Toward a Political Philosophy of Science

By Gómez, Ambrosio Velasco | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Toward a Political Philosophy of Science


Gómez, Ambrosio Velasco, Philosophy Today


Science is commonly conceived as a system of propositions tested and justified through rigorous methods, that seeks to achieve epistemic values such as objectivity, coherence, precision, systematization, generalization, explanatory and predictive force. Even less orthodox authors, like Thomas Kuhn who focuses not only on science as product but also as a specific kind of social practice, only takes into account epistemic values, and leaves aside moral, social and political considerations. From this point of view, science is morally and politically neutral. More recently some philosophers like Javier Echeverría (2002) and Léon Olivé (2000) have pointed out the relevance of non- epistemic values to understand the development of science and technology. However, from Karl Popper to Larry Laudan, most philosophers of science consider that introducing social or political discussions in the context of justification of scientific theories represents a serious threat to the rationality of science. Those authors like Paul Feyerabend and Michel Foucault, who point out the intrinsic relationship between scientific truth and political power, are condemned as irrational postmodernists.

Fortunately during the last decades the social, moral and political dimensions of science have caught the attention of philosophers, sociologists and historians of science in the scope of Science and Technology Studies (STS) (Fuller, 1993; Pickering, 1992; Mitcham, 1995; Ibarra and López Cerezo, 2003). But this new and increasingly innovative discipline, although it challenges many presuppositions of standard philosophy of science (mainly logical empiricism), deals more with the interaction of science and technology in applied contexts (techno science) rather than with the intrinsic problems of justification of scientific theories.

My main purpose here is to argue that it is necessary to consider moral and political questions in the core of epistemological and methodological problems of scientific theories that are typically discussed in traditional philosophy of science. Accordingly, the first part of my argument relies on two important philosophers of science from the beginning of the twentieth century: Pierre Duhem and Otto Neurath. Both criticized the widespread idea that the rationality and objectivity of science is exclusively based on a rigorous methodology, and both introduced moral, social and political considerations to clarify the nature of scientific rationality. Unfortunately these important insights of the founding fathers of the twentieth century philosophy of science have not been recovered and acknowledged by most of their philosophical heirs.

After clarifying some important moral, social, and political aspects of scientific rationality, the second part of my argument uses the pragmatic view of scientific rationality to challenge the methodological and exclusively epistemic concept of rationality that originated with Plato and became the dominant view in modern philosophy through the work of René Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Thomas Hobbes. I also discuss the political consequences of methodological and epistemic rationality, taken together with the widespread idea that political and even ethical decisions must be based on scientific knowledge. I maintain that these two theses are not only false, but have strong authoritarian implications.

Finally, the third part of my argument turns again to Neurath in order to suggest a republican way of relating science and political decisions, so as to promote social and political values, such as justice and democracy, alongside epistemic values.

Empirical Underdetermination, Good Sense, and Auxiliary Motives

In his book, The End and Structure of Physical Theory (1906), Pierre Duhem presented one of the most important issues of contemporary philosophy of science: the empirical Underdetermination of theories. This problem was subsequently developed by Willard Van Orman Quine and is commonly know as the Duhem-Quine thesis. …

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