Débat N. Maxwell – M. Puech

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Ce texte est une réponse de N. Maxwell à la recension publiée le 18 mars.

Consulter la recension de M. Puech.  Version : Française / English

Nicholas Maxwell

One thing that puzzled me about your review was when you say (in translation):

« If we have such an inadequate view of science, science itself is not itself directly responsible, Maxwell argues.  The fault derives from a defective philosophy of science, arrogant and dogmatic, which he calls “standard empiricism”.  This defective philosophy of science influences the scientists themselves should they ever try to widen their thinking about their practice, instead of simply practising science. »

My view has long been that standard empiricism is built into the institutional structure of science, influencing scientific practice in a multitude of ways.  It is an integral part of science itself.  So, in my view, scientists are profoundly responsible for the defects in science itself, which result.  And, as I strive to make clear, the bad consequences that result from attempting to do science in accordance with the edicts of standard empiricism are for natural science per se, not just for what goes on when scientists « widen their thinking about their practice ».  This is certainly made clear in « From Knowledge to Wisdom ».  Did I really not make this clear in « What’s Wrong With Science? »?

Further on in your review you say « The damage caused by a defective philosophy of science in the human sciences in fact seems to me to be more serious those caused by science itself – for scientists often have the immanent wisdom not to wish to know anything about philosophy of science and are thus protected from it. »  But as far as I am concerned, this misses the point.  Standard empiricism is an integral part of science itself, so ignoring the academic discipline of philosophy of science does nothing to protect scientists from it.  On the contrary, this is at the root of the problem.  Standard empiricism itself says that ideas of philosophy of science, not being empirically testable, are not a part of science.  Standard empiricism protects itself from criticism by declaring that all criticism of itself, being philosophy of science, lies outside the intellectual domain of science.  It is what I call the « lobster pot » effect of standard empiricism: once it is accepted and implemented, it outlaws criticism of itself.  For me, philosophers of science have no influence on science whatsoever, whether good or bad; they are reduced to having the pathetic task of trying to justify unjustifiable standard empiricism, a task they (predictably) fail at, thus incurring further contempt from working scientists.  Recently, things have got even worse: philosophers of science have abandoned the attempt to justify standard empiricism – or solve the problem of induction, as they would have put it.

You go on to say that my admonishment is addressed more to philosophers than to scientists.  I don’t quite agree with this either.  I would like to enlist the help of philosophers in admonishing scientists for putting standard empiricism into practice in science in so many (harmful) ways, and outlawing from science any serious discussion of the matter.  It is science that is the problem.  The big failing of philosophers is to fail to realize that they have a basic responsibility to point out to scientists that science is seriously damaged by the institutionalization of a bad philosophy of science.

I do agree however that some of the worst damaging consequences of allowing standard empiricism to shape the institutional structure of natural science lie in the consequences of this for social inquiry and the humanities, and for views about rationality – the failure, above all, to take seriously the task of building aim-oriented rationality into all our institutions.  Aim-oriented empiricist natural science would be a model for what other institutions should be.  Standard empiricist natural science is no such thing – or at least much less usefully so.


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