Realism versus constructivism: beyond Popper and Kuhn

Paul Grobstein's picture

Before turning to some new readings, we had an intriguing discussion of the implications of Popper and Kuhn respectively for the teaching of science ... and people's current positions on the ideas that each emphasized. Among the thoughts that came from that was that Popper would endorse a principle of teaching not content but process, ie that science classes should not teach people what "is", but rather help people acquire the perspective and tools of falsification. Some content might be needed to provide a foundation for falsification. Kuhn, on the other hand, might endorse the teaching of science more as is currently done, to give students an appreciation of contemporary "reality", ie the currently accepted paradigm, so they could participate effectively in "normal" science. This picture is, of course, a little ironic, since one tends to think of Popper, the "realist", in the context of rigorous science education, and Kuhn, the "constructivist", in terms of challenges to the validity of existing paradigms.

In this context, there emerged a sense that some blending of Popper's and Kuhn's approaches was needed, in particular that an appreciation of the tentativeness of knowledge and associated commitment to falsification is important but that one also needs some form of normal science, ie an accumulating set of problem-solving observations that provide a more or less agreed upon sense of "reality" for practical purposes as well as to provide a basis and grist for subsequent falsification. The questions that follow from this are (1) is there any relation between paradigm shifts and falsification? (2) is there any "progress" across paradigm shifts? (3) what role does "reality" play in paradigm shifts?

Again, there is irony here. Popper was concerned with "reality" and "progress", and yet it is Kuhn's "normal science" that is in some ways most easily yields some understanding of those terms. Kuhn is most typically associated with a challenge to science as "Truth" and yet it is Popper who seems to most completely do away with that concept. Perhaps a way to blend the two would be to conceive a way to incorporate some of Popper's falsification commitment into Kuhn's paradigm shifts, in a way that adds some cumulative character to them but without invoking anew a "mirror of nature" approach to science (Rorty), ie a measure of progress based on a correspondence theory of truth. Could it be that, contra Kuhn, a choice between incomensurables actually involves some component of "falsification", not in the narrow sense of there existing falsifying observations but rather in a broader sense? Perhaps the incomensurables themselves create a new paradigm within which it is possible to see one as a subset of the other and this, rather than arbitrary social forces, is in fact that basis for choices between them? A continually widening set of observations accounted, rather than a correspondence theory, for would then be the criterion for progress. And "falsification" would be broadened to include "subsuming". And "incomensurable" would be understood not as a permanent state but rather as the incentive that drives still broader paradigms within which existing ones can be compared (without, however, ever mentioning "reality" in any absolute sense). We'll be exploring this set of possibilities later in the course (Grobstein, From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond).

The Goodman and Hemple readings, as summarized by Sunyoung, moved us in interesting ways in this direction. Goodman argues that there isn't A way that the world is, speakable or otherwise (contra mystics). Instead there are multiple speakable ways the world is, ie that the world is nothing more (and nothing less) than the collection of meaningful (useful?) statements about it. That's clearly a construvist position, perhaps an extreme one, and raises some significant questions. Is there "actually" one world with a number of different descriptions? or simply a number of different worlds? How is one to account for the fact that some some things are recognized by us as being the same even when they change (Descartes' ball of wax intact and melted)? Is there an "objective" world or only subjective ones? Could the "objective" be simply that which everyone agrees on? Could things be agreed on BECAUSE there is an objective world out there?

Hemple represents these issues in terms of the "stubborness of facts", and with a reminder that contemporary constructivism was anticipated by the Vienna Circle's Otto Neurath and his metaphor of science as "like seafarers condemned to repair and rebuild their ship forever on the open ocean, without any possibility of taking it into a dry-dock and rebuilding it there on a firm basis". Facts, for Hemple, are things that are there whether we are or not. They are characteristics of what is out there, of an objective world that can in fact be "carved at the joints", as McKenna describes it in relation to common-sense or "Plain Jane" metaphysics. Are there in fact such facts? Or only commonalities in our individual descriptions? Is the law of falling bodies a "fact" or only a convenient way to make sense of shared experiences and understandings (most people have never in fact seen a body fall according to the law since it would do so only in an ideal case with no other influences, in a perfect vacumn). We'll return to this issue this coming week in the particular case of relativistic and quantum physics.

Davidson offers a somewhat different challenge to a relativistic constructivism, asserting that the very idea of incommensurable understandings, in the sense of understandings that cannot be inter-translated, is itself incoherent. If there wasn't a common framework within which understandings could be compared, he argues, then one wouldn't be able to notice incommensurabiliites. Can one notice difference between two understandings without having a third more general one in which they can be compared? That too is a question we'll be returning to this week in connection with the history or physics. And perhaps one tht will help us conceive ways that paradigm shifts can be progressive without resorting to "mirror of nature" characterizations of science.

(for some further references for this conversation, see Additional Discussion Resources)

 

q, kyla's picture

metaphysical and epistemological realism and logical relation of

I am particularly distraught by a certain paragraph in Kosso. I'm referring to the last paragraph of page 179-180. For your convenience, here it is:

"It is worht considering the logical relations between metaphysical and epistemological realisms before separating them and asking if they are supported by the physics. First, a non-relation. Epistemological anti-realism (we cannot know how nature is) does not entail metaphysical anti-realism (there is no independent way that nature is). It is certainly possible to claim that there is an independent reality out there but we cannot know about it. It is also possible to withhold judgement on the metaphysical issue. In fact, this metaphysical agnosticism seems to be a requirement of epistemological anti-realism. This is the relation of note between the two. Epistemological anti-realism precludes metaphysical anti-realism; indeed, it precludes metaphysical anything."

That makes sense to me very well. He continues (same paragraph):

"If we cannot know how things are (and we cannot, by the standards of epistemological anti-realism) then neither can we know how things are not."

I also follow this, but it means to me just that epistemological anti-realism has both a positive and negative sense. This is the crux of my problem (same paragraph):

"Metaphysical anti-realism, if it is to be believed with any confidence and justification, must presuppose some degree of epistemological realism."

He's stating though that to claim that there is no reality independent of us (metaphysical anti-realism), we must must first suppose "to some extent" that we have the ability to know an independent reality (epistemological realism).
I do not agree.

Suppose there is no independent reality. That is, reality is dependent on us. I do not see why this means we must first be able to know an independent reality.

So I guess that there should not be commas separating the clause "if it is to be believed with any confidence and justification", that is, this clause to the Kosso is not just adding redundant information or clarification. So suppose he means that in order to really believe that there is no reality independent of us that we must be able to know what an independent reality "looks like", "is". I guess somewhat logically if you could know what x looks like but never found it, never experienced it, then this could lead you to believe that x does not exist (i.e. since you know what x looks like, claim that x does not exist and until falsified...) . But even this doesn't make sense to me. How could you believe that you can know somethng that you in the first place believe does not exist? I don't see how this belief is less "blind" than the "blind" (i.e. "unjustified" as Kosso says) belief in metaphysical antirealism.

please help me :)

Paul Grobstein's picture

agnosticism vs atheism

I think you actually pretty much solved your problem yourself with your thought about commas, but let's walk through it slowly ...

"to claim that there is no reality independent of us (metaphysical anti-realism), we must must first suppose "to some extent" that we have the ability to know an independent reality (epistemological realism)"

If we can't see "independent reality" then we can't know what its character is, including whether it exists or not. To be certain of the non-existence of independent reality (metaphysical anti-realism) is to assert that one has the tools to determine the character of reality (epistemological realism), which is turn affirms an independent reality. Asserting the combination of metaphysical anti-realism and epistemological realism creates a logical contradiction (which one may or may not be disturbed by, depending on one's feelings about logical contradictions).

"Suppose there is no independent reality. That is, reality is dependent on us. I do not see why this means we must first be able to know an independent reality."

You're right. It doesn't. The difference here is "Suppose that ...", ie the lack of any assertions. We don't need any "independent reality" for there to be no "independent reality". We do need a way to assess independent realityin order to assert that there is no independent reality.

"I guess that there should not be commas separating the clause "if it is to be believed with any confidence and justification" ... he means that in order to really believe that there is no reality independent of us that we must be able to know what an independent reality "looks like", "is""

Yep. "to really believe" is to make an assertion.

"How could you believe that you can know something that you in the first place believe does not exist? I don't see how this belief is less "blind" than the "blind" (i.e. "unjustified" as Kosso says) belief in metaphysical antirealism."

I'm with you, I think. Both metaphysical realism and metaphysical anti-realism are "blind", in the sense of lacking definitive justification. But that is, of course, different from "believable". One may "believe" in either of them, for any of a variety of reasons that don't depend on definitive justification. Or one may elect to "believe" in neither of them (see The Perils and Potentials of "I Believe").

That help?

Mica's picture

In terms of the issue of

In terms of the issue of falsification, it seems that Kuhn's primary rejection of falsification is that a theory cannot in fact be made untrue, but rather it becomes no longer useful. I don't think he would argue that there is no room for the kind of falsification you are describing. That is, a kind of methodology that works to challenge and criticize the current paradigm, once a flaw has been found. An important question seems to be: what is the qualitative difference between the practice of falsification of normal science and the practice of Kuhnian normal science? The applicable usefulness in the moment of the practice seems to be the most distinguishing characteristic between the two practices. However, that does not mean that the idea behind falsification, the idea of challenge, is not a part of Kuhn's scientific model, it may just be that it comes about in a different way -- through the recognition of an anomaly, which occurs through the practice of using science in its capacity to help us, not in a search for a metaphysical or essential truth.
Kuhn rejects the idea that a theory can become an untruth, and therefore, he might ask where falsifation gets us. A paradigm which is left behind for a more useful one is not false, it is only no longer as helpful. I think he is trying to to save us from perpetual schizophrenia about what is myth and what is true. If we allow for paradigms that were once true to be falsified, we allow that all that we believe to be true could in fact be myth at any moment. Can we actually live this way? And a more Kuhnian question, would it be fruitful to live this way?
So, falsification would seem to be this force that allows for paradigm recreation and challenge, without allowing for the possibility of destruction and unstable skepticism. So that incomensurability, as you say above, "would be understood not as a permanent state but rather as the incentive that drives still broader paradigms within which existing ones can be compared (without, however, ever mentioning "reality" in any absolute sense)."
Whether or not there is an objective world, science should be useful! Therefore teaching to use science, by training to both challenge the truths it claims as incomplete and to give a basic foundation from which to work are important. Beyond all of this, I believe in a model of education that works to help students develop the tools that will enable them to become active participants in a world. To learn the skills to deconstruct assumptions and establish her own imaginative possibility to perceive herself, her community and her world in changing and exciting ways. Science education should be a part of this process of self and world creation, but this also means the educative experience cannot disregard the current truth that her community operates under.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Kuhn, usefulness, myths, progress, and education

"A paradigm which is left behind for a more useful one is not false, it is only no longer as helpful. I think he is trying to to save us from perpetual schizophrenia about what is myth and what is true. If we allow for paradigms that were once true to be falsified, we allow that all that we believe to be true could in fact be myth at any moment. Can we actually live this way? And a more Kuhnian question, would it be fruitful to live this way?"

Yeah, I think we could indeed live this way. See Writing Descartes. AND that it would be useful. Keeping in mind that everything is "myth" could help avoid wars, among other things. See 11 September 2001.

"I believe in a model of education that works to help students develop the tools that will enable them to become active participants in a world."

It is interesting that "useful" could be a way of thinking about "falsification". And I like your notion of science education as "part of this process of self and world creation" (cf Trying out "hands-on inquiry" and learning from it). I wonder what the relation is between "usefulness" and my suggestion that falsification in Kuhn may correspond to "subsuming"? The problem with starting with "current truth" is that it constrains the directions one might take in the future. And therefore the opportunities to find something more "useful"? Could one perhaps teach "subsuming" as an objective, in pursuit of usefulness?