ASPECTS OF SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY
Summary of the book: Jokic Aleksandar, Aspekti naucnog otkrica,
publisher Filozofsko drustvo Srbije (Philosophical Society of Serbia), Beograd, 1996;
If we carefully examine claims about scientific discovery made in some of the most recent articles on this topic and compare them with that which had been said about scientific discovery in the classical works on the methodology of science, the need to distinguish between the following two questions becomes apparent: (1) Is there a logic of discovery? and (2) Should philosophers of science be at all interested in the subject of scientific discovery? Consequently, this work has been divided into two parts. Part One is a critical history of various views regarding the possibility of a logic of discovery. The exception is Chapter I, which offers an overall history
of concern (and unconcern) with scientific discovery by philosophers of science, and thus also includes a condensed discussion of a more recent debate which does not center on logic of discovery. In the course of Part One an effort is made to discern different accounts of scientific discovery which are the corollary of the arguments for and against the logic of discovery. Part Two takes issue with a more recent controversy about the philosophical significance of scientific discovery for our understanding of the nature of science. In discussing the arguments of those on the opposite ends of the controversy the hope is, a more adequate account of scientific discovery has emerged.
The thesis that the process of scientific discovery is amenable to rational appraisal – as opposed to irrational leaps of genius – has not been popular this century. This is due to two factors: a romantic heroic belief in creative genius, and the influence of logical empiricism in the early twentieth-century, which ruled that a logic of the sciences is exclusively a logic of justification.
Consequently, for many philosophers scientific discovery was held to be of interest only to historians, psychologists, and sociologists, but was barred from the list of topics which demand analysis by philosophers. A number of recent philosophers powerfully argued against this view purporting to show that the processes of creativity and discovery are fit subjects for philosophical inquiry and that a rational account of creative discovery processes is possible, and that such an account reveals that there is no qualitative distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification. In Chapter II some of these arguments are examined, and a correct interpretation of Reichenbach’s discovery}justification distinction sought. In the main philosophers of science have been concerned more with the normative than the descriptive aspects of scientific methodology. With few exceptions philosophers of science have been more concerned with how scientist ought to proceed in order to conform to certain conceptions of logic., than with how they do proceed. Ideas concerning how they ought to proceed are based around the problem of induction, on how generalizations can be validly derived from data on particulars and on the extent to which data can confirm a generalization.
These are, no doubt, interesting philosophical questions in their own right, but they bear little relation to the practice of scientists who encounter philosophical problems of an entirely different kind. Now it may not be a bad thing if philosophers pursue different
philosophical problems to those pursued by scientists. And it may even be acceptable to refer to this activity as "philosophy of science." But they should not attribute to these reflections any normative significance, or derive from them principles according to which certain aspects of scientific practice are deemed "irrational."
Having examined, in Chapter II, some of the arguments supporting the two-context theory and the belief that discovery is not amenable to rational analysis Chapter III focuses on irrationalist explanations of discovery processes and creative thinking. The term "irrationalist" here refers in its strong sense to that which cannot be given an explanation; in its weaker sense it refers to beliefs concerning the limits of possible explanations.
Conversely, the term "rationalist" simply refers to beliefs that discovery processes are amenable to rational explanation. The account of irrationalist models of discovery in Chapter III focuses primarily on exponents of the two-context theory, such as Reichenbach and Popper. But it has also been argued that some of their critics, such as Polanyi, Feyerabend and Koestler ultimately fall back on irrationalist explanations of hypothesis generation.
Chapter IV focuses on various attempts to formulate a "logic of discovery." This involves an examination of Peirce and Hanson’s retroductive or abductive models of discovery and an assessment of criticism of this endeavor by Achinstein and others. The expression "logic of discovery" refers to means by which discovery (or creativity in general) can be given a rational explanation. As such to assert that a logic of discovery is possible is to rebut the belief that discoveries are the product of inexplicable forces.
References to a logic of discovery are not (unless otherwise specified) to "logic" in the restricted sense, by which is meant the procedures of formal logic, but is simply to an account of the reasoning processes, which feature in problem solving tasks.
Part Two begins by an outline, in Chapter V, of a new framework within which most contemporary discussions of scientific discovery take place. It is a general picture of the scientific enterprise, which superseded the old two-context theory, according to which there are not two phases in the scientific enterprise but three. In the first phase a theoretical idea, a hypothesis, or a theory
sketch is generated; in the second phase the plausibility of the idea is assessed; finally, the elaborated idea is subjected to critical testing, and if it withstands this testing, it is accepted. Thus we have the context of discovery, followed by the context of preliminary evaluation of hypotheses, followed by the context of justification (or acceptance).
With a more widespread acceptance of this threefold model among philosophers of science came an important change with respect to the kind of interest they have expressed for discussing scientific discovery. From the earliest days of the philosophical concern with scientific discovery up until the recent downfall of the discovery}justification distinction the only philosophically legitimate question had been, Is there a logic of discovery? With the introduction of the new distinctions, the emphasis has been on a quite different question: How important is the consideration of scientific discovery to scientific methodology?
Chapter VI is devoted to a proper understanding of Laudan’s attack on those who try to defend the methodological significance of scientific discovery within the framework of the three-stage model. He distinguishes the old program, which had as its objective the search for a system of rules for a mechanical derivation of scientific discovery, from the more recent methodological concern with
discovery. He claims that the older program, despite its failure, had a clear epistemic rationale (for logics of discovery were, at the same time, logics of justification), whereas the newer program has yet to show what its philosophical rationale is.
After an examination of several unsuccessful arguments in response to Laudan’s attack, in Chapter VII, Chapter VIII offers an attack on the three-stage model as a way to achieve both an answer to Laudan and a better explanation of scientific discovery.
Scientific endeavors which result in the discovery of new entities or new facts are, at first sight, very similar to everyday cases of discoveries made by sense perception. We tend to think of sense-perception discoveries as having the following two characteristics:
(1') they take place at specific moments; and (2’) it is possible to know in advance before undertaking the project itself – what conditions must be satisfied in order to obtain the result (cf., the lost glove example). The fact that there is a prima facie similarity between the discoveries of a new planet or a new form of radiation and cases of everyday discoveries made by sense-perception indicates that the chosen examples of scientific discoveries are suitable for the test of the form described above. (Namely, we can see those examples as prima facie falsifying the claim that (2) is false.) Because of the similarity in question, one could find it natural to think of the discovery of Uranus and the discovery of X-rays as also characterized by (1’) and (2’); and, thus, since (1’) is the same as (1) and (2’) could be regarded as just a variant of (2), the stage picture of science might appear unchallenged after all. However, it turned out that even these historical discoveries – although prima facie similar to everyday sense-perception discoveries – could not be "localized," thus undermining (2). There can be no general methodological scheme dividing scientific inquiry into logically and temporally distinct phases, one of which is discovery.
The following are, in the author’s opinion, three main reasons why the fallacy of identifying discovery with some stage in the scientific enterprise is so ubiquitous: (i) the way in which historians of science talk about discoveries is, although natural, misleading; (ii) it is tempting to think that the word "discovery" always picks out a success which occurs at a specific moment; and (iii) distinctions between different categories of achievements, and in particular the ex post facto character of scientific discoveries, have been overlooked.
Finally, the author gives an answer to Laudan. Discovery is not only a legitimate subject for the philosopher of science, but it is among the most important. For scientific discovery (being the upshot of the entire scientific enterprise rather than just a phase) is as philosophically interesting as science itself.
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