#12 In search of nucleus upon which future evidence crystallizes
Against Method by Paul Feyerabend, pages 106-158
There are some interesting and telling points Feyerabend makes in Chapters 11 and 13. In Chapter 13, he recounts Galileo’s trial with the Church. Church officials were displeased by Galileo’s support for Copernicanism, for example, (1) the earth moves, and (2) that it moves around the sun. Galileo was advised to teach Copernicus’ views as one of many possible hypotheses rather than as the truth for there wasn’t sufficient evidence to suggest otherwise.
People today might think: well, there wasn’t enough evidence back then to suggest that the earth stays still, so why does the Church align itself with Aristotelian and Ptolemaic worldviews? It is true that Galileo didn’t have enough evidence; but if I were Galileo or one of his supporters, I would question why the Church’s views about the heavens are deemed correct and not some other theory, or at the very least, why investigating and/or supporting another theory with or without evidence would be against the law? Today, anyone can research anything they want, say whatever they want, do whatever they want, more or less. Looking at the situation retrospectively, the Church incorrectly aligned its teachings with many of Aristotle’s philosophies, and cracks in older philosophies, particularly pertaining to the nature of the cosmos and reality, started to threaten the Church’s power and influence over their faithful congregation, over everyone really.
This leads to an earlier point Feyerabend makes in Chapter 11 about ideas needing a foundation upon which future evidence can crystallize. For example, Copernicus’ and Galileo’s views that the earth moves lacked evidence at the time, but Galileo persisted through the use of what Feyerabend calls “propaganda,” that is, rhetoric, persuasion, a move away empiricism toward rationalism and non-evidential logical arguments. I find this idea fascinating; that some wacky idea eventually proved correct, such as a moving earth, when all the evidence at the time suggested otherwise. Galileo was basically saying: dear present-day and future astronomers, the earth moves, I promise, please keep that notion in the background of your research and I and Copernicus will be vindicated. Such a claim is difficult to accept. Feyerabend (1993, p. 119) mentions John Stuart Mill’s father’s teachings about logical explanations and I think it important to mention. Mill: “The explanations did not make the matter at all clear to me at the time; but they were not therefore useless; they remained as a nucleus for my observations and reflections to crystallize upon; the import of his general remarks being interpreted to me, by the particular instances which came under my notice afterwards.” It’s as if, and I admit to reading into this too much, Mill’s father was presenting or preparing his prodigious son with the intellectual puzzles that he couldn’t solve himself and thereby hoped his son would one day. The young Mill probably didn’t understand that which his father was telling him, but it remained, lodged somewhere in his mind. As Mill says, it was only afterwards, likely after some discovery or profound original thought, that the import of his father’s words was realized.
How much credence can we put in theoretical speculation no matter how silvery one’s tongue might be? What I think Galileo did was present his case with the available, albeit minimal, evidence he had, in addition to propaganda techniques regarding the idea that the earth moves. He merely watered that “likely what-if” seed – that Copernicus planted in the minds of astronomers nearly one hundred years earlier – with an updated hose, that is to say, through his telescopic findings. He suggested the likeliness of an idea, not too unsimilar from theoretical physicists today. For example, Stephen Hawking theorized extensively on the laws of black hole mechanics when he and we knew so little about them.
Another example that comes to mind is Nick Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis (see his 2003 paper: “Are We Living In A Computer Simulation?), a hypothesis that suggests we may be living in someone’s or something’s simulated reality. As a guest on the Joe Rogan podcast, Bostrom says that when he developed his simulation hypothesis in the 1990s, it was very fringe. Nowadays, especially after the Matrix films and advances in computing technology, simulation hypothesis is being taken more seriously (that is, not seriously but more seriously than before) and cannot be ruled out by mainstream physicists and philosophers.
This foundational point, or as Feyerabend says, “nucleus,” upon which future evidence finds a home and eventually crystallizes still bothers me. What wants to come out of my head, why does this bother me? I suppose it comes down to not enough people looking in a particular direction, or not having sufficient equipment or mathematics or something to appreciate the claim being made. The skeptics would contribute to this body of knowledge as well by trying to refute Copernicanism, and in so doing, might find evidence for or against their geocentric theory or the competing heliocentric theory. Yes, this idea of not enough eyes and minds looking into a problem is one of the problems, a big problem I would argue. I wonder whether Galileo’s trial by the Church has any equivalence with today’s climate surrounding psychedelics, both in its research and recreational use. The Church didn’t do itself any favors by persecuting Galileo; likely, it brought more attention to heliocentrism and more people questioning Church doctrine and questioning their own research methods and views. Similarly, when governments around the world prohibit psychedelics and persecute those in possession of them, yet so many people report having amazing experiences with them and they have been sacramentally used in indigenous cultures for thousands of years, there is a messaging mismatch. What is it that governments are so afraid of? What is or will be the equivalent of Galileo’s telescope for psychedelic research that may cause people to question the foundations of their worldview? What is the nucleus for present-day and future researchers to keep in the back of their heads for future (confirmatory) evidence to crystallize upon? The current climate in psychedelic research focuses heavily on addiction and psychotherapy. The first person to have made that discovery (regarding some psychedelics’ antiaddictive properties) likely planted that seed, and for which future evidence that backs up this observation researchers could be on the lookout. Off the top of my head, Howard Lotsof found out that iboga can cure heroin addiction, and eventually started the Global Ibogaine Therapy Alliance. Now that researchers know this, it cannot be unknown. I believe the antiaddictive properties of some psychedelics is but one of many potential nuclei whereupon future evidence will crystallize; it’s not the only one. I’m curious about what other applications psychedelics might have that we know nothing about at the moment. What predictions will people make that directs more eyes and minds to that phenomenon, to the point of searching for evidence that confirms or denies such claims?
Feyerabend, P. (1993/1975). Against Method (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Verso.
Liked but didn’t use:
– “Observations become relevant only after the processes described by these new subjects have been inserted between the world and the eye. The language in which we express our observations may have to be revised as well so that the new cosmology receives a fair chance and is not endangered by an unnoticed collaboration of sensations and older ideas. In sum: what is needed for a test of Copernicus is an entirely new world-view containing a new view of man and of his capacities of knowing” (p. 112).
– In criticizing Karl Popper’s “critical rationalism,” Feyerabend says, “…A strict principle of falsification … would wipe out science as we know it and would never have permitted it to start” (p. 155).
– I don’t think Feyerabend is completely against Popperian critical rationalism or logical empiricism/positivism, however, he says that such theories of knowledge “give an inadequate account of the past development of science as a whole and are liable to hinder it in the future” (p. 157).
– “For what appears as ‘sloppiness,’ ‘chaos’ or ‘opportunism’ when compared with such laws has a most important function in the development of those very theories which we today regard as essential parts of our knowledge of nature. These ‘deviations,’ these ‘errors,’ are preconditions of progress. They permit knowledge to survive in the complex and difficult world which we inhabit, they permit us to remain free and happy agents. Without ‘chaos,’ no knowledge. Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress. Ideas which today form the very basis of science exist only because there were such things as prejudice, conceit, passion; because these things opposed reason; and because they were permitted to have their way. We have to conclude, then, that even within science reason cannot and should not be allowed to be comprehensive and that it must often be overruled, or eliminated, in favour of other agencies. There is not a single rule that remains valid under all circumstances and not a single agency to which appeal can always be made” (p. 158).