## Imre Lakatos: theory as a limiting process?

Via philphys list, I have just learned that

An extensive archive of Imre Lakatos’s papers and letters – mostly in English, but some in Hungarian – is held in the British Library for Political and Economic Science at the London School of Economics. Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, Research Fellowships to a total amount of US$25,000 will be available in the calendar year 2007 for scholars wishing to pursue some research project on Lakatos and/or his contemporaries that requires consultation of the archive. The Fellowships will be held at the LSE Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method which will also provide facilities for the Fellows. And also, to make thinks more interesting: Notes for prospective candidates: The LSE Lakatos Archive contains Lakatos’s notes and working papers dating from 1945 and other personal documents, including his correspondence from 1956 with some 1000+ correspondents including Agassi, Carnap, Feyerabend, Kalmar, Koestler, Kuhn, Polanyi, Polya, Popper, Quine, Szabo, Tarski, and many other figures of the philosophical, intellectual and academic establishments of the time. I think this is an interesting opportunity for a good candidate willing to go a little deeper on the ideas of Lakatos. Since I really knew very little about them, except for a few glimpses from memory about this philosopher, I checked out a Wikipedia article on him, which has a nice summary of his life and ideas. An interesting passage is: For Lakatos, what we think of as a ‘theory’ may actually be a succession of slightly different theories and experimental techniques developed over time, that share some common idea, or what Lakatos called their ‘hard core’. Lakatos called such changing collections ‘Research Programmes’. The scientists involved in a programme will attempt to shield the theoretical core from falsification attempts behind a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses. Whereas Popper was generally regarded as disparaging such measures as ‘ad hoc’, Lakatos wanted to show that adjusting and developing a protective belt is not necessarily a bad thing for a research programme. Instead of asking whether a hypothesis is true or false, Lakatos wanted us to ask whether one research programme is better than another, so that there is a rational basis for preferring it. So would the conception of a theory be a limiting process? I do not refer here to the process of developing a theory per se, like the struggling years that took Einstein to construct his general theory of relativity. But to the behaviour of paradigm shift: would it be a limiting process, even though sometimes pumby, uneven? More links on Lakatos: - Science and Pseudoscience: you can hear the mp3 file or read the transcript. - Lakatos award: given for an outstanding contribution to the philosophy of science, widely interpreted, in the form of a book published in English during the previous six years. (From this site I have learned about an interesting book, whose author was awarded part of the 2006 Lakatos prize — Harvey Brown, Professor of Philosophy of Physics, University of Oxford, for his book Physical Relativity: Space-time Structure from a Dynamical Perspective). About these ads ### 8 Responses to “Imre Lakatos: theory as a limiting process?” 1. carlbrannen Says: I’m only a little surprised that no one has commented on this. Philosophy is the 3rd rail of physics, right up there with Sociology. It’s like asking what God allows Nature to do with dice. In my field, I think the best author on this was David Bohm, and his ontological version of QM. But that’s not why I’m making this post. Instead, this is to announce that I’ve just now found out that WordPress allows one to insert LaTex formulas. Yes, now we can $\int_0^1 x^2 dx$ both in comments and our blogs. How to do this is explained here. Now if they could only add the ability to preview comments… 2. Hi Carl, Thanks a lot for your both comments! Let me try: $i\hbar\frac{\partial}{\partial t}\left|\Psi(t)\right>=H\left|\Psi(t)\right>$ 3. Great! Worked! 4. carlbrannen Says: I’ve typed up my first blog entry using LaTex, on the subject of the attempts at measuring the speed of gravity. (Just now the gravity wave people, who didn’t see a gravity wave, are therefore denying that a certain gamma ray burst could possibly have come from a location as near as M31, as was claimed by the astronomers.) There are two LaTex tricks: (1) Latex only works for me in paragraphs that begin with something other than LaTex. So I’ve been prefacing things with (x). Maybe it worked otherwise for you or maybe I’m still doing something wrong. (2) The print is hard to read because it is too small and uses a gray instead of black. (Your comment block does this too. To change this, you have to edit your css, a privilege that they charge money for, and it ain’t easy.) To fix the problem with light colored LaTex, I put a nonsense stream of characters just before the final$, that is, ” &bg=ffffff&fg=000000&s=2″. The “2″ means two sizes larger than normal. The fg and bg specify the fore and background colors. For instance: $\int_0^1x^2\;dx$. Still no preview, so I type carefully and pray briefly…

5. Skip (turbo-1) Says:

I’m not too taken with Lakato’s outlook on the value of theory. Evaluating the growth and popularity of a field of research to measure it’s value seems no more significant than charting the popularity of a musical group to evaluate their musical talent. The theory with the best “marketing” and the support of established players may generate a pretty good buzz, and still be a dead-end. Valuing a research program or theory in this way is a great way to reward herd mentality and stifle progress. Einstein warned against this in the memoriam he gave on the death of Ernst Mach. Epistemology is key.

Skip

6. Hi Skip,

Thank you for your comment. You wrote:

Evaluating the growth and popularity of a field of research to measure it’s value seems no more significant than charting the popularity of a musical group to evaluate their musical talent.

Although I completely agree with you, it is interesting because I did not have that general interpretation about Lakatos’ philosophy of science. However, my knowledge of his work is quite superficial…

Thanks,
Christine

7. I came across Dr Lakatos’s essay Science and Pseudo-Science in an Open University book called ‘Philosophy in the Open’, while a student. Here’s a quotation which I feel summarises the important points:

‘Scientists … do not abandon a theory merely because facts contradict it. They normally either invent some rescue hypothesis to explain what they then call a mere anomaly or, if they cannot explain the anomaly, they ignore it, and direct their attention to other problems. Note that scientists talk about anomalies, recalcitrant instances, not refutations. History of science, of course, is full of accounts of how crucial experiments allegedly killed theories. But such accounts are fabricated long after the theory had been abandoned. …

‘What really count are dramatic, unexpected, stunning predictions: a few of them are enough to tilt the balance; where theory lags behind the facts, we are dealing with miserable degenerating research programmes. Now, how do scientific revolutions come about? If we have two rival research programmes, and one is progressing while the other is degenerating, scientists tend to join the progressive programme. This is the rationale of scientific revolutions. …

‘Criticism is not a Popperian quick kill, by refutation. Important criticism is always constructive: there is no refutation without a better theory. Kuhn is wrong in thinking that scientific revolutions are sudden, irrational changes in vision. The history of science refutes both Popper and Kuhn: on close inspection both Popperian crucial experiments and Kuhnian revolutions turn out to be myths: what normally happens is that progressive research programmes replace degenerating ones.’

– Imre Lakatos, Science and Pseudo-Science, pages 96-102 of Godfrey Vesey (editor), Philosophy in the Open, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1974.

Professor Smolin mentions Lakatos briefly on page 297 of the U.S. edition of The Trouble with Physics (2006):

‘Another criticism of Popper’s ideas [in addition to Feyerabend’s Against Method] was made by the Hungarian philosopher Imre Lakatos, who argued that there was not as much asymmetry between falsification and verification as Popper supposed. If you see one bright red swan, you are not likely to give up a theory that says that all swans are white; you will instead go looking for the person who painted it.’

This is of course the problem for any exceptions: they are unlikely to be taken as real. In medicine, this causes well known problems in diagnosis of illnesses, since symptoms are equivocal (headaches and stomach aches are likely to have trivial causes, but they might be due to tumours if they persist for months). So the first reaction to symptoms is to assume it is trivial, and spend time eliminating that possibility before investigating further. By the time correct diagnosis occurs, things are worse. On the other hand, hypochondriacs (people with obsessive health worrying disorders), view their trivial symptoms as evidence for the worse possibility that may be responsible.

In an introduction to the 1992 U.K. (Penguin Books) edition of Feynman’s lectures The Character of Physical Law, Professor Paul Davies writes that the success of a scientific revolution is the ability of innovators to force the mainstream to pay attention. The difficulty here lies in the fact that the mainstream is focussed on the fashion of the time, and has many (very effective) barriers in place that frustrate the attempts of alternative ideas to gain attention.

The comment above by Skip (turbo-1), about marketing being trivial is not about up to date marketing. Recently I had to do a marketing course at Gloucestershire University and received a grade A in it, so may I explain: modern marketing is about doing research to make a useful product that people actually need (the old-fashioned idea that marketing is about selling ice to Eskimos is fortunately dying off). Good marketing leads to a good product which sells itself. Spend money getting the product right, and you get free advertising because the media will want to talk about it. Of course, it is very hard work and takes time and money to market a product by making it everything that people want it to be (high quality, easy to use, etc.). Modern marketing techniques can (and should) be applied to science: they are not shameful hyping.

8. [...] Cavendish Anomaly At Theorema Egregium nc quoted Imre Lakatos: Scientists … do not abandon a theory merely because facts contradict [...]