The Key to Science Lies in the Context of Discovery Not the Context of Justification

Richard Feynman, in his splendid lecture series delivered at Cornell University under the title “the character of physical law”, began, as with the University of Auckland lecture series on QED, with discussion on science and the nature of inquiry.

His observations were deep and insightful.

At Cornell Feynman stated that the discovery of natural law begins with a “guess.” Thereupon we compute the consequences of the guess using whatever mathematical techniques are available to us, and then we test bodies of theory so developed using experimental methods.

Most discussion of the nature of science focuses on the latter part, that is the method of experimentation or the method of justification. Philosophers of science seek to uncover a “scientific method” that can meet the traditional epistemological challenge of scepticism.

My own views on scientific method are not far off from those of Feyerabend. I agree with his insights regarding what he calls the “anarchist” character of science, if not with much of his polemical bombast.

For example, of the bombast, “scientism” is an ideology although science itself should not be viewed as such. A scientific theory can be turned into an ideology, for example both evolution and classical mechanics were turned into ideologies, when falsely applied to social questions, but that does not mean that evolution and classical mechanics themselves are ideologies (at least not in the sense that Marx understood the term).

What is hardly ever explored in the philosophical study of science is Feynman’s “guess.” A good reason for this was the contrast drawn by the logical positivists between “the context of discovery” and the “context of justification,” with the latter enjoying intellectual precedence.

Despite the fall of logical positivism, the context of justification continues to dominate thinking on the nature of science. We need to awaken from our Vienna induced dogmatic slumber.

How is it that we “guess,” as Feynman put it?

A good place to start thinking about these issues is with Charles Sanders Peirce’s concept of “abduction.” However, by abduction we should not mean inference to the best explanation, which is what we have taken it to mean hitherto. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy points out in a discussion of the views of Peirce.

Yet it is clear that, as Peirce understood the term, “abduction” did not quite mean what it is currently taken to mean. One main difference between his conception and the modern one is that, whereas according to the latter, abduction belongs to what the logical empiricists called the “context of justification”—the stage of scientific inquiry in which we are concerned with the assessment of theories—for Peirce abduction had its proper place in the context of discovery, the stage of inquiry in which we try to generate theories which may then later be assessed. As he says, “[a]bduction is the process of forming explanatory hypotheses. It is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea”; elsewhere he says that abduction encompasses “all the operations by which theories and conceptions are engendered”

There must exist a limited number of hypotheses, a “hypothesis space,” that comes to mind not upon exposure to the world or data but through innate specification. We cannot help but draw the hypotheses that we do.

A good example is matter. Stpehen Toulmin and June Goodfield observe in The Architecture of Matter that

Certain recurrent questions and themes – certain patterns of thought – have arisen repeatedly in different contexts

One of these in the context of the study of matter has been.

A continuous oscillation between ‘atomistic’ and ‘continuum’ theories: some scientists treating material things as aggregates of corpuscles or particles, others choosing as their intellectual model a continuous fluid or field.”

Our best physical theories, quantum field theory and general relativity, treat the physical world as fundamentally consisting of fields. In quantum field theory particles are excited states of fields. That is the picture we have today, however both theories are not without anomaly.

I should say that although the field view is dominant, in popular culture the reductionist view is dominant. This dominance might be an ideological construct.

This hypothesis space, between reductionism and the continuum in the case of matter, is innate, a part of our cognitive architecture, and it is what gives us the guess of Feynman that gets science moving. The hypothesis space is innate because hypotheses are undetermined by the evidence.

Science is possible when the architecture of the mind, one or more aspects of our hypothesis space, matches the architecture of the world.

Naturalistic inquiry into the character of science would focus on the cognitive apparatus that underpins the hypothesis space. Science might be able to inform us of the manner in which we guess, as it were. History of science, like the work of Toulmin and Goodfield, can be quite useful in this regard.

Good history of science would seek to abstract from the morass of history recurring themes, that is recurring hypotheses, that have littered study of the natural world throughout history. What have been recurring hypotheses in biology? In physics? In mathematics? And so on. Cognitive science might then deepen our understanding of these hypothesis spaces.

What is ironic about this is that, should Feyebrand be right and something akin to Pierce’s notion be also right, then logical positivism, and empiricism, but so modern philosophy of science, would have things in reverse.

It is the context of justification that is surreptitious and the context of discovery that is ordered.

Such considerations could be applied to ideology. We treat, both in standard economic theory and Marxism, modern industrial society as being synonymous with a capitalist mode of social relations. But we can, and have, conceived of alternative industrial societies, of alternative hypotheses, such as centrally planned socialism and anarchosyndicalism.

We live in a capitalist society not because it is the natural form of industrial society but because a capitalist world is the type we have created, for all sorts of historical or contingent reasons.

A question we may ask is; of the hypothesis space regarding social form which hypothesis is the most ethical?