Yesterday morning I spent an hour or so finishing up the reading for a philosophy of science reading group that convenes at EMU later this afternoon. The group met a few times late in the winter semester, but their schedule was at odds with mine. I wasn’t able to attend a single meeting. A friend from last fall’s new faculty orientation has organized the group, and for a few different reasons, I agreed to participate. Among those reasons are 1) eclectic reading, 2) cross-disciplinary conversations, and 3) the possibility that I might at some point teach ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology. Philosophy of science and rhetoric of science and technology are more close siblings than twins, but I see enough resemblances to make these conversations worth checking out.
We’re working through Lawrence Sklar’s Philosophy and Spacetime Physics (1985), the Intro and Chapter One are up for this week’s get-together. The introduction is divided into “The Epistemology of Geometry” (4), “The Ontology of Spacetime Theories and Their Explanatory Role” (8), “Causal Order and Spatiotemporal Order” (15), and “Reflections on These Essays” (19). In that final section, “Reflections,” Sklar presents a few of key points related to his own methods and how to read the book. First, he nods to his earlier book, Space, Time, and Spacetime, saying readers would find some useful staging there, but adding that the current collection of essays should provide enough context to proceed without needing to begin at some earlier work on these topics. Sklar adopts “a rather ‘dialectic’ means of investigation” (20), and appears wary of contextualizing spacetime philosophy only in terms of contemporary developments in physics. Instead, he explains, “the essays try to show that the work of theoretical science takes place in a context in which various philosophical presuppositions are, consciously or unconsciously, continuously being utilized to reach theoretical conclusions” (19). Those “philosophical presuppositions,” then, are like trails of crumbs scattered unevenly out of various arcs of thought. The context Sklar prefers would allow us to do a better job of noticing flecks and textures in this mélange rather than deferring to philosophically to whatever is trending scientifically these days. Sklar reminds readers that “a good way to approach this book would be to read through the essays from beginning to end, not worrying about the places where full comprehension is elusive” (21). Noted: not worrying.
C. 1, “Methodological Conservativism”
The chapter begins with a passage from John Barth’s novel, The End of the Road. I’ll share the entire epigraph, since it nicely encapsulates the problem Sklar addresses in the chapter, i.e., how to decide.
Don’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you’re lost. You’re not that strong. If the alternatives are side by side choose the one on the left; if they’re consecutive in time, choose the earlier. If neigher of these applies, choose the alternative whose name begins with the earlier letter of the alphabet. These are the principles of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetic Priority–there are others, and they’re arbitrary, but useful. Good-bye.
There are, of course, dangers in attempting to sum up a chapter like this that so deliberately comes at things from as many angles as possible, but, in effect, the chapter echoes with “continue believing what you already believe” or “don’t fall victim to alluring new theories that are at odds with personal knowledge” (there are moments early on when this reminds me of Polanyi…brief moments). Sklar offers as an example that “There is nothing, as far as I can see, in the physical theory which existed prior to 1917 which would lead one to prefer a theory of curved spacetime to one with ‘universal forces'” (31). I write this as someone who has never studied physics, and yet the guiding principle, if I can reduce it to one, is that methodological conservativism wards against a breezy philosophical manner willing to believe something new when its warrants are at odds with what one already knows (confirmed empirically, or by direct sense experience).
Sklar writes elliptically (i.e., with oblong orbit) around these terms, allowing for possibilities that concepts like “conservativism” might not be quite right:
Obviously the application of the conservative principle is simpler and more decisive in the case where we are concerned with sticking with a hypothesis which we already do believe than it is in the case of selecting from among a set of novel hypotheses. So let us focus on this situation. Is the adoption of the rule justified or reasonable even in these cases? Clearly the rule does resolve a dilemma for us–it tells us to stick with the theory we have and not to drop it for one of the newly discovered alternatives nor to lapese into a skeptical suspension of belief. But is conservativism itself warranted? (32)
I guess the next question for me would be “What does a standard preference for conservativism obstruct, delay, or waylay?” Sklar seems to have an interest in the consequences of too willingly believing what’s new, but there must likewise be consequences linked to the alternative he recommends. One clear gain is that methodological conservativism holds skepticism at bay, but I am, after reading, still wondering about the reach of these ideas, their implications.
In Part V of the chapter, Sklar situates conservativism in relation to five different belief justifications. The justifications are
1. Justification by Intuition
2. Justification by Codification of Practice
3. Justification by Appeal to Higher Rules
4. Justification by Empirical Grounding
5. Justification by Appeal to Means and Ends
Justification itself aligns with a rationalist credo, and, in its philosophical orientation, this work gravitates toward empirical rationalism (I’m almost sure Sklar would trouble this characterization, even describing it as unhelpful “sloganeering”).
A few more illustrative quotations/terms:
“A hidebound refusal ever to change one’s belief’s is nothing but irrational dogmatism. But the desire to maintain the beliefs one already has unless there is some good reason to change them is as rational as the programmatic commitment to maintain one’s social institutions unless there is some reason to revise them” (38).
lemmata (41): “a subsidiary position or proposition introduced to support or advance a larger proposition”
“I think an argument might go like this. Suppose we believe H1 and then discover H2 which is just as plausible, on all but conservative grounds, as H1 relative to present evidence. What should we do? The conservative tells us that considerations of utility recommend our sticking to our present belief. But that is not necessarily what utility does necessitate. What we should do depends, first of all, on the relevant utlities in the particular case of not believing anything, believing something and having it be true, and believing something and having it be false. Just how important is it (on either “practical” or “purely scientific” grounds) for us to have some belief or other? If it is not all that important, then the thing to do is to admit that one just has no idea which hypothesis is true and remain in a skeptical withholding of judgment until further evidence is in” (42).
“Conservativism is not just a minor ‘last resort’ principle invoked only when all other principles have failed to do the selecting job for us. Conservativism is, in fact, so deeply and pervasively embedded in our schema for deciding what it is rational to believe that once we have seen the full role that it plays we are likely to reject the alternatives to it of skepticism, which tells us to withhold belief from any of the alternatives, of permissivism which tells us it is all right to pick any one we choose, or of speaking of our choices as being ‘adoptions’ rather than beliefs” (43).
Sklar develops the idea of “methodological conservativism” for a particular philosophical quandary, but these ideas may very well generalize to other philosophical domains any time something new and something pragmatically known collide. In fact, for rhetoric and composition, there are resonances here for how people talk about continuing to do what they have always done (Does methodological conservativism help explain current-traditional pedagogy, perhaps as entrenched belief-in-action?). One other issue I’m weighing heading into this afternoon’s meeting is Why “methodological”? Is this a method for philosophizing? A method for thinking? A method for deciding what to believe? And what, besides skepticism, permissivism, and semantic reframings are alternatives to this methodological orientation, not only in physics, but elsewhere, as well?