#8 What is the better method: theory from facts or facts from theory?

Against Method by Paul Feyerabend, pages 24-64

In Chapter 5, Feyerabend makes the case that theory and fact do not always correspond. He says there are two ways in which theory and fact do not cooperate: (1) numerical disagreement and (2) qualitative failures. In the first case, someone makes a prediction and the numerical data does not match the prediction. The numbers might be correct, but they do not make sense according to what the theory says. One wonders whether the theory or the numerical data are incorrect, and considering a theory likely has historical and confirmatory power, one will likely defer to the theory and recheck and retest the data. In the second case, qualitative failures entail scenarios “which are easily noticed and which are familiar to everyone” (p. 43). Feyerabend gives examples from Newton and Barrow’s research, wherein they notice a discrepancy between the theory and the qualitative data for which they cannot account, so they brush it under the rug, so to speak. I imagine this is similar to what physicists do today when they speak of “dark matter” and “dark energy.” They have no idea what it is, simply that it is. 

Here we have a causality dilemma depending whether you’re a mainstream scientist or an epistemological anarchist. The scientist likely says that theories derive from numerical and qualitative facts, however, the anarchist like Feyerabend would propose that facts can come from theories. What is the better method: theory from facts or facts from theory? 

Before I comment on the above question, I want to share a quote from Feyerabend at the end of Chapter 5: 

“A straightforward and unqualified judgement of theories by ‘facts’ is bound to eliminate ideas simply because they do not fit into the framework of some older cosmology … Therefore, the first step in our criticism of customary concepts and customary reactions is to step outside the circle and either to invent a new conceptual system, for example a new theory, that clashes with the most carefully established observational results and confounds the most plausible theoretical principles, or to import such a system from outside science, from religion, from mythology, from the ideas of incompetents, or the ramblings of madmen” (p. 52-53). 

I’m sympathetic to Feyerabend’s radical views; with exception. Yes, facts may be “contaminated” in any number of ways (p. 52), and thus, their contamination will impact scientists’ desire to investigate them or not. This prejudging by way of fact-contamination hinders scientific progress in my opinion as well. With that said, I would modify Feyerabend’s above thoughts to make systems imported from mythology or madmen as propositional arguments, such as: if this, then that. I agree with his project of considering any and all theories to understand nature, albeit, more reigned in. 

For example, considering psychedelics fall under the hallucinogen category of drugs, most people would think of psychedelic visions are mere hallucination. I agree that one must consider the fact that one has put a mind-altering drug into one’s body and the likelihood is strong, according to present scientific methods, that these visions are hallucinations. Ralph Metzner reminds us, however, that the word “hallucinogen,” which is closely related to the word “hallucination,” derives from the Latin alucinar, “to wander in the mind” (2006, p. 13-14). There is no connotation to falsehood regarding what one experiences in the etymology of the words above. Thus, a Feyerabendian-inspired question might sound like: If psychedelic experiences are real, then how would one prove it? The epistemological anarchist, then, would try to find facts that support unconventional questions and theories. 

The main point I think Feyerabend was stressing is this: If one does not ask the question, one will not look for the answers. The answers are always already under our noses; we simply must be perceptive enough to see them. We are already in nature; it’s not as if nature is hiding from us. On the contrary, nature is naked, it awaits our senses and minds to perceive its secrets. More likely, we hide from ourselves, we hide from the truth of reality, we hide from what is possible only if we dared to cross into unknown territory. Culture, convention, and prudence bog us down, stunt our potential leaps and bounds to a light jog. I believe most people are subconsciously scared about how new knowledge will change them personally, how society will change, our values, belief systems, social mores, etc. Some of the first among us to ask unconventional questions and probe deeper into nature looking for answers have not fared and will not fare well. Nonetheless, we always learn whether directly or indirectly from these experiences. 

Back to the question whether which is the better method, that is, theory from facts of facts from theory. Personally, I’m about 70/30. My education in science and philosophy have given me a framework within which to work, think, and argue. Such a framework is invaluable. However, I leave room for wild speculation, unconventional probing, and “left field,” radical ideas. That’s where I stand. 

What are your thoughts about all this? Please leave a comment below. 

Feyerabend, P. (1993/1975). Against Method (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Verso. 

Metzner, R. (2006). Introduction: Amazonian Vine of Visions. In R. Metzner (Ed.), Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca, (1-39). Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.

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