The problem with lazy pluralism

Here is an excerpt from a current draft of my prospectus. It probably won’t stay in my dissertation, but it is something I feel pretty strongly about these days. Note: nothing specifically chemical here.

There is a trend in current philosophy of science toward understanding science pluralistically, which is in part a reaction against the strong unification theses that dominated the literature during most of the 20th century. Many excellent treatises on the need for pluralism and the mechanics of pluralism have surfaced in recent years, and I do not aim to recount them all in detail here. The basic message behind these pluralistic treatises is that science does not consist of only one method, one set of aims, or one group of concepts. Stronger versions of the thesis argue that there is no such thing as the scientific method or the scientific enterprise and that such unified talk must be abandoned altogether, where milder versions urge instead that the meanings of these terms must simply be themselves understood pluralistically.

Pluralism is generally introduced as one way of solving the very messy problem of how to relate scientific theories to one another. It has been justifiably embraced as a more reasonable alternative than the unificationists’ solution, which was to try to collapse all scientific theories into one grand unified theory, in which phenomena from photosynthesis to sleep apnea were to be understood best in terms of physical concepts and mechanical interactions alone. While the unificationist solution has generally fallen into disfavor, it is not clear that most accounts of pluralism have in fact offered a viable alternative: many accounts of pluralism leave off with the negative thesis, namely that scientific theories should not be related by universal unification, and do not go on to say much of anything about how they should be related.

Leaving pluralism lie here, on the negative thesis, does not solve the problem of relating theories to one another, and letting the problem remain unsolved could have subtly insidious effects on science itself. One way of interpreting pluralist accounts that stop the buck at the negative thesis is by understanding them as conceding that scientific theories need not be related to one another at all — if someone happens to find a connection, good on them, but searching for such relations is perhaps not all that important to scientific endeavors. The problem, then, is just a red herring, and the solution is simply to encourage philosophers and scientists to focus their energies elsewhere.

This attitude, if it becomes prevalent in the philosophical or scientific communities, will do damage to our ability to understand natural systems and use this understanding to solve problems. Permitting pluralistic accounts to bottom out in this let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach to the care and keeping of theories will discourage the search for relations between theories — and it is exactly this sort of search that can lead to revolutions in our understanding of scientific systems. Without the drive to connect theories to one another, Maxwell would not have had any motivation to describe the relation between electricity and magnetism, nor Mendel the relation between reproduction and phenotype, nor Pauling the relation between chemical bonds and the quantum theory of the electron. It is not clear that the fields of molecular biology or neuroscience, whose theories connect chemistry to biology and psychology to biology, respectively, should ever have been born under such an inauspicious regime.

The problem with such an attitude, at heart, is that it discourages a certain kind of curiosity that is a hallmark of scientific discovery. It is worth mentioning that a similar attitude has been identified by critics of intelligent design theory: the argument goes that the attribution of the complexity of an evolved system to the unknowable machinations of an intelligent designer discourages the search for further information about how natural systems have evolved their complexities. Any move that discourages the curiosity needed to do good science is a bad move in my book.

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About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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