By Darren Hibbs

Darren Hibbs, Nova Southeastern University

Introductory texts in the philosophy of science usually provide a general account of the traditional problems that constitute the core of the discipline: the distinction between science and pseudoscience, the degree of objective reasoning in science, the problems of induction and underdetermination, the concept of explanation, and the realism-antirealism debate. Parsons’ book is not a typical introduction to the philosophy of science. Parsons describes his book as an ‘invitation’ to the philosophy of science. As Parsons explains in the preface for instructors, his goal is to introduce students to only two of the core issues in the philosophy of science: the question of objectivity and the realism-antirealism debate. According to Parsons, the choice of these topics was guided, unabashedly, by the desire to stimulate interest in the philosophy of science through controversy. Given the recent history of these debates in academic and non-academic arenas, the topics are well chosen. Students who find these two issues interesting might be inclined to explore other traditional problems in the philosophy of science – thus, the use of ‘invitation’ rather than ‘introduction’. Parsons acknowledges that he intends to defend both the rationality of science and a qualified realist position. His advocacy for these views is designed to dovetail with the strategy of sparking interest through controversy.

The book is divided into five chapters. Chapter one introduces the issues of objectivity and realism in connection to the Copernican Revolution. The profound impact produced by such a fundamental change in the way we view the cosmos leaves philosophers with significant questions about the nature of deep conceptual differences. The objectivity and realism issues amount to the following, respectively:

(1) Are paradigm changes brought about by impartial reasoning based on objective evidence?
(2) Is it reasonable to believe that some scientific theories describe reality more accurately than others?

Chapters two and three address the objectivity issue. In chapter two, Parsons analyzes Kuhn’s arguments against naïve objectivity in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argues that different paradigms are ‘incommensurable’ in the following respects: (1) they have different evidential standards, (2) their value systems differ, and (3) theoretical terms are not translatable across paradigms. If these claims are true, then it would not be possible to account for deep theoretical shifts by appealing to standards of reasoning and evidence that transcend all paradigms – any given standards of reasoning and evidence are necessarily embedded in a paradigm. Parsons counters Kuhn by arguing that there are cases where deep theoretical disagreements (e.g., the debate over continental drift) were resolved using shared standards of language, values, and evidence. According to Parsons, if Kuhn’s argument is limited to deeper disagreements, then Kuhn is guilty of characterizing science in general on the basis of very rare kinds of disagreement.

In chapter three, Parsons describes and criticizes representative forms of constructivist, feminist, and postmodern critiques of scientific objectivity. Each of these interpretive approaches describes the theoretical products of science as the outcome of power struggles between different social groups delineated on the basis of politics, gender, or social class. Collectively, these methods of criticism reach the conclusion that the scientific consensus at a given time is simply a reflection of the relevant power dynamic that exists within the culture at that time. Parsons responds by arguing that each of these theoretical approaches is self-referentially incoherent. That is, if we take these theorists at their word, then their own theories result from their position within the cultural hierarchy, which destroys any privileged claim to have gotten things right about how science works.

Chapters four and five outline the debate over whether science is engaged in a progressive march toward the ‘Truth’. According to Parsons, critics of scientific progress argue that debates over scientific theories are typically resolved through political maneuvering rather than an objective analysis of the evidence for and against the candidate theories. Thus, the arguments employed by critics of science in chapter three are redeployed in an effort to undercut the view that science has achieved an increasingly accurate picture of how the world is. Although the arguments are similar, Parsons responds with a different sort of criticism than he issued in chapter three. According to Parsons, there are many examples of politically weak scientists who won over their politically powerful critics. Parsons then discusses conceptual versions of ‘antirealist’ arguments. Larry Laudan and Bas Van Frassen have argued that there are no good reasons to hold that scientific theories accurately depict reality. According to Parsons, in order to defend the view that science progresses in the relevant sense, one only need show how an ‘approximate’ truth is possible. This is easily done by using models to explain how an event occurred. When we construct a model of an event or entity, we do not have to get every detail correct, only that portion of the event/entity that we are trying to understand. Any model we create will fail to capture accurately the complete set of facts about an event or entity, but the minimal requirement can be met if we achieve accuracy in the limited manner required by a given problem. Thus, scientific understanding can be both ‘realist’ in the sense that some part of the world is accurately described, and limited in the sense that not all of reality is grasped via the scientific method.

The strength of Parsons’ book is the clarity and force of the arguments he uses against the critics of scientific objectivity and progress. The arguments themselves are not new – much of the material in the text can be found in any number of introductory texts. However, Parsons displays an admirable ability to frame the traditional arguments in language that strikes a nice balance between theoretical rigor and accessibility. The least effective aspect of the book is Parsons’ choice of material for chapter three. Parsons self-consciously selected radical representatives from the constructivist and feminist literature in order to pique the interest of students. However, students would probably receive a greater benefit from an analysis of arguments that are less vulnerable to obvious objections. Readers who are engaged by the first two chapters (and curious students should be) might gain more from an assessment of more sober attempts to show how non-rational features of belief formation can play a role in the development of scientific consensus.




Darren Hibbs

Darren Hibbs received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Arkansas in 2001. He taught at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga for four years prior to accepting his current position as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Nova Southeastern University. [email protected]