Feyerabend against Science

In his lectures ‘Theorien der Wahrheit’ Prof Hoenen has considered also Science in a Free Society (Erkenntnis für freie Menschen) by Paul Feyerabend. I got interested as I like Feyerabend. I have found that one of the latest Feyerabend’s book was The Tyranny of Science and I have found in Internet a text.

Paul Feyerabend, 1975
How To Defend Society Against Science

A few quotes from this text are below.

Science, of course, must be reformed and must be made less authoritarian.


I want to defend society and its inhabitants from all ideologies, science included.

Marx and Engels were convinced that science would aid the workers in their quest for mental and social liberation.

A truth that reigns without checks and balances is a tyrant who must be overthrown, and any falsehood that can aid us in the over throw of this tyrant is to be welcomed.

It follows that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science indeed was an instrument of liberation and enlightenment. It does not follow that science is bound to remain such an instrument. There is nothing inherent in science or in any other ideology that makes it essentially liberating.

For example, consider the role science now plays in education. Scientific “facts” are taught at a very early age and in the very same manner in which religious “facts” were taught only a century ago.

In society at large the judgement of the scientist is received with the same reverence as the judgement of bishops and cardinals was accepted not too long ago.

Pursue this investigation further and you will see that science has now become as oppressive as the ideologies it had once to fight.

Heretics in science are still made to suffer from the most severe sanctions this relatively tolerant civilization has to offer.

My criticism of modern science is that it inhibits freedom of thought. If the reason is that it has found the truth and now follows it, then I would say that there are better things than first finding, and then following such a monster.

Against Method

This view takes the bull by the horns: theories cannot be justified and their excellence cannot be shown without reference to other theories.

To start with, no new and revolutionary scientific theory is ever formulated in a manner that permits us to say under what circumstances we must regard it as endangered: many revolutionary theories are unfalsifiable.

Applied resolutely, Popperian criteria would eliminate science without replacing it by anything comparable.

Now I have no objection to incompetence but I do object when incompetence is accompanied by boredom and self-righteousness.

Secondly, wherever one tries to make Kuhn’s ideas more definite one finds that they are false. Was there ever a period of normal science in the history of thought?

Against Results

Forms of life different from science either have disappeared or have degenerated to an extent that makes a fair comparison impossible.

We have learned that there are phenomena such as telepathy and telekinesis which are obliterated by a scientific approach and which could be used to do research in an entirely novel way (earlier thinkers such as Agrippa of Nettesheim, John Dee, and even Bacon were aware of these phenomena).

And in our own day we have seen how the interference of the state can advance science: when the Chinese communists refused to be intimidated by the judgement of experts and ordered traditional medicine back into universities and hospitals there was an outcry all over the world that science would now be ruined in China. The very opposite occurred: Chinese science advanced and Western science learned from it.

The lesson is plain: there does not exist a single argument that could be used to support the exceptional role which science today plays in society.

Science is just one of the many ideologies that propel society and it should be treated as such.

The most important consequence is that there must be a formal separation between state and science just as there is now a formal separation between state and church. Science may influence society but only to the extent to which any political or other pressure group is permitted to influence society. Scientists may be consulted on important projects but the final judgement must be left to the democratically elected consulting bodies.

Science is not a closed book that is understood only after years of training. It is an intellectual discipline that can be examined and criticised by anyone who is interested and that looks difficult and profound only because of a systematic campaign of obfuscation carried out by many scientists (though, I am happy to say, not by all).

Organs of the state should never hesitate to reject the judgement of scientists when they have reason for doing so. Such rejection will educate the general public, will make it more confident, and it may even lead to improvement.

Ideologies are marvellous when used in the companies of other ideologies. They become boring and doctrinaire as soon as their merits lead to the removal of their opponents.

Education and Myth

The method of education often consists in the teaching of some basic myth.

Knowing the myth, the grown-up can explain almost everything (or else he can turn to experts for more detailed information).

When teaching a myth we want to increase the chance that it will be understood (i.e. no puzzlement about any feature of the myth), believed, and accepted.

Given a choice many people may choose science, for a science that is run by free agents looks much more attractive than the science of today which is run by slaves, slaves of institutions and slaves of “reason”.

Of course, scientists will not play any predominant role in the society I envisage. They will be more than balanced by magicians, or priests, or astrologers.

The hardest task needs the lightest hand or else its completion will not lead to freedom but to a tyranny much worse than the one it replaces.

Feyerabend on Free Will and Belief

From book Paul Feyerabend, The Tyranny of Science

Chapter 1. Conflict and Harmony.

p. 19. “However, there are lots of questions we can ask. Was it good that the ancient philosophers turned the traditional gods into Thought, Fire and unchanging blocks of Being? Was the change they recommended initiated by them or were they swept along by forces that they did not notice and over which they had no control? If so, what were these forces? Can we free ourselves from their influence or can we bend them so that they serve our wishes? And, if the latter, what are our wishes? Should we support the consequences of this gradual petrification of life and welcome the insights that came with it or should we look for something better? Does it really matter what we think?”

p. 26. “QUESTION. Do you believe in God?

FEYERABEND. I don’t know. But I am certainly not an atheist or conceited agnostic; it takes a whole life to find out about these matters. I have a feeling that some kind of supreme bastard is around there somewhere. I’m working on it.”

Scientific Laws as a Myth

A quote from the Chapter 3, The Abundance of Nature, Paul Feyerabend, The Tyranny of Science

p. 68. “Science, we are told, is very successful. And, so the tale continues, its success is due to observation and experiment. Well, in the last lecture, I gave you examples that throw serious doubt on this assumption. Important scientific principles were introduced against experience (or, later, experiment), not in conformity with it. One of the most basic principles is that there are laws which are valid independently of space, time, temperature and which hold during the first fractions of a second of our universe as well today. Now if that is not a big myth, then I really don’t know what is!” 

Paul Feyerabend, Philosophical Papers, (Problems of Empiricism, Chapter 7, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations).

Philosophy Changes Practice

p. 130. “Finally, a critical comment on Wittgenstein’s idea of philosophy. Wittgenstein assumes that philosophers want to provide a theory of already existing things, and he is correct in pointing out that what exists is much more complicated than any philosophical theory. However, philosophical theories have not merely reflected things but have changed them, i.e. the (sham) conflict between theory and practice was resolved by a change of practice. This fact refutes the idea that philosophers, and for that matter all mythmakes, only erect castles in the air, and introduces a fruitful relativism of the kind explained in my Erkenntnis für Freie Menshen (Frankfurt, 1980).”

John Stuart Mill on Pluralism

John Stuart Mill according to Feyerabend in Philosophical Papers, (Problems of Empiricism, Chapter 4, Two models of epistemic change: Mill and Hegel).

p. 65 “What has made the European family of nations as improving, instead of a stationary, portion of a mankind? Not any superior excellence in them, which, when it exists, exists as the effect, not as the cause, but their remarkable diversity of character and culture. Individuals, classes, nations have been extremely unlike one another: they have struck out a great variety of paths, each leading to something valuable; and although at every period those who traveled in different paths have been intolerant of one another, and each would have thought it an excellent thing if all the rest would have been compelled to travel his road, their attempts to thwart each other’s development have rarely any permanent success, and each has in time endured to receive the good which the others have offered. Europe is, in my judgment, wholly indebted in this plurality of paths for its progressive and many-sided development”.

Also Feyerabend’s quote from the preface

“The reader will notice that some articles defend ideas which are attacked in others. This reflects my belief (which seems to have been held by Protagoras) that good arguments can be found for the opposite side of any issue.”

Feyerabend on Popper

Feyerabend has a review Popper’s Objective Knowledge  (Problems of Empiricism) where he concludes:

“At first reading, Popper’s book makes a tremendous impression. This impression has blinded some of its already not too clearsighted reviewers. But look at the reasons given and the doctrine proposed, consider the progress made in all fields, and especially in methodology, since the publication of Popper’s opus magnum, consider its predecessors, such as Mill and other thinkers of the nineteenth century, and you will be surprised to see how difficult it is to find a moderately acceptably argument, how often blunt assertions, equivocation, rhetorical questions take the place of rational discourse, how little more recent discoveries are taken into account and how small the difference is between the valuable parts of his book and the views of his predecessors. We are not too far from the truth when saying that with Objective Knowledge Popper’s research programme has entered its degenerating phase”.