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2 Scientific Progress and Epistemic Appraisal

2 Scientific Progress and Epistemic Appraisal

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The Normative and the Natural

extended periods of convergent research are the necessary preliminary to

them. (1959, 227)

Kuhn argues that the history of virtually every scientific discipline,

from physical optics to physiology, demonstrates that during times when

research in a field is not characterized by convergent thinking (i.e., when

researchers are confronted with a variety of different theories, allowed to

examine the evidence for each, and choose among the theories on their

merits), research in this field makes “very little progress” (1959, p. 231).

Study of the pre-paradigm periods of these other disciplines strongly suggests that “without a firm consensus, this more flexible practice will not

produce the pattern of rapid consequential scientific advance to which

recent centuries have accustomed us” (1959, 232). Without a theory to

which one is committed, one does not know what phenomena are significant, and what problems are worth solving (or perhaps indeed what

the problems are in the first place). Further, one must be committed to a

theory to undertake the serious work which is required to extend, deepen

(and ultimately overthrow) the theory:

Who, for example, would have developed the elaborate mathematical techniques required for the study of the effects of interplanetary attractions

upon basic Keplerian orbits if he had not assumed that Newtonian dynamics, applied to the planets then known, would explain the last details of

astronomical observation? But without this assurance, how would Neptune

have been discovered and the list of planets changed? (Kuhn 1959, 235)

Appraisal along the epistemic dimension—the practice common in

every field from chemistry to philosophy, of evaluating beliefs as justified

or unjustified, scientific methods as rational or irrational, and so on, and

of evaluating and revising not only those beliefs, but also the standards

of evaluation themselves—is one of the tools that enables a consensus

to arise and be maintained, and thereby speeds scientific progress. For

a physicist working in 1800, it was rational to believe that Newtonian

physics was correct. It was rational to carry out research projects using

Newtonian techniques, and it would have been irrational to attempt to

use Aristotelian physics to account for planetary motion. A physicist who


Why Do We Need Normativity?


incorporated unjustified techniques (such as those of Aristotelian physics) would have been sanctioned by partial or complete exclusion from

the profession of physics. Those who were adept at applying Newtonian

techniques to the study of planetary motion were affirmed by inclusion.

Willem deVries (writing about how even our scientific engagement

with the world is inherently normative) argues,

One might think that the scientific image or framework is simply devoid

of practical claims, because it aims only at description or explanation. But

the scientific framework must also contain methods and canons, and these

consist in part of prescriptive claims. There are ways experiments ought to

be done and ways they ought not to be done; ways data ought to be interpreted and ways it should never be interpreted. There are inferences one

may make and inferences one is forbidden to make. Every conceptual

framework necessarily has a prescriptive or normative dimension. (2005,


Jean Hampton makes a similar point. She notes that the pronouncements of scientists are only accorded (prima facie) authority to the extent

that scientists have followed the relevant epistemic norms. Thus,

we accept the results of experiments performed by, say, medical researchers

only insofar as we are sure they accept the hypothetical imperative: ‘If you

want to generate evidence relevant to the truth of a certain hypothesis, you

ought to construct double-blind experiments.’ But here we have an ought

of (practical) reason, one among many generated by a norm of (practical)

reason on which science is based… And our acceptance of the results of

scientific experiments is not only based on our belief that scientists have

followed such imperatives, but also on our belief that they ought to have

done so. (1998, 209)

Putnam, in arguing against a sharp fact/value dichotomy, notes that

while every philosopher of science will acknowledge that criteria such as

simplicity, coherence, and so on are relevant to theory choice in science,

such criteria can only be understood as invoking certain values and making normative judgments. One does not make a neutral, merely factual

statement in describing one theory as more simple or coherent or fruitful


The Normative and the Natural

than another. Such judgments are meant to be action-guiding; they are

meant to guide theory choice (Cf. Putnam 1990, Chap. 9).

Epistemic evaluation can be discursive or practical. In other words, we

can call a methodology irrational or a belief unjustified, or we can carry out

our scientific practice in a way which favors this methodology, or which

presupposes the falsity of that belief. And when our eighteenth-century

professional physicists applied Newtonian techniques to the study of

planetary motion, they were practically (though not discursively) endorsing these techniques. Similarly, the exclusion of the Aristotelian physicists from their ranks was a form of practical evaluation, a repudiation of

these methods. This practical evaluation is crucial to scientific progress.

As Kuhn pointed out, if we do not practically favor a particular paradigm

over all others, science does not progress rapidly. Rapid scientific progress

requires practical epistemic evaluation, which can help enforce uniformity of methodology—the crucial element in scientific advancement,

according to Kuhn.

It might be objected that epistemic evaluation is not the sort of thing

that can be implicit in scientific practice. Epistemic evaluation—for

example, the assessment of techniques as rational or irrational—must be

explicit (spoken, written, etc.). But evaluation—moral, epistemic, and

other varieties—can surely be implicit in practice. For example, a person may firmly believe that lying is wrong, even if she never utters the

sentence, “Lying is wrong.” Her belief can be expressed by her constant

truth-telling, especially in those cases where lying would clearly be more

expedient for her. Alternately, her belief in the wrongness of lying could

be manifested by her feelings of guilt when she does tell a lie. Similarly,

Smith’s belief that the dishwasher will wash his dishes is implicit in his

actions (placing dirty dishes in the washer and turning it on) even if he

does not utter the sentence, “My dishwasher will wash my dishes” and

does not use the belief in a bit of explicit internal practical reasoning. We

can evaluate or believe on particular occasions without saying anything,

even in foro interno. Our evaluation and belief are internal in some cases,

and implicit in others. In fact, the majority of our practice occurs at the

level of the implicit. We only proceed to the level of explicit discourse

when we need to inform, educate, or argue. So it is with epistemological evaluation. Our belief that double-blind studies are more reliable


Why Do We Need Normativity?


than chicken bones is implicit in our decision to perform a double-blind

study instead of visiting a practitioner of bone-reading. One of the chief

insights to emerge from the pragmatist tradition is that normative language serves an expressive rather than a causal-explanatory role. That is,

rather than serving to refer to natural facts, or explain causal regularities

in behavior, normative language serves to make explicit norms which

are implicit in actual practice (so that these norms may be subjected to

rational scrutiny), or to endorse (or call for the revision of ) such norms

(which first requires that these norms be made explicit).

Indeed, we can only explain normative rules as a making explicit of

norms which are already implicit in social practice. As Brandom writes,

“Wittgenstein’s pragmatism about norms—his insistence that norms

made explicit in principles are intelligible only against a background of

norms implicit in practice” (1994, 591) implies that we cannot explain

the correctness of a performance by appeal to an explicit rule, because

such a picture would then have to explain correctly following this rule by

appeal to another explicit rule, leading to an infinite regress. Thus, the

existence of explicitly stated normative principles presupposes the existence of normative proprieties which are implicit in practice. This picture

of the normative will be drawn more firmly as the book progresses.

We have been arguing that science necessarily involves normative

assessments about which types of questions are instrumentally or intrinsically valuable, assessments of which theories and methods are rational,

and so on. But (goes one objection), cannot this point be accommodated

by a sociology of science? Surely, scientists take themselves to be guided

by certain norms, and to understand scientific practice, we must understand the various ways in which scientific practice embodies a commitment to this or that way of doing things (much as studying, say, a remote

tribe involves uncovering the commitments they have to various rules,

purportedly factual propositions, etc.). But (continues the objection),

displaying these commitments in no way involves endorsing them, or

committing ourselves to the truth of these commitments. Thus, how does

the necessity of normative assessments within scientific practice underwrite the importance of the normative, as opposed to merely underwriting the importance of practitioners’ beliefs about the normative?


The Normative and the Natural

We have two responses to this objection. First, while one can no doubt

do the sociology of science, the above discussion demonstrates that the

participants in a scientific inquiry must take themselves to be guided by

norms in their scientific practice. These norms will privilege some questions as more important than others; these norms will privilege some

methodologies as rational and justification-conferring; and these norms

will privilege some theories over others. So while a sociology of science

will certainly show that scientists are committed to certain norms, one

cannot fully account for this normativity via a sociological explanation:

commitment to norms of inquiry is not merely contingently, in fact,

a part of scientific practice (much in the way that Oktoberfest is contingently, in fact, part of German culture). Commitment to norms of

inquiry is a crucial, ineliminable part of scientific inquiry.

Second, that scientific inquiry is itself a goal worth pursuing is a

normative judgment, and the scientist cannot explain why it is worth

doing in the first place without making an evaluative judgment. Let us

assume that science is guided by a norm of truth. (Surely, there are more

norms than this—explanation, understanding, instrumental control over

nature, political power, control of disease, etc. But let us make this simplifying assumption for now.) The point that must be emphasized is this:

that a theoretical understanding of the world is even worth pursuing is

a normative judgment. That scientific truth is a goal we ought to pursue

in the first place is a normative judgment. It is not an unproblematic

assumption at all. Thus, a scientist who eschews normativity altogether

strips herself of the resources to say why it is that she does what she does

in the first place.

Many philosophers have the intuition that the pursuit of truth has

some kind of built-in necessity to it. (We suspect this is why fewer philosophers are skeptical of epistemic normativity than are skeptical of moral

normativity.) Many would say, if one were not truth oriented, then one

could not be an agent in the first place. Agency requires autonomy, the

capacity to form beliefs, and so on; and these capacities can only be possessed by a truth-oriented being.

We may grant that one must be at least minimally truth-oriented in

order to be an agent. But this in no way vindicates the scientific practices

so valued by naturalists. A commitment to being truth oriented does not


Why Do We Need Normativity?


entail a commitment to being globally truth-seeking. For example, while

Calvin thought that humans could and should acquire certain worldly

truths, and could and should acquire various religious truths by means

of Scripture, he thought that human reason was so corrupted by sin that

any attempt to go beyond Scripture and reason about the divine was

misguided to the point of being sinful. More radical is the Boko Haram

movement in Nigeria; the name translates roughly as “Western education is forbidden.” Presumably, members of this group are truth oriented

insofar as day-to-day living is concerned, but believe that certain methods of truth-seeking (in particular the ones most admired by scientifically

oriented naturalists) are sinful.

Thus, one could have a “gappy” commitment to the truth. One could

be truth oriented when it comes to acquiring food, shelter, and the like,

but totally indifferent to truth (or even actively opposed to its pursuit)

when it comes to forming beliefs about the shape of the earth, the author

of The Tempest, the atomic weight of iridium, the color of the sky, the

truth of evolutionary biology, the existence of black holes, and any other

number of other types of beliefs. Only when we import normativity

can we explain why anyone ought to care about truth (beyond what is

required for agency). And this point includes scientific truth.

The clear implication of this discussion is that even if some minimum

level of concern for the truth is a necessary condition on agency or otherwise rationally mandatory, scientific inquiry is itself a contestable value,

and something we do because we are convinced that there exist sufficient

reasons for doing so. But to say that the importance of scientific inquiry

is contestable is not to say that it can or will be successfully contested. We

hold that those who think it is not valuable are wrong. But the point is

you cannot say that they are wrong without using normative discourse,

and being committed to their wrongness is to undertake a particular kind

of normative commitment.1

Jean Hampton makes a similar point, arguing that “any science-based

argument against the idea of objective normative authority is self-refuting”

(1998, 207). The idea that science should be taken as authoritative on

factual questions is a normative stance one takes. The idea that science

tells us our best account of the world is norm-free undermines the very


The Normative and the Natural

authority of science to make such pronouncements. As Hampton notes,

a scientific story which denies the authority of the normative

can explain why any person takes her methodology for understanding the

world to be ‘right,’ but it cannot establish that one of them is right. And if

this is so, science is only authoritative for those who accept it, and (as

Feyerabend says) the enterprise of science as we know it cannot really

undercut ethics, because it has no objective authority to undercut anything.

(1998, 210)

Thus, we are in a position now to reemphasize a conclusion we argued

for earlier: by eschewing normativity altogether, the advocate of scientific

inquiry renders herself unable to advocate for scientific inquiry, or explain

why it is valuable, or worthy of pursuit. The position is, ultimately, selfdefeating. Thus, even scientific inquiry depends in a very intimate way on

the normative. The normative is ineliminable.2


The Normativity of Instrumental Reason

Some philosophers seem to hold the view that the best route to naturalizing normativity runs through instrumental reason. The thought

behind this strategy seems to be that instrumental reason represents an

unproblematic kind of rationality, and that some strategy can be offered

for naturalizing whatever normativity instrumental reason might have

by grounding it in the ends pursued by this reasoning. Thus, suppose we

take the goal of truth (even scientific truth) as given. Some would argue

that given this goal, we can develop a naturalist account of normativity

(employing purely means-end reasoning) to justify the various elements

of scientific practice (as conducive to the end of truth, or to the multiple ends of truth, explanation, etc.). Or one might start with a purely

descriptive account of desire and argue that the fulfillment of desire gives

a naturalistic account of the normativity of instrumental reason. Implicit

in this line of reasoning is that all reasoning is instrumental, all imperatives are hypothetical, and the normativity of these imperatives is given a

naturalistic grounding in the pursuit of some unproblematic end (truth,


Why Do We Need Normativity?


desire satisfaction, etc.). It might be thought that this offers a promising

route to a naturalistic reduction of normativity: all normativity is instrumental, and the normativity of instrumental reason is all reductively

generated by whatever naturalistically described end is pursued by this

instrumental reason.

We reject this line of reasoning. We have argued that science presupposes not only means-end reasoning, but also reasoning about the value

of final ends. Thus, that scientific knowledge is valuable and worthy of pursuit is itself a conclusion we must reach (either explicitly, or as a norm

embodied in our practice) before we employ means-end reasoning to

determine the best way of achieving scientific knowledge. But even if

we bracket this point, it can still be established that instrumental reason

is thoroughly normative, and this normativity is not simply generated

by our desires or by some natural features of our biology. A naturalistically described end cannot in and of itself generate the normativity of

instrumental reason, and the normativity of instrumental reason cannot

be reductively accounted for in this way. Hence, normativity tout court

cannot be reductively accounted for through this route.

2.3.1 Reductive Accounts of Instrumental Normativity

It is instructive to look at one of the most thorough presentations of

the sort of view we are rejecting here. One exemplar is Alex Rosenberg’s

attempt to develop a purely naturalistic epistemology, grounded in the

human organism’s evolutionary goals. Rosenberg happily pleads guilty

to the charge of “scientism,” and argues that “epistemology must be continuous with psychology because philosophy is continuous with science”

(1999, 335). Carrying on Quine’s project in “Epistemology Naturalized,”

Rosenberg sees no problem in naturalizing epistemology because he

thinks epistemology has no specifically epistemic normativity in the first

place. It is “no more normative than, say, statistical methodology or engineering is” (1999, 336).

While there is no specifically epistemic normativity in his view, inquiry

is guided by instrumental normativity. But Rosenberg is quick to claim

that “[e]pistemology is prescriptive in only a relatively unproblematic

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