Theory-Ladenness or Neutral Observation Framework?

Posted: October 24, 2009 in Philosophy

Was Thomas Kuhn right that reality changes in a massive way with a change in paradigms?  Philosopher of science Peter Munz appears to deny this.  He said:

“If there really were no meaning invariance it would have been impossible for Max Planck to invent the Quantum discontinuity.  When Planck started to consider the problem of Black-Body Radiation, he began by considering an experimentally determined distribution of this radiation expressed by the formula [omitted].  How, he began, was this distribution to be explained?  There had been several attempts at an explanation in terms of classical theories.  Planck, however, changed the paradigm by introducing the idea of what has become known as “Planck’s constant” and provided the now famous solution [omitted].  One will notice that in spite of the paradigm shift involved in the discovery of the constant, his solution is not a solution of a new observation, but a solution of the old observation [omitted] made long before the shift in fundamental concepts took place.”  (Our Knowledge of the Growth of Knowledge: Popper or Wittgenstein, 1985, p. 154.  Note: the omissions are technical formulas.)

Munz’s point is that the problem situation arising with Black Body radiation did not change.  That is to say, the observation of the physical reality captured by the (omitted) mathematical expression did not change.  What changed was a different way of looking at the observations, not the observations themselves.  Reality is thus invariant, but interpretations of it vary.

On the other hand, Munz went on to claim that Planck’s intial observation was theory-laden because it was made with the help of other theories—i.e., that third theories were involved in the introduction of the constant.  He believed theory-ladenness was all right as long as it is derived from theories that are not involved in the question of the moment.

It seems to me, however, that this is a needless admission.  Munz is depending on Karl Popper’s argument against the “myth of the framework.”  Popper had correctly stated that we are not trapped within frameworks, that if we choose, we could very well escape from our particular frameworks.

 But he undermined his position by saying we could only do so by entering into another framework, or into a wider framework.  (Karl Popper, “Normal Science and Its Dangers,” in Imre Lakotos and Alan Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, 1970, p. 56.  See also Popper, “The Myth of the Framework,” in Eugene Freeman, ed., Abdication of Philosophy: Philosophy and the Public Good, 1976.)

This expansionist concept of framework relativism, however, does not seem to be much of a gain over Kuhn.  Popper’s falsificationist theory of science cannot work if the means of escaping one framework leads us into a wider (possibly false) framework.  Does it not need a neutral observation pool that is theory-independent?  Otherwise, what would be the point of falsification?  Falsification would be irrelevant because any proposed falsification would itself be theory-laden.

The problem of self-referential incoherence infects all relativist schemes, whether Kuhnian or Popperian.  If Kuhn or Popper’s relativistic notions were true and applied to their own claims, then their own claims would be theory-laden, incommensurable, and forever trapped within wider intellectual prisons.

A better metaphor for the discovery of truth (though not original with me) might be this: The search for truth does not consist in breaking out of one intellectual prison into a larger, wider intellectual prison, but consists in following a straight and narrow course until the final destination is reached.

I don’t deny, of course, that bias and intellectual imprisonment occur, and are in fact quite widespread.  And true there are also many biased and prejudiced people who think, and claim loudly, that they are unbiased and free from prejudice when in fact they aren’t.

But that some people don’t live up to the ideal is no reason to give up.  It’s why responsible thinkers have recommended a scientific and logical methodology in the first place — to reduce the amount of bias.  While some bias might still creep back into the process — like a masked Jason from the Friday the 13th horror movies — it’s just a risk one has to take, like suffering through another bad sequel.

It would not be possible to discover bias if there were no neutral observation framework.  In fact, the very idea of bias would no longer have any meaning if theory-ladenness could never be escaped.  For a defense of the autonomy of the observation pool, i.e., reality, see Thomas A. Russman, A Prospectus For the Triumph of Realism, 1987.



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