criteria for knowledge, since formal logic alone could not determine essential aspects of language. Moreover, Wittgenstein’s theory as a whole has a negative nature, i.e., being paradoxically an anti-theoretical philosophy, as it is observed in the following passage:
“Wittgenstein’s philosophy is difficult to place in the history of ideas largely because it is anti-theoretical. It is true that in his early work he did produce a theory of logic and language, but it was a theory which demonstrated its own meaninglessness. That was a paradox which he presented, appropriately enough, in a metaphor borrowed from the Greek sceptic, Sextus Empiricus (c.150–c.225): ‘Anyone who understands me eventually recognizes [my propositions] as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps — to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it)’ (Wittgenstein 1922: 6.54)” (Pears, D. (2003). Wittgenstein).
The ideas of David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein played a crucial role in combating scientific dogmatism. These philosophers emphasised the question of the justification of knowledge as a problem by which the inherent limitations of human understanding were outlined. Their work served as a necessary counterstatement to the emerging idea of a universal and unquestionable scientific method, i.e., the institution of method as a dogma. By highlighting the fallible nature of scientific knowledge, Hume and Wittgenstein paved the way for a more critical and pragmatic approach to scientific inquiry. In conclusion, once established the social nature of scientific inquiry and the absence of universal criteria for knowledge, no universal method can be justified. It is from this point that a deeper analysis of the justification of method must be carried out.
The question of the justification of method is established as a cornerstone for a recently founded philosophical school — epistemological anarchism — theorised by the physicist and philosopher Paul Feyerabend. The Hume-Wittgenstein counterstatement against scientific dogmatism made this new philosophical school possible, a radical and revolutionary approach in epistemology, which posits that knowledge cannot be determined nor justified through universality, that “there are no useful and exceptionless methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge.” (Preston, 2020) According to this new approach, the question of the justification of method can no longer be apprehended through the establishment of universal and immutable criteria. Rather, it must be considered an open-ended question, amenable to continuous revision based on the emergence of new perspectives and experiences over time. For Feyerabend, “neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding,” (Feyerabend, 1975, Analytical Index, 17) and the construction of scientific knowledge itself depends on a fundamental principle introduced by the philosopher — the principle of counterinduction. Despite being related to Hume’s problem of induction, the principle of counterinduction offers a distinctive perspective on the matter. It is through this principle that Feyerabend advocates for a pluralistic understanding of scientific inquiry: all progress in science has been made through the existence of unsupported alternative hypotheses.
In “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” (1687), Isaac Newton introduced the concept of universal gravitation. He observed that the gravitational force between two celestial bodies is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance separating them. It was believed that Newton’s theory of gravitation was sufficient to explain the motion of celestial bodies, however, some irregularities in Uranus’ orbit were noticed at the beginning of the 19th century. Alexis Bouvard made observations which pointed to significant deviations in the position and movement of Uranus, hence Adams and Le Verrier mathematically predicted the existence of Neptune. Johann Galle was the first person to see Neptune and know what he was looking at, although to clearly establish the principle of counterinduction it is necessary to observe James Challis’ stance on the Neptune Hypothesis. Challis was an English astronomer who was communicated the calculations that predicted the existence of Neptune. He undertook to verify the calculations of Adams and Le Verrier, and “sighted the undiscovered planet (i.e., Neptune) at least four times during the summer of 1846 (once on August 4), that is before Galle.” (Niaz, 2020) However, he distrusted the Neptune Hypothesis in every way, to the point of missing a magnificent discovery.
The principle of counterinduction establishes that the consistent application of implemented methods does not constitute scientific progress. On the contrary, this attempt to universalise method restricts significant discoveries. Given the previous example, it must be inferred that epistemological anarchism does not advocate the deliberate approval of any information, but the continual revision of given data: Perl’s discovery of the tau lepton is a counterinductive example within the realm of particle physics, the same applies to the discovery of the neutrino, the wave-particle duality, etc. It is concluded that the possibility of a continual revision of previously established scientific statements is what makes scientific knowledge acceptable. Scientific inquiry alone must abandon dogmatism for it to have any meaning, and it must begin with the subversion of the idea of method as a dogma.
Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. Verso.
Hume, D. (2007). An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford University Press.
Niaz, M. (2020). Feyerabend’s Epistemological Anarchism: How Science Works and its Importance for Science Education. Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education, Volume 50. Springer Nature.
Pears, D. (2003). Wittgenstein. In N. Bunnin & E. P. Tsui-James (Eds.), The Blackwell companion to philosophy (2a ed., pp. 452-474). Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Preston, J. (2020). Paul Feyerabend. In E.N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/feyerabend/.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing.