BOOK REVIEW

Larry Laudan, Beyond Positivism and Relativism. Theory, Method, and Evidence, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996, viii + 277 pp. ISBN 0-8133-2469-6 $22.95 (pbk) ISBN 08133-2468-8 $59.95 (cloth) The essay I like most in this collection of 13 papers occurs towards the end of the book, one of four thematically grouped under the heading “History and Sociology of Science”. Laudan examines Judge Overton’s opinion in the Arkansas creationism trial. The Judge supported the view that creationism cannot count as a science, by laying down squarely what science is: “guided by natural law”, “explanatory by reference to natural law”, nondogmatic, testable and falsifiable. Laudan is quick to point out (as Feyerabend has) that by these criteria many a scientific theory of the past does not make the grade. Moreover, the charge that creationism is untestable takes away the best argument to refute it. Man and animals created at the same time? Well, why doesn’t the paleontological record show human fossils side by side with the lower animals? Creationism makes empirical claims, is testable, and turns out to be false. Laudable as the decision is not to teach creationism alongside evolutionary theory in schools, the Judge’s opinion is based, according to Laudan, on a stereotypical, dogmatic and false view of what science is. The other essays deal effectively with Bloor’s sociology of knowledge, Popper’s Demarcation Criterion and the idea of universal methodological standards. Laudan states and defends his account of scientific methodology in the preceding six essays. He understands science, like Popper, as a problemsolving activity and methodological rules as means to achieve certain epistemic aims in science. The rules, contrary to Popper, do not have the character of conventions or “decisions”. The adequacy of the means can be tested empirically against data from the history of science. On this view the methods of science and even the goals of science can change in the course of history. Science, hence, has no “essence”, a view that has earned Laudan the reputation of being a relativist in disguise. Does the violation of a methodological rule in the pursuit of successful research discredit that rule?
Erkenntnis 47: 415–417, 1998.

416 Does the sum of such cases from the history of the sciences undermine the very idea of characterizing the rationality (or “progressiveness”) of science through its methodology, as Paul Feyerabend charged? Not so, argues Laudan, a rule is not invalidated by one or two exceptions. This is a plausible reply, if only anyone knew how to quantify objectively the success, say, of “Avoid ad hoc hypotheses”, in the short or long run. The forced toleration of “exceptions” to many a stock rule turns scientific methodology into a lofty affair. Notably absent from the book are discussions of “bootstrapping” and Bayesianism, two more recent theories of confirmation. Both are hailed as bridging the hiatus between formal confirmation theory and the practice of science. It is sometimes argued that rationality of theory choice cannot be grounded in the data alone, because alternatives are frequently underdetermined by the evidence. The first two, and also the most recent, essays in the book (one of them co-authored with J.Leplin) discuss this issue. Underdetermination of theory by evidence is one of the most intriguing and challenging problems facing epistemology and realism today. Laudan is out to debunk the “myth” of underdetermination, focusing on Quine’s version of the thesis. The criticism is blunted by an unsympathetic reading of Quine, whose position in these matters Laudan classifies alongside Thomas Kuhn’s. For one, Laudan takes the thesis to stand or fall with the Duhem-Quine thesis. This is arguably not a premise Quine has in mind (particularly in his later writings) when he argues for the underdetermination of our “system of the world”. Laudan is more on target when he criticizes Quine’s “methodological minimalism” as the crucial premise for the underdetermination thesis: the deduction of observation sentences is not all there is in the evaluation of a theory. True, but this is not in dispute. “Methodological minimalism” need not be understood as a dogma concerning methodology. It is but a starting point in characterizing the structure of theories. Quine sees scientists resolving occasional cases of underdetermined pairs of theories by appeal to background information, standards of simplicity, and the like. There is on this account in effect no persistent underdetermination on the level of theories. The rules and standards, going beyond methodological minimalism, are justified pragmatically, being part and parcel of the evolving science. Laudan thinks of the same methodological rules as warranted in a stronger sense, and appeals to a notion of evidence that needs to be spelled out in more detail. What Laudan does not appreciate is that now the burden of proof has shifted. Quine’s concern meanwhile is with the deductive unterdetermination, by “all possible evidence” of the compound of common sense truths and the

BOOK REVIEW

417

accepted scientific lore including scientific norms, suitably reconstructed. On Quine’s reading the thesis reflects on the nature of concept formation.
Manuscript received July 1, 1997

University of Pittsburgh, Center for Philosophy of Science

THOMAS BONK

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful