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Philosophy of Science

Critical Comments on Laudan's Theory of Scientific Aims

Armando Cíntora

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ABSTRACT: I criticize Laudan's constraints on cognitive aims as presented in Science and Values. These constraints are axiological consistency and non-utopianism. I argue that (i) Laudan's prescription for non utopian aims is too restrictive because it excludes ideals and characterizes as irrational or non-rational numerous human contingencies. (ii) We aim to ideals because there is no cogent way to specify in advance what degree of deviation from an ideal is acceptable. Thus, one cannot dispense with ideals. (iii) Laudan does not distinguish difficult from impossible goals, making his injunction against utopianism imprecise. It is "semantically utopian" and, furthermore, a prescription for conservatism and mediocrity. (iv) Goals often contradict each other or are at least partially incompatible. Since Laudan does not say how to prioritize incompatible aims, axiological consistency is an utopian desideratum. Thus, his constraints on cognitive aims contradict one another. Finally, (v), Laudan's axiological constraints are too weak and in order to strengthen them, he must invoke without justification some implicit pre-philosophical cognitive aims. This opens the logical possibility of axiological relativism, which Laudan attempted from the beginning to avoid.

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Laudan's Theory of Aims

In Science and Values, Laudan has developed the view that our scientific aims can sometimes be rationally selected by imposing two constraints (1) on them:

1. they should be jointly consistent,

2. a pragmatic constraint of empirical realizability, or non-utopianism. This last requisite follows from Laudan`s means-ends conception of rationality,

To adopt a goal with the feature that we can conceive of no actions that would be apt to promote it, or a goal whose realization we could not recognize even if we had achieved it, is surely a mark of unreasonableness and irrationality. (Laudan, 1981, p. 51)(Emphasis added)

Now, Laudan takes a goal to be 'utopian' in three ways:

First, a goal is 'demonstrably utopian', when

it cannot possibly be achieved, given our understanding of logic or the laws of nature . . .

( Laudan, 1981, p. 52 )(Emphasis added)

Second, a goal is 'semantically utopian' if it satisfies the following analysis,

Many scientists espouse values or goals that, under critical challenge, they cannot characterize in a succinct and cogent way. They may be imprecise, ambiguous, or both. Such familiarly cited cognitive goals as simplicity and elegance often have this weakness, because most advocates of these goals can offer no coherent definition or characterization of them. (Laudan, 1981, p. 52 )

Third, a goal is 'epistemically utopian', when the following holds:

It sometimes happens that an agent can give a perfectly clear definition of his goal state and that the goal is not demonstrably utopian, but that nonetheless its advocates cannot specify ( and seem to be working with no implicit form of ) a criterion for determining when the value is present or satisfied and when it is not. (Laudan, ibidem)(Emphasis added)

Are Laudan's Recommended Constraints for Cognitive Aims Adequate?

I will illustrate many of these criticisms with examples from non-cognitive ends. (2) This is because we are often more acquainted with these other goals, and thus they provide a useful and clarifying analogy. For instance, there are analogies between cognitive aims such as the avoidance of ad hoc hypothesis, or the search for simple theories, and non-cognitive aims such as wisdom, or love, in that all of these goals would be, according to Laudan, semantically and epistemically utopian. Also, aims such as perfect social justice or democracy are analogous to a cognitive aim such as the full truth, (3) or full objectivity concerning some subject, in that these aims cannot be achieved ('given our understanding of logic or the laws of nature') and so these goals would be, for Laudan, demonstrably utopian.

A. Laudan's Prescription for Non-Utopian Aims is too Restrictive

(i) Idealists have been praised by legions, and idealists have been admired precisely because they struggled after utopian aims, thus Laudan's theory of aims is counter-intuitive, since it contradicts widespread value intuitions

Laudan says,

We customarily regard as bizarre, if not pathological, those who earnestly set out to do what we have very strong reasons for believing to be impossible. (Laudan, 1981, p. 51)(Emphasis added)

It might be that customarily we judge thus, that is, when considering common goals, but one is not governed by customary judgments, when assessing extraordinary cases. Thus, the epithets of bizarre, pathological, or unreasonable, are frequently withheld if the impossible aim sought is considered to be extremely valuable. In such a case the subject who struggles, or who is thought to struggle, after demonstrably utopian aims won't be called mad or bizarre, but will instead be considered an idealist, a hero, a romantic, a martyr, a courageous man, or a saint.

A well-known example of idealist conduct is provided by the standard reading of Socrates conduct after his trial. Socrates chose not to flee, which he could have done. Socrates chose to stay in Athens even after the death penalty had been pronounced against him. Socrates didn't flee because he allegedly thought that the correct thing to do, was to be self-coherent, that is, to be true to himself, to be true to his sense of justice, and to obey his city's laws. (4) Now, full personal and intellectual integrity is a 'demonstrably utopian aim' because of human frailty, and because its full attainment would require of full self knowledge, that is, its full attainment would require of no self-deception, of no inner hypocrisy.

Still Socrates had it as an aim, and he was ready to sacrifice his life for this aim. Would we call Socrates irrational by aiming at this end? Would we call Socrates irrational by staying in Athens and awaiting the death penalty?

Laudan would also disqualify as unreasonable struggles such as: to be virtuous, wise, loving, the "Pursuit of Happiness" (this last, in the American Declaration of Independence), the avoidance of ad hoc hypothesis, the search of verisimilar scientific theories, the search of truth or knowledge, (5) or to aim at simple or elegant scientific theories. These struggles would be disqualified because they aim at goals that are 'semantically' and/or 'epistemically utopian'. In other words, these goals are disqualified because we cannot characterize these ends in a 'succinct and cogent way', and/or because, we don't have a 'criterion' for determining when we have reached these goals.

A philosophy that disqualifies as irrational widely admired or revered goals, as well as their admirers, is a philosophy under suspicion of having too exacting standards, such a doctrine is itself suspected of having 'demonstrably utopian' meta-aims. This because, Laudan's proscription of ideals as irrational contradicts what we know about a widespread human conduct. It contradicts what we know about the behaviour of the admired idealists, as well as, what we know about the behaviour of the admirers of these idealists. Laudan's advise against utopian aims is suspect of itself being 'demonstrably utopian', because it contradicts our understanding of some laws of nature, in this case, those laws relating to the behaviour and valuations of a significant segment of humanity.

If so, Laudan's meta-methodology is suspect of having utopian meta-aims, it is suspect of being precisely what it condemns, and then Laudan's anti-utopianism is suspect of being self referentially contradictory. (6) If not, consider the following set of three thesis: i) Affirm that utopian or idealist behaviour is irrational, ii) notice that, as a matter of fact, in our culture 'irrational' is a term with derogatory implications of foolishness or madness, and iii) be aware of the empirical fact that, throughout history, there have been idealists, (7) and that some of them have been widely admired qua idealists. Now, this set appears to be incoherent, since from (i) and (ii) one concludes that idealists are foolish, or crazy, and this conclusion clearly clashes with (iii), that is, with the fact that many consider utopianists as admirable. One could try to escape this incoherence through one of the following options: Affirm that term 'irrational'-whatever our de facto social use says-is not a term of disapproval or abuse, but to conclude this one would have to ignore an empirical fact.

Or conclude that idealists-whatever their numerous admirers have said- are not admirable qua idealists, but this is counterintuitive. It is counterintuitive to say that Socrates search for intellectual and personal integrity was "bizarre" or foolish. It is counterintuitive to say that Socrates' effort to do what he thought was just-even if at the cost of his own life-was "pathological." It is also counter-intuitive to say that the 'pursuit of happiness', the search of love, the search of wisdom, or the search of verisimilar or true theories, are foolish or even mad, this because they are semantically and epistemically utopian. So, to escape the incoherence one may conclude that the search for very valuable utopian aims is not irrational. A world without utopian goals, would be for many an impoverished world, and if utopian goals were irrational, then full rationality would for many not be desirable.

Still this argument is somewhat weak. We only know for sure that the set of thesis (i)-(iii) is incoherent, but logic does not tell us which of these theses to give up, for this one has to invoke intuitions. But here there is a conflict between the pragmatist's intuition of the character of rationality as means/ends rationality (and therefore of the irrational character of idealists), and the intuitive high valuation many of us have of idealists, qua idealists.

In what follows, I will give some further arguments for the assertion that the search after valuable utopian aims can be rational. These arguments taken in isolation are not conclusive, but the sum of all of them may have some weight.

(ii) The fact that ideals are humanly impossible to attain, and that one can only approach ideals, provides paradoxically a powerful psychological reason for striving after ideals; striving after valuable ideals can create an enduring emotion of self-respect.

A life's struggle after a utopian and very valuable aim can cause-at least in certain temperaments-lasting emotions of self-respect or self-esteem, and these emotions are necessary for a good life. (8) Therefore it is rational-at least for these temperaments-to strive for ideals, and their concurrent emotions. The idealist is searching for a good life, and not merely looking for success.

The search of ideals can likewise provide whole communities with generalized emotions of self-respect. This fact has been known and exploited, for example, by army leaders who take care to motivate future combatants by arguing to them that the war they are to engage in is a just war, a war that aims at valuable ideals, such as democracy, justice, freedom, honor, glory, etc. (9)

In Laudan's tripartite reticulated model of substantial theories, methodological rules and goals, emotions have been left out, possibly because we ignore so much about the nature of emotions, and about their possible rationality. But, as this example suggests, a full rational account of human action, and in particular of scientific behavior, would need to take emotions into account.

(iii) We aim at ideals, because we don't know how far from an ideal is appropiate to aim, thus ideals cannot be dispensed with, and hence ideal aims cannot be irrational

We strive for ideals, that is, we often try to reach impossible, but extremely valuable aims, because there is no cogent way of specifying in advance how close or how far from the unreachable goal is good enough. So one aims for the ideal itself , even if we are condemned -as Sisyphus- to always fall short of it. That is, we don't know how to weaken the ideal, without it losing its appeal.

One may, for instance, struggle à la Socrates for self-knowledge, even though the process of self-discovery is never ending. Yet we persist, because, we don't know how to weaken the ideal goal, without it losing its appeal or value. If not, how much self-knowledge would be good enough?

Other examples, are the struggles for the attainment of a loving attitude, or the search for self-coherence, or the quest for a rational attitude. We don't know how much of these goals would be sufficient, we don't know how much would be appropriate, so we aim for the ideals themselves. One aims at the ideal because there is no acceptable weakening of the ideal. So ideals cannot be dispensed with, except if one omits from one's range of goals, much that has traditionally been considered valuable. Therefore, it is rational to aim at ideals.

(iv) Laudan's prescription against 'semantically' and 'epistemically' utopian aims is also too restrictive, because it often happens that one doesn't know, at least consciously, what one is aiming at

One can aim at a goal as a sleepwalker. For instance, when one longs for somebody, it often happens that one doesn't really know what it is that one desires. It is easy to confuse a longing for love, beauty, knowledge, or companionship with sexual desire. Thus, a personal relationship could start as a result of the search for fulfillment of a supposed erotic desire, just to discover that this desire is only an aspect of what we are really looking for. One discovers that the original longing was for something more than sex. What precisely that more is, it is something we cannot clearly express, it is a je ne sait quoi. It could be a desire to know and to love that person, or it could be a desire for beauty, or for transcendence, or for self knowledge. Luis Buñuel has portrayed such a situation in his Cet objet obscure du désir.

Such ends, are, due to their obscurity, likely to be semantically and epistemically utopian. Hence, Laudan would disqualify aiming for them as irrational, as he would disqualify the search for Buddhist nirvana, or the struggles of radical revolutionaries after an ideal society, or the search for verisimilar scientific theories.

But, one can approach an ideal without having a clear idea of what it is, by struggling to eliminate what it is not, that is, by a via negativa, á la Popper. Many have tried to reach ideals, even if they had to strive half in the dark, and even if while struggling, they just hoped for the best. Laudan would say that all of them were irrational.

B. Laudan's Prescription for Non Utopian Aims is Imprecise

Even if one were to fully grant Laudan his prescription against utopian goals, Laudan still should distinguish a very difficult aim from an impossible one, from a 'demonstrably utopian' one. Because, even if a goal is demonstrably unachievable, the impossibility of getting very close to it does not follow.

Laudan's lack of discrimination between the very difficult and the impossible turns his injunction against utopian aims into an 'imprecise' and 'vague' recommendation. Hence, Laudan's injunction against utopian goals is itself 'semantically utopian', and therefore it is self-referentially inconsistent.

Furthermore, Laudan's failure to discriminate between the very difficult and the impossible, plus his recommendation against 'demonstrably utopian' aims, is in fact a prescription for intellectual and moral complacency, for mediocrity or conformism, and for conservatism. It discourages us from any really difficult enterprise, it discourages us from aspiring after excellence, cognitive or otherwise. Laudan's proscription against utopian aims is contrary to a traditional virtue: courage, a virtue necessary to lead a good life. Laudan's advice susbstitutes courage with conformism and stoic resignation. For example, Laudan's theory would imply that a Soviet dissident (10) who struggled for political freedom in the 50 's was irrational, since the probability of his endeavor succeeding was extremely low. And this was precisely the opinion of Soviet psychiatrists, who considered these dissidents as insane. These dissidents were thought to be insane, because they would not adapt or conform, because they were maladapted, as was shown by their stubborn and hopeless contest, they were maladapted as was shown by the enormous personal costs they were ready to incur for the sake of their impossible dream: 'bourgeois freedom'.

For Laudan a conformist or resigned slave would be rational, but a frustrated-though self steemed-idealist (such as Spartacus or a Soviet dissident ) that would not conform, that would fight for freedom, would not be rational. This is counter-intuitive, since freedom has traditionally been thought necessary for well being, and therefore as something that a rational and autonomous person should value, and should struggle for.

III. Laudan's prescription for consistent aims is incomplete, and it is unlikely that it can be completed by reason, and this situation creates the possibility of a relativism of different consistent value hierarchies

Our aims are not completely independent, in other words, acting to fulfill some aims makes it difficult or impossible to achieve others. And because of this situation, a rational life does not consist of a series of successive actions, each one directed at satisfying one or another of our goals.

Thus, even if we were to concede to Laudan the exclusion of utopian aims, and even if we all were to share the same set of non-utopian aims, we could still find ourselves with several valuable goals that are incompatible, and which we don't know how to make compatible. These tensions between aims are discovered once one is aware of the consequences of striving after his various goals. Tensions between goals can lead, when unsolved, to a Buridan's ass's situation. Hence it is necessary to know how to prioritize, weight or reinterpret aims, so as to combine them in a new consistent synthesis.

This need for ranking aims introduces an extra element of precariousness, of uncertainty, into our axiological decisions. Axiological debates often merely have to do with diverse ways of weighting ends or values, and not with the selection of the set of valuable aims itself. For example, two scientists can share the same cognitive values, and still disagree in their value hierarchies, and because of this hierarchical disagreement, these two scientists could end with different theoretical evaluations. For example, assume two XVIth century astronomers share the same cognitive values, and share the same value hierarchy, except that the first astronomer gives more weight to conceptual simplicity, while the second one gives a higher rank to inter-theoretical coherence. If so, our first astronomer would prefer the Copernican system, because of its conceptual simplicity, while the second scientist would side with the geocentric system, because of its coherence with Aristotelian physics and cosmology. (11)

Now, since Laudan has not told us how to weigh, (12) prioritize or re-interpret incompatible but attractive aims, his injunction for consistency — even if inconsistency were clearly established (13) — is incomplete. But Laudan's theory of values is incomplete, because it cannot be completed by reason. It cannot be completed by reason, because to weigh aims we need to order them, for example, in terms of relevance, centrality, importance, or pertinence. But these last criteria are themselves values (rather meta-values), meta-values that can be different for diverse communities, scientists, and times. Therefore, axiological inconsistencies will be dealt with different intuitions, prejudices, biases, or personal idiosyncracies, about what is important, pertinent, or relevant. That is, the harmonization of aims is a question to be decided by biographical or historical accident, not by reason. (14) If so, value hierarchies have to be taken for granted, i.e., they have a dogmatic character, in the sense that they can not be rationally justified as correct.

In other words, different priorizations of incompatible aims can be legitimate, because reason underdetermines the set of desirable value hierarchies. That is, even if different rational communities or individuals share the same values, they still can have different rational value hierarchies. None of these value priorizations can rationally be shown to be better than any other, except, from their own meta-perspective. One has to choose between hierarchies without the help of reason, because reason cannot determine which hierarchy is to be preferred. (15)

This situation leads us into a relativism or pluralism of different value hierarchies, and this in turn implies that there can be many possible rational scientific theory choices (as the previous example of the two hypothetical XVIth century astronomers showed.) We land in a form of relativism, because differences about the priorization of aims (scientific or otherwise) cannot be rationally decided. (16) Laudan has criticized (17) Reichenbach precisely for such a relativistic position, one that considers the selection of the aims of science as a question of volitional decision. So this relativistic answer should not be available to Laudan.

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(1) Laudan also requires that goals should be consistent with the 'Tradition', that is, with the canonical achievements of a successful discipline. Laudan believes there are "pre-philosophical" pragmatic canons of scientific success. These canons are cognitive goals such as prediction and control, and these canons judge what is scientifically proper, they judge what is scientifically successful.

(2) Many of the following arguments were inspired by various helpful conversations I held on these topics with John Worrall.

(3) Full theoretical truth about some subject matter is not attainable as shown by Gödel's theorems. While full social justice and democracy can not be attained, because of human imperfection.

(4) Cf., Plato's 'Crito'.

(5) And this, even though, numerous scientists have, at least prima facie, highly valued and searched knowledge. For example, Garré of Basel, a disciple of R. Koch, risked his health and life by inoculating himself with staphylococci, he did this to find out whether the hypothesis of a bacterial cause for anthrax was true.

(6) It would be self-referentially contradictory because, the proscription against both utopian aims and against utopian meta-aims follows (for somebody like Laudan ) from a conditional such as: Q', if you would be means/ends rational, then you will avoid utopian aims, and you will avoid utopian meta-aims. That is, Laudan would proscribe both utopian aims and utopian meta-aims.

(7) Or at least people widely believed to have been idealists.

(8) For Rawls (cf., Section 67 of his Theory of Justice) self-respect is one of the primary goods, that is, one of the goods necessary for the framing and successful execution of a rational plan of life.

(9) In the case of scientific communities one may speculate that those scientific communities that aim (or believe to aim ) at ideals, such as truth, gain in self respect, and therefore such communities also gain in motivation.

(10) Cf., J. Elster, Salomonic Judgements, Chap. 1

(11) Cf., chap. XIII of Kuhn's The Essential Tension.

(12) The weighing of ends is also needed to fine tune the means chosen to approach or attain some aims, since the means are often underdetermined by the desired end states. For example, if the only aim of a community were egalitarianism the way it was approached (say through revolutionary terror or through gradualist reform) would be irrelevant. Other weighted aims are needed, such as human rights and democratic freedoms, to help narrow the under-determination of chosen means. If not, one could end with results as dissimilar as Maoist China and the Japan of the 60's, two communities which were allegedly quite egalitarian.

Another example, when going to war, one should not only aim for victory, but rather for a just victory, one obtained by just means, i.e., the means employed should not constitute a greater evil than the evil the war was intended to remedy.

(13) Since some axiological inconsistencies can be only pragmatic, it is not always clear whether some collection of ideals is mutually inconsistent.

(14) Cf., N. Rescher, The Strife of Systems, chapters 7 & 8.

(15) When this happens, our passionate nature will decide what our intellect cannot adequately settle.

(16) Laudancs meta-aim of axiological consistency is a goal suspect of being 'demonstrably utopian', because it is not likely that we will ever have a theory of rational value priorizations. So it is not reasonable by Laudan's meta-methodology own standards. If so, Laudan's theory would be suspect of being self-referentially inconsistent.

(17) Cf., Laudan, 1996, Beyond Positivism and Relativism, p. 16

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